On the occasion of the Aero's tribute to Nicolas Cage this weekend, L.A. Weekly spoke to the actor about his unique stye (dubbed “Nouveau Shamanic” by Cage himself), the first time he met Werner Herzog, and the directors he'd still like to work with.
Below is the full conversation. You can also see the original print article about Nicolas Cage here.]
This can't be the first retrospective of your work.
No, I don't think it is. I think there have been different, over the years, I think there have been different presentations of my filmography in different states. But I think this will the first one where I'm actually going to be invited to do a Q&A with some of the directors I've worked with.
It must be kind of a strange experience for you – I know from past interviews that you value staying busy. There's something about the idea of retrospectives as being a summation of a career, not a presentation of one still in progress, which doesn't seem like a sentiment that you would agree with.
I don't really look at it in those terms. I've been doing this since the early '80s, and that's, you know, it's over 35 years now. So by virtue of the fact that I'm still alive and I've had different careers all rolled into this path that I've taken in my life in cinema, it makes sense to me that there would be, in that length of time, some sort of reviewing.
How do you feel about the Aero's selections [Birdy, Raising Arizona, Adaptation, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and the upcoming Joe]?
I like all those movies, and I think it's great to have a chance to play them again in the format they were meant to be seen in, which is a movie theater. I also think it's exciting to be able to speak with Werner Herzog and certainly with David Gordon Green. I like being able to volley ideas with people that inspire me creatively and give them a chance, also, to share their points of view about making those movies and the process.
I wanted them to, certainly with Bad Lieutenant, show that that's some of my more recent work so that people can remember that there are movies that I make that are of a more independent spirit, and there are also movies that I make that are more in line with genre or adventure or horror or science fiction. But I think it was important to show that, along with Joe, there was another movie that I made in recent years that evokes an independent spirit as well.
When I first saw Bad Lieutenant, I kept thinking how strange it was that you two had never worked together before. There's something about your sensibilities that seems very complementary to me.
That's a good point, and it's interesting that you mention that, because I actually met Werner when I might have been seven or eight years old. I remember he was at a party I was at a little bit north of San Francisco in a place called Mill Valley, and I remember him then. I could tell he'd taken an interest in me; he was showing me his skull tattoo with a top hat and we were in the back of a car driving somewhere with my cousins. I just thought he was a very cool guy.
And then, many years later – this is after I'd done Leaving Las Vegas – he actually offered me a movie to play Cortés. At the time, I didn't do it – I probably should have done it. This is about '95, '96, and I kind of felt bad that I didn't do it because I knew that some way we would work well together. So it wasn't until much later that I had another chance at this, and that, of course, was Bad Lieutenant.
Was it a similar experience with David Gordon Green [director of Joe]?
I was very excited about working with David too, because I had seen Undertow, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I loved the performances in that: Josh Lucas, I thought, was remarkable in that. Also Snow Angels has a very powerful performance by Sam Rockwell. I could tell David was someone who could really get a performance. I also knew, looking at his movies, that he had an original style and a voice. He wrote me a great letter and he explained why he wanted to work with me. I think he was really looking for a movie and a film performer that could embody, you know, some elements of humor, but also do something that's more rugged in some places. And so he was thinking about that with me.
I read the book twice and I felt an immediate connection with the part. It was something that was more subconscious, something that's hard to explain – it's kind of an implicit understanding of when you just know that the dialogue's gonna come out in a way that doesn't need to be forced. It just feels very instinctual and something that I could recruit any personal experiences I may have had over the last few years prior to Joe and put it into the work. It's kind of like not having to be able to act.
I have been exploring different styles of performance – I've explored more operatic styles, larger-than-life styles, what I call Western kabuki – but at this point I kind of wanted to get into just feeling something without thinking too much about the shape of it.[
One of the things that fascinated me was its observations of not only the characters but the place – it almost felt like a documentary in certain scenes.
That's really down to David. I mean, he loves where he lives. He has a genuine passion for Austin, Texas; he has a genuine passion for the people of Austin, Texas – so much so that he went ahead and cast non-actors and really surrounded me with, professional people, but people that he found on the street. For example, Gary Poulter. He was a street performer. He had a bit of a problem with alcohol, but when you look at him in the movie, you know, you don't see any acting. You just see someone being.
You mentioned these different approaches that you take to acting, and I've read that you have your own: “Nouveau Shamanic.” Can you elaborate on that?
I can't really take credit for that. I read a book by professor Brian Bates called The Way of the Actor. I was really just recalling what I read in that, which is the notion that, thousands of years ago, pre-Christian for example, the medicine men or the tribal shamans were really actors. And what they would do is they would act out whatever the issues were with the villagers at that time, they would act it out and try to find the answers or go into a trance or go into another dimension, which is really just the imagination, and try to pull back something that would reflect the concerns of the group.
His point was that film actors in movies today are essentially doing the same thing. They may not know it; they may not call it that. It's just using an ancient word to describe a contemporary occupation. To be a film actor, if you look carefully at it, is to reflect sometimes what's happening in society, sometimes going into fantasy realms; sometimes it's just being funny. You give people something to look forward to in the cinema and have a parallel with their own life. That's really all I was saying, and I realize that a lot could be made out of it, and it can sound like something really alternative in terms of its thinking, but if you look at it, it's pretty straightforward.
Since this is a retrospective, I was curious about how you look back on your own roles and what influences your view on past projects.
The key for me is that whatever the best material that's provided for me at any moment is the predominant selection process, but also whether I can play the part. Is there any, in my past that lets me feel a connection with the character so that I can play it hopefully with some truth – and by truth I mean understanding. If someone punches you in the stomach and it hurts, well, that's the truth. So if I've gone through experiences in my own life that I can form a dialogue with, in a truthful way through recall, I think that that's a large factor in it. And of course the director is always huge.
In any decision-making process, you want to work with a filmmaker that has a vision and has guts. It's not an easy job, being a director; there's no such thing as a cowardly director. It takes guts to get a bunch of people together and assume that you can tell them what to do and it's gonna wind up being something profound or not profound. That really ends up with the filmmaker. And if I'm lucky, I get to work with someone who has that vision and has those guts. David Gordon Green is that. Werner Herzog is that.
It doesn't always happen – you know, sometimes the script is the thing that really draws me. But I also like working with young people. I like the idea of working with new filmmakers who haven't had their dreams kicked out of them yet, new filmmakers who are enthusiastic, who want to make their mark. That, to me, is also very galvanizing.
Are there any directors you'd particularly like to work with?
I would love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson; I think we could do something brilliant together. I would love to work with Quentin Tarantino; I think we could do something brilliant together. I wish I could have made a movie with, in terms of actors, I wish I could have made a movie with Jack Nicholson. I think we would have done something special together. Anthony Hopkins. I think that these are all forces in cinema with strong points of view who have a vision, and that excites me.
Do you have plans to direct again?
I don't. I mean, I want to. I just haven't had the time or found the script that speaks to me in that way. I found that when I did direct Sonny, it was also enormously helpful to me as an actor because I got to work with some of my favorite actors: James Franco, Brenda Blethyn, Harry Dean Stanton, Mena Suvari. By looking at their characters and where they were going in terms of their through-line and seeing how they did their process and their work and dug deep the find the truth in their performance, that just stimulated me to want to go back and act some more. I would like to continue to do that, because I do think it's helpful.
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