Out There with Nicholas Cage
The celebrated star of Leaving Las Vegas talks about seeing a ghost, throwing up on prom night, living in the competitive world of the Coppolas, and getting words of wisdom from Sean Connery while making The Rock.
Here's what we know about Nicolas Cage: He's 32. He grew up in Long Beach, California. He started acting professionally when he was 17. His first movie was Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it was only time he used his family name. Coppola. His uncle is Francis, who turned him down for The Outsiders, but cast him in Rumble Fish and Peggy Sue Got Married. His father, August, is an academician and Francis's older brother. His mother suffered from delusions and had to be institutionalized when he was six. His older brother Christopher directed him in Deadfall, and his oldest brother, Marc, is a deejay. Director Martha Coolidge didn't know he was a Coppola when she cast him in Valley Girl. He appeared with Sean Penn in Racing With the Moon and Matthew Modine in Birdy by the time he was 20.
He kidnapped a baby in the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona. Cher chose him to be her lover in Moonstruck. He ate a live cockroach in Vampire's Kiss. He thought he was Elvis Presley in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. He has two tattoos, one of them a large lizard on his back. He acted with Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan in Honeymoon in Vegas, Shirley MacLaine in Guarding Tess, Bridget Fonda and Rosie Perez in It Could Happen to You, Samuel L. Jackson is Amos & Andrew, David Caruso in Kiss of Death, He was in John Dahl's Red Rock West, which has become a cult film noir. His performance as an alcoholic determined to drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas will or will not have won him an Oscar by the time you read this story. His next picture is The Rock, with Sean Connery. He said yes to Patricia Arquette when she proposed, and they've been married just over a year. They live in the Hollywood Hills.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Intense and angst-ridden are adjectives often used to describe you. How would you describe yourself?
A: It's hard to talk about oneself without feeling like a complete asshole. Even if you say something negative, you're talking about yourself. I don't even know how to begin to describe myself.
Q: Do you consider yourself a "dangerous" actor?
A: To be a good actor you have to be something like a criminal, to be willing to break the rules to strive for something new. One could think of that as dangerous, I suppose.
Q: How many of your films are you satisfied with?
A: Without mentioning names, out of all the movies, I'd say four.
Q: Would you say that some of your best work has been seriously over-the-top comic, romantic roles?
A: Even though I get lambasted for the "out there," crazy roles, they're the ones people still talk about eight years down the road.
Q: You called Guarding Tess, It Could Happen to You and Honeymoon in Vegas your "sunshine trilogy." Have you grouped any other of your pictures?
A: No, but I think Leaving Las Vegas, Vampire's Kiss and Wild at Heart would be an interesting trilogy.
Q: Was the Golden Globe you won for Leaving Las Vegas the first award you've received for your work?
A: Yes, and I was very surprised. I never got into this for awards. If I thought about awards, I would not have been able to do a movie like Leaving Las Vegas, because the word around town was that Mike [Figgis] and I were making the most unreleasable movie in Hollywood. I had some fear that the movie would not get released.
Q: Time's early review didn't start the bandwagon rolling. It was written that you practically cha-cha'd through the gloom.
A: Those are good words, cha-cha through the gloom. It's kind of a poetic image, I like that. My character, Ben, was floating, he was not wallowing in his own pain. He'd reached the point of pain where he'd cut loose.
Q: Is suicide something you can understand?
A: I don't agree with suicide, though I can understand the mood one could get into where one could say, "I'm taking myself out of this equation because I'm an irritant to it." But as for ever killing myself, no, it's against my beliefs.
Q: Did Elisabeth Shue's performance surprise you?
A: I'd only seen her in Adventures in Babysitting and Soapdish. I thought she was really witty and funny, but I never would have been able to visualize her as Sera. I rented a room at the Chateau Marmont where Mike, Elisabeth and I rehearsed, and I saw how devoted she was to the part. There is a tremendous amount of pain inside of Elisabeth Shue. I don't know where it comes from, but it's there and she's figured out a way to tap into it.
Q: Which is more powerful to you, the novel of Leaving Las Vegas by John O'Brien or the film?
A: My experience with the book was infinitely more powerful. I wasn't seeing myself in it. When I watched the movie it was hard to subtract myself from it. I had been emotionally invested in the novel in a way that I had not been with a book since A Clockwork Orange or Brave New World. I remember Francis [Coppola] saying that novels are beautiful but they're like old trains, and that movies were the art form of our time.
Q: Do you agree with your uncle?
A: I think that writing's the root, and that a great novel still tells the story in a way that movies are unable to tell. There's the imagination and the pleasure of lying in bed, reading a chapter and visualizing it any way you want, hearing the voices any way you want to hear them and not having them blasted into your brains or your eyes.
Q: David Lynch's Wild at Heart was based on a novel. What's your take on Lynch's vision?
A: He has a definite signature to his work and he's a total artist. He loves to splash his own paint or sprinkle his own blood into the scene.
Q: In Newsweek David Ansen wrote that there's something fundamentally adolescent about David Lynch's vision--"he's like a kid who never got over his first discovery that life is dirty."
A: Reminds me of something my father once said about Charles Bukowski: that he never got over losing his virginity. I think David's more than that...look at The Elephant Man.
Q: Do you agree with your father about Bukowski?
A: I thought that was a little harsh. He's a terrific poet.
Q: Who were you trying to be when you played Peter Loew, the literary agent who descends into madness thinking he's become a vampire?
A: I was about 24 then and I was really into German expressionistic acting, people like Max Schreck, Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. I saw their movies when I was eight, because my dad would play them on a projector for a class he taught at Cal State Long Beach. I would see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu and freak out, really get nightmares over them. The problem was how to make a modern movie with some German expressionistic acting. The only way to do it was to play a man who's going nuts, who thinks he's a vampire, with his shoulders going up and eyes bulging. There was quite a bit of nervous tension on the set, because nobody had an idea which direction I was going to go. But the director, Robert Bierman, stood by it, though we had a few run-ins.
Q: Including when you decided to eat a live cockroach?
A: Yeah, he originally wanted me to swallow a raw egg, but I wanted to do something that made more sense if this guy was losing his mind. No one had eaten a cockroach before, and if I did it we could save the movie money in special effects, because it would get the same reaction as a bus blowing up for a million dollars.
Q: How come you didn't make it a fake cockroach?
A: Because I knew that you and I would be sitting and talking about it 10 years later. I wanted to do something that was punk, if you will. I had heroes in music like the Who, who smashed their guitars. I wanted to have that rock and roll energy, that outlaw sensibility, a mini shock wave.
Q: How did eating a cockroach affect you afterwards?
A: It gave me nightmares. I wasn't able to eat food for a couple of days. If I think too much about it, it really makes me ill. You know, the animal rights people called when they heard I did that.
Q: Is it true that you have a laminated cockroach in your bed headboard?
A: It is not a cockroach. Cockroaches live in the sewers and all the creepy dirty places. It's a beetle. Beetles live in the forests and are very different than cockroaches. I have the Titanus giganteus, which is the largest of all the beetles, in the headboard, and on the end tables I have the rhinoceros beetles.
Q: And how does your wife, Patricia, feel about them?
A: She never really talks about it.
Q: Moving from the bug to the band, didn't you once say that the Beatles song "Baby, You're a Rich Man" had special meaning for you?
A: I first became aware of the power of that song when my Uncle Francis was driving in his car over the Golden Gate Bridge. I was in the backseat with my cousin Roman and my brother Christopher, and he was listening to that album and that song came on. The sun was really bright, the light was clear, every-thing was blue, and I was 13 and very aware of his success and his accomplishments and starting to get a little intimidated by him. This was after Apocalypse Now. I was thinking about when I could have the right to listen to that song.