Nicolas Cage is a man of extremes. He was married (very briefly) to the daughter of Elvis Presley and named his second son, Kal-El, after the birth name of Superman. He has owned haunted houses and been haunted for real by the taxman.
First and foremost he has played characters of a variety and manic energy that most of his colleagues shy way from—angels and alcoholics, sorcerers and soldiers—for which he has garnered awards, including an Oscar, as well as scathing reviews, and became the object of both sneers and cultish reverence.
These contradictions notwithstanding, he comes across in conversation as a man in harmony with himself and also a proficient teller of tales—about the alien creature who grew into Nicolas Cage.
The Red Bulletin: Do you think about death?
Nicolas Cage: It is wise to think about death from time to time. I am working on my natural fear of death, because it is a better way of life not to harbor such feelings. And I am by no means a master of that. But I am definitely in no rush to leave.
So why did you pick up a cottonmouth viper with your bare hands when filming your most recent movie, Joe? Its poison is potentially lethal.
Because it relaxes me.
Couldn’t you think of a less suicidal method?
I discovered doing adventure films that one of the things that relaxes me is stunts. When I drive a car at 100 mph and dodge other cars and try to not hit the wall, it’s like a meditation. Also, I am one of those people that the more coffee I drink the more relaxed I am. Now that day on Joe I was filming a very complicated scene, and my adrenaline was going in the wrong direction. So I asked director David Gordon Green would he mind if I picked up the snake. He said:
“You have to promise me you’re not going to die. Otherwise I’ll look like a real jackass.” And I said: “I promise you, and I will finish the scene.”
So when I took the snake, it was more about the surfing of the adrenaline, so I could get control of my own anxiety in order to play the scene—and in the end I gently tossed it into the grass and said, “Don’t kill it, it’s a friend of mine.”
Why aren’t you scared in such situations?
There is always an element of fear, but it is the fear itself that makes me want to face it. Because I have to break its power, which means I have to immerse myself in that very thing that scares me so it loses its hold over me.
It sounds as if you have had other hair-raising encounters?
That’s right. Some years ago I went diving in a shark cage in South Africa to confront a great white, because that was one of my most primal fears. It wound up being a remarkably calm, gorgeous experience. There was this massive shark staring at me, and I felt a strange connection with this awesome animal. I also went to the swampland in New Orleans, where I used to live. There was this 800-pound alligator. I saw him from the surface of the water looking up at me; he looked like a dinosaur.
What did you do?
I fed him marshmallows. They like that.
Perhaps the profession of an adventurer would’ve been more appropriate.
In fact, I made the contract with myself when I was 16 that if acting didn’t work out, I was going to become a fisherman or merchant marine. My first love is the ocean. I feel there is an almost indescribable calm that comes over me when I’m near the water, where I can actually feel every cell in my body relaxing.
But you seem quite relaxed now.
Because with acting I found an outlet for the energy and passion in me—and at one time anger. Without it I might have made mistakes that would have been irreversible. I could have gone in the wrong direction.
I wasn’t popular at school, and that was painful, because I wasn’t able to connect with people. I can remember being shocked when I would come back as a child from the doctor’s office that I had normal organs and that I had a normal skeleton. Because I was certain on some level at that age that I was from somewhere else. And my father once said literally that he felt I was the only son that he had to introduce himself to. Because he thought I was an alien, whatever that meant. But I always had the feeling that something else was in store for me, that there was some purpose.
And these negative feelings have evaporated?
I am not an angry man. I had my moments. I find life is much easier when you’re not angry. I am happy to be on this planet. I am all about my family and my kids. But I’d rather stay home and play toys with my son and watch him grow up.
So why was show business the first option?
This may have had to do with my father [August Coppola, a literature professor and brother of famed director Francis Ford Coppola]. He did a lot to stimulate my imagination. For example, we would do this game where we would take a classic novel and I would write a new chapter. I did it on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Moby Dick. Also, when I was a boy, he built me a wooden castle in our backyard. I spent most of my hours there. This was my protective bubble, where I would nurture my imagination and play different characters, which helped me a lot with acting eventually.
Weren’t you and your father alienated from each other for some years?
But we were very close in the last five years before his death in 2008. I thought I was going to have more years with him, so I was quite shocked when he had the heart attack. But I was very thankful for this time, and I was able to enjoy that experience. Both of us were sharing this new and much lighter and more honest way of life.
After the toy castle came a real one you bought in Germany.
I can still remember when I saw it for the first time. I had Wagner’s Parsifal on the stereo, and I was coming out of the forest, when sunlight hit the snow in such a way that everything was glowing, and then the castle emerged between the trees and I felt that I was home.
Then you had to sell it because of some financial troubles.
It will always exist for me in my mind, like the one that my father built for me.
How painful was it when you had to sell it, like most of your properties in various countries?
I can’t think of it as painful compared to the problems that people are struggling with around the world. In that economic situation, I just could not hold onto it. People try to blow it out of proportion in terms of excessive spending. I simply had to put my money somewhere, I didn’t believe in banks, so I invested in real estate. But then the whole market went in the wrong direction, and I got caught up in it. But I am feeling good. I am still passionate and blessed to be working with some of the best people in the business. And ultimately everything happens for a reason.
That’s easy enough to say, but what exactly is the reason in this instance?
Since then, I have found a different lifestyle for myself that keeps me in touch with humanity. I live with my family in a house in the Mojave Desert. I am not behind a gate anymore, I am not on some yacht or some private jet somewhere, tucked away. I get to interact with people every day, which is a much better way to be.
You’ve also seemed to change your choice of movies. Joe is a far cry from the bizarre action spectacles you did in the recent past.
That’s true I am in the process of reinventing myself in terms of the movies I want to do. I am returning to my roots, which is independently spirited, dramatic characters. Before Joe, I had taken a year off to re-evaluate everything I had done, different kinds of performances I had done, the more operatic and more baroque stuff like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Drive Angry, or Season of the Witch. I wanted to find something where I could use my life experience, my memories, and my emotions.
Do you regret some of your choices? For a while you turned into the king of B-movies.
I don’t look at it like that. Much has been made of the fact that I made many action movies. The reason I did that was because the first time people said you couldn’t do it. “You are not an action hero, forget it.” So what you saw was a dramatic actor acting like an action hero, trying to find characters that were interesting within the genre. And then I tried to mix in a little Lord of War, a little World Trade Center, The Weather Man and Bad Lieutenant and keep the spectrum going. Now, having done that, I want to focus on the dramatic kind of filmmaking.
And how about that need for adrenaline?
Usually I don’t need that when I am making films, but I find motorcycles exciting. And I have another dream. I am convinced that the ultimate thing I could do as a man communing with nature is to hang glide. You don’t pollute the environment. You literally are an eagle. You are learning how the currents work and you are free. So some day I hope to go to the Alps, because there is a school out there and they guarantee you that in two weeks’ time you’ll be a pilot, where you’re going to meet the most amazing people, who you can just call: “Are you flying today?” “Yes, I’m flying.” “Let’s go.” And you get up in the morning and you fly. Without a plane but with your own wings. To me that’s incredible. However, so far, I am not allowed to do it at this point in my life. I have people waiting for me; I have contracts to sign that I will not do these things. But the day will come.