American films

Nicolas Cage on channelling Andy Warhol, learning from John Woo, and possibly his wildest film yet

  • The prolific actor says he was inspired by Warhol’s ‘marvellous collages’ of entertainment icons, and that Woo showed him how to stretch himself
  • He defends films that go straight to video, and talks about new film Mandy and working with a Japanese eccentric
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 12:48pm

After 40 years and close to 100 acting credits, Nicolas Cage is more prolific than ever.

The Oscar winner, who turns 55 next month, was in Macau last weekend serving as talent ambassador to the 3rd International Film Festival and Awards Macao. Cage gave a masterclass, and introduced his new revenge thriller, Mandy, which opens in Hong Kong this week. He spoke to the Post about the film, which is earning him some of his best notices in years.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse review – exhilarating superhero adventure

Born into Hollywood royalty – his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola – Cage started acting as a teenager, and immediately changed his name to avoid accusations of favouritism. He drew his inspiration from screen icons such as Marlon Brando, and particularly James Dean. “When I saw [East of Eden], I fully understood the power of film performance and said, ‘That’s what I wanna do’,” he recalls.

Heeding the advice of his aunt, Rocky actress Talia Shire, Cage veered away from naturalistic acting. “She said ‘Naturalism is a choice’, so I became a believer in something called art synchronicity, which opened the door for me to take risks,” he says.

The work of Andy Warhol was particularly influential. “He would take these iconic forces in entertainment, Jagger, Presley, and make marvellous collages out of them. I thought, how can I do that with film entertainment?”

In the 1980s, Cage found success with a string of independent hits, “working with filmmakers like [David] Lynch or the Coen Brothers who seemed to be up for it” on films such as Raising Arizona, Vampire’s Kiss and Wild at Heart. With the 1990s came mainstream success, capped by a best actor Oscar for his role as an alcoholic writer in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.

With the industry at his feet, Cage defied all expectations by turning his back on serious drama to star in back-to-back action blockbusters The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off. Viewed as a gamble career-wise (“a lot of people were p***ed off at me”), Cage saw this merely as the next in a series of self-imposed challenges “to prove to myself that I could do it, because everyone said I couldn’t”.

Of course the gamble paid off, with all three considered the best of their genre from the 1990s. Cage is full of praise for the Hong Kong auteur John Woo, who directed him in Face/Off. “John is a cinematic maestro … he showed me his film Bullet in the Head and I knew right away where I could go as an actor, the size of performance.”

Woo actively encouraged the actor to explore the limits of his “instrument” – as Cage frequently refers to his craft. “What I had learned in the laboratory of independent cinema on Vampire’s Kiss I applied to Face/Off. Like opera, it was large and right up against the edge of emotion,” he says.

Critical success continued into the new millennium, with films like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (“the most acrobatic performance I’ve ever had to do”), which earned Cage his second Oscar nomination. But financial and tax problems became a persistent issue, forcing the actor to take on more and more roles; inevitably, the prestige and pedigree of his work fell.

To hear Cage tell it, he’s merely heeding the advice of veteran actor Martin Sheen. “Marty said to me, ‘The only thing that matters in this business is did you like where you were and did you like the people you were working with?’ Having done this for almost 40 years I realise he’s absolutely right, so that’s how I make my choices now.”

In the past decade alone, Cage has starred in more than 40 films, and while some have been critically successful (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Kick-Ass, Joe), the vast majority have been sub-par genre fare produced for the video-on-demand (VOD) market.

Cage is often mocked for this apparent lack of discernment, but he remains resolutely positive. “I think there’s a great synthesis between the smaller movie, the VOD market and the home entertainment system. Audiences are watching most of my movies at home now anyway, and have enabled me to stay in business doing unusual material like Mandy.”

Marty [Sheen] said to me, ‘The only thing that matters in this business is did you like where you were and did you like the people you were working with?’ … that’s how I make my choices now.
Nicolas Cage

The sophomore feature from Beyond the Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos, Mandy takes place in an alternate, almost phantasmagoric version of 1983. Cage plays lumberjack Red Miller, who reaps his revenge on a hippie cult known as the Children of the New Dawn after they murder his true love, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough).

Initially, Cosmatos wanted Cage to play cult leader Jeremiah Sand, but Cage was reluctant. “I didn’t feel I had any reference point to play that part. Whereas I did feel I had some life experience and some imagination to play Red authentically,” he says.

The project languished for two years, until Cosmatos had a dream, which he describes thus: “I was watching the finished film, starring Nicolas Cage as Red Miller, and it was undeniably compelling. I guess my id kicked in and told me I was wrong.” With that, Cage was cast as Red, Linus Roache took the role of Sand, and the results are psychedelic, surreal and undeniably “metal”.

Since Mandy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Cage has committed to more than a dozen projects, including Prisoners of the Ghostland, the English debut of cult Japanese director Sion Sono. It might, he says, “be the wildest movie I’ve ever made, and that’s saying something”.

Considering Sono’s own track record for the extreme and absurd, Cage is quite possibly right.

Mandy opens on December 13

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook