But there was one role he was extremely reluctant to take on: Nicolas Cage.
In “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Tom Gormican’s rollicking comedy out Friday, he does just that. Cage plays Nick Cage, a movie star with a cratering career. Desperate for money and affirmation, he makes a personal appearance for a hefty payday, leading to new friendship, wild adventures and all kinds of trouble.
The director said he and Kevin Etten wrote the script with Cage in mind, even as people who knew the actor warned them there was “not a chance in hell” he’d sign on. But Gormican knew there was no one else whom audiences would buy as deeply down on his luck, who was also admired as a serious, award-winning thespian and beloved as a mainstream action star.
Cage’s eclectic filmography and “nouveau shamanic” performances – as he has dubbed his stylized approach – have made him a pop culture icon whose acting choices are fodder for Internet memes and montages. (Google “Nicolas Cage freaking out” and note the wide selection of video options.) And while the Cage most people expect to encounter, it’s often not who they meet.
“I’m a huge fan of him as an actor, but my impression was that he’s an extraordinarily talented madman,” said Sharon Horgan, his “Massive Talent” co-star, who instead found Cage to be rigorous and professional. “His level of commitment is just different. He can transcend the character and even the film he’s in. ”
Though quite pleased with the finished film, Cage, 58, is clear that he “did not want to make the movie” – at least not initially. He worried it would merely be an extended sketch that played for cheap laughs at his expense. “I knew I had to send myself up quite a bit but didn’t want it to lapse into just mockery,” he said during an interview in a New York hotel.
While the Oscar winner “was terrified the whole time” they filmed, he was persuaded by Gormican’s sincerity and willingness to create deeper human relationships for his character. Most important was rewriting the role so it was no longer that of a stereotypical absentee dad, but one who is perhaps too enthusiastic about sharing his passions, especially movies. (Cage’s fictional daughter definitely does not share his passion for the 1920 German film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”)
Relieved of much of his debt, Cage had already begun a return to his “independent roots,” earning raves last year for Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig,” about a former superstar chef who has fled his past life. “People associate him with bombastic performances, which is not totally untrue, but he had the presence to carry this quiet movie without many lines, and with a lot of soul,” Sarnoski said. “We all know Nic Cage has an amazing range, but it got lost in forgettable movies.”
Review: Nic Cage is looking for a stolen pig in ‘Pig,’ a film of – wait for it – enormous beauty and depth
“Massive Talent” also posed the opportunity to return to another skill set. “I’d been scratching my head – I did‘ Raising Arizona, ’’ Moonstruck ’and‘ Honeymoon in Vegas, ’but somewhere along the way Hollywood forgot I do comedy. So I was happy to be invited back to the comedic table, ”Cage said.
And once he was in, he was – as only Cage can be – all in. He tackled the “high-wire act” by both playing and parodying himself, and also embraced a second role as Nicky, a younger, leather-jacketed, egomaniacal version who haunts Cage. When the script called for Nicky to kiss Nic on the cheek, Cage told Gormican he should French kiss himself. “I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to go totally cubist,” Cage said. “Playing two versions of myself is as narcissistic as it can get, so having them make out is really ridiculous and that makes it funny.”
And while he is known for leaning into the ridiculous, it’s his most naturalistic performances that stand out to both audiences and actor. Though he has previously said that kind of work “can be really boring,” he now admits that his most real-to-life performances, like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Joe” and “Pig,” are his favorites.
In the past, he has criticized mash-ups of his most over-the-top scenes. They are often “out of context,” said Cage, who researches and meticulously develops his roles, no matter the movie. “You’re not seeing what led my character up to that moment.” But there’s an upside: “Hopefully the videos get people interested in seeing my movies.”
What bothered him more were directors who came in specifically seeking a showstopping Cage moment. “It has to come from a place of genuine emotion, so it makes me nervous when they expect me to go wild or scream and it’s not organic to the character,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t regret those B-movies. “I like doing my job,” he said, adding that even as he said yes to those roles, he was rejecting lucrative Super Bowl ads because he doesn’t want to be a pitchman. (He admitted he wished he hadn’t done those commercials in Japan years ago.) “Working helps me get closer to my instrument and keeps me practicing – even if a movie only has one or two scenes that really work. I did some stuff in ‘Grand Isle,’ for example, that I thought was terrific. ” (The 2019 film has a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
From the archives: The wild and weird Nicolas Cage
Sarnoski and Gormican said that with scripts and directors he trusts, Cage is every bit the actor they’d long admired. “‘ Pig ’was my first feature and he could very easily have said,‘ This is the Nic Cage show and I’m going to do it my way, ’but he was extremely respectful and collaborative,” Sarnoski said. “He’s a pro. And he’d also sit and share his lunch with the production assistants. ”
Gormican said Cage was the best-prepared actor he’d ever seen; he and Horgan were both in awe that the actor was completely off-book at a table read before shooting. During filming, the director said, he’d “wake up to new ideas each morning” from Cage, who would review the script daily on an elliptical machine at 3 am Cage said he couldn’t sleep and, as a producer, he was “Making sure the scenes were hitting the right notes.” (Which, if you think about it, is nothing for a man so committed he not only learned the titular instrument for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” but had had teeth pulled for his role in “Birdy.”)
And while Cage always gave Gormican the naturalistic takes he desired, he often asked to riff with his more expressionistic approach. “I would say, ‘Nic, I need the reality here,’ and he would say, ‘It’s all real, Tom.’” Cage’s way usually worked better for the character.
“Sometimes the reality is in the stylization,” Cage said, emphasizing that naturalism and truthfulness are not always identical. “There’s a guy who lives in Las Vegas who wears leather jackets and jewelry and he thinks the character of Nic would say that line this way,’ ”he’d joke with Gormican. “It was my comedic way of saying, ‘I am this person so trust me.'”
Cage is happy analyzing his craft but gets more excited as a cinephile, a trait he shares with his “Massive Talent” character. In conversation, his varied interests span the gamut as he sings the praises of James Cagney’s dynamism, Tony Curtis’s range, “The Sound of Metal’s” ambitious and realistic storytelling and Gene Wilder’s comedic prowess.
His one acting influence also comes from being a film buff: “The film stars I enjoyed the most all had inimitable voices – Bogart, Brando, Cagney and Walken – so I thought if I had a voice that people would correlate with me as an actor , that would be my signature, ”he said. “I did make a choice to try and work with my voice, enhancing what I would call the California draaawl. ”
In “Massive Talent,” Cage asks his new BFF, Javy (Pedro Pascal), what his three favorite films are. Ask real-life Cage the same and, well, that’s when his passion is most clearly evident. “The list goes on and on,” he said, rattling off a mix of classics that included the likes of “400 Blows,” “East of Eden,” “Enter the Dragon” and, of course, his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s “ Apocalypse Now. ”
“When I was in quarantine all I was doing was watching movies and I made some lists,” he said, pulling a few of them out of his suit pocket. He went through the films of Akira Kurosowa, falling for “Drunken Angel” and “The Bad Sleep Well,” and then discovered Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” and “Summer with Monica.”
But Cage is no highbrow snob. There’s a running bit in “Massive Talent” about the cinematic achievement of “Paddington 2,” the sequel to the live-action and animated film adaptation of a children’s story about a raincoat-wearing bear. Cage, who naturally watched the film in preparation, said that’s no joke, his famous draaawl growing excited one last time: “It’s really a terrific movie.”