The Good Times of Nicolas Cage

The actor who won an oscar for playing a suicidal alcoholic in a small, dark movie describes the joys of playing action heroes in big-budget movies like this summer's Snake Eyes. While he's at it, he explains why he's a Coppola and a Cage, and confesses his unease with Superman's underpants.

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Nicolas Cage is sitting in a high canvas-backed chair with the name Tom Welles printed on the back. He's alone in the corner of a parking lot outside a closed-set warehouse in downtown L.A. where he and Joaquin Phoenix are shooting 8mm. He looks worn out, like he's been up most of the night, or perhaps because he's made so many films back-to-back since winning the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas two years ago. There were the three action films--_The Rock_, Con Air and Face/Off--followed by City of Angels and then Snake Eyes, which opens this summer. The 34-year-old actor wishes he could be more specific about his current role in 8mm, but can only say of his character, "He's Everyman, an ordinary man who gets pushed into very extraordinary situations and then becomes extraordinary."

In that case, Cage is playing someone who's the inverse of himself. Born into the extraordinary Coppola family, young Nicolas had an upbringing that was hardly ordinary. He grew up with a famous uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, and an intense, intellectual academic father who did things like enroll his son for fourth grade in a Japanese school because he thought it was important to know the language. Nicolas eventually set out to cast his own shadow, and, changing his name to Cage, pursued an extremist style of acting in small, quirky films like Valley Girl, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Vampire's Kiss and Wild at Heart. Only now with fatherhood, marriage and critical and box-office success under his belt is Cage remotely chilled out enough to take on an "Everyman" role. Of course, the big film he has coming up suggests we shouldn't be fooled that he's a regular guy--he'll be playing the title role in Tim Burton's Superman.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: You look a bit fatigued, like your pet died or something. Is it this film that has gotten to you?

NICOLAS CAGE: It's funny you should say that. What can I tell you about last night? A baby loon was abandoned in front of my house at the beach. It was covered in tar. I put it in my pool, and it just dove down under the water--it was like God's art. It became the most elegant seal and then it came back up and it was happy for a minute. I called the animal rescue agency and they said to get it out of the pool because the chlorine was no good for the feathers. So I put it in the bathtub, which was too cold, and it was shivering. I finally got it to the pet hospital. By then I was attached to the bird. Loons in China are pets, and I had this poetic fantasy of having this loon as a pet. The hospital made it clear to me that if they couldn't cure it to send it back to the wild, they would put it to sleep. I asked if I could have it as a pet and they said they weren't allowed to do that. I left, but kept thinking: I don't know who these people are. What if they put it to sleep because it's a baby? So I went back at 11 p.m. and told them if they couldn't help the bird, then don't put it down, call me. I'd like to take care of it. He said they wouldn't put it down. I called them at seven the next morning and they said they put the bird in the incubator and tried to feed it, but it died.

Q: No wonder you look the way you do. Do you have any other wild animal stories?

A: I do. I was once surrounded by rattlesnakes in a rattlesnake patch with my cousin Roman when we were 16 or 17. We were fishing in Napa Valley and walked right into it. There was a huge one coiled in front of us. A bigger one, to the left, was uncoiled, so I knew he wasn't a problem. We had to go over the coiled one, so we felt trapped and paralyzed with fear. There was nowhere to run, we were surrounded. I saw this pole with a nail through it, and I knew that I had to do something, so I grabbed the pole and pounded the snake. Then it came up and started rattling and was about to strike. I killed it, but felt bad about it. I felt anything you kill you've got to eat, so I took it home, cut the poison glands out, took the rattles off and cooked it.

Q: What was your cousin doing during this battle?

A: He was just standing there watching me.

Q: Was that the scariest thing that ever happened to you?

A: One of them.

Q: What would be scarier than that?

A: Years ago I was driving a car I'd bought, an Austin Healey with a V-8 engine, sort of a makeshift Cobra. I had taken it to a mechanic to put an automatic shifter in it. The mechanic did a really sloppy job. If you barely knocked the shifter it would go into separate gears. I was driving on the Hollywood Freeway and I accidentally bumped it into park. I was doing 80 mph at 10 p.m. and I started doing 360s. I wound up facing traffic, and then a Mack truck was coming at me. I thought, This is it, I'm dead. The truck driver had a CB radio and said, "Put the car in reverse." I did and drove backwards until I got off at the exit, backwards!

Q: And since then you've gone on to purchase a Ferrari, Bentley, Corvette Sting Ray and Lamborghini. I've heard you get a ticket about every time you drive. Is that true?

A: You can be going 60 mph in a car like that and the guy in the station wagon will be going 90 and you'll get the ticket. I've been a point away from losing my license every year, so I don't really drive that much anymore.

Q: OK, time to talk about your movies. What can you tell us about the upcoming Snake Eyes, which Brian De Palma directed?

A: The movie is a classical whodunit, a suspense thriller mystery. I play a corrupt cop. It's a role with lots of dialogue, so I had to get used to talking fast, because I'm not a fast talker. My internal metronome, my cadence, is much slower. So I had to adopt the old-movie style of speaking. I had to step up to Fred MacMurray speed. All the great actors in the old days, like Cagney, talked really fast. They were good at it. When I first started doing it, it felt false. Talking fast has something to do with your brain chemistry--a lot of fast talkers are incredibly smart.

Q: I understand you chose to wear a loud, shiny suit and a Hawaiian shirt for this role.

A: They had a series of leather jackets they wanted me to wear, but I felt it was old news. I wanted this guy not to be your typical image of a New York detective, with a cigarette and a leather jacket. I wanted him to be more of a bon vivant in attitude and attire. I fell in love with this rust-colored suit, and I thought the Hawaiian shirt worked well with it. He's a man of questionable taste.

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