Nicolas Cage has been a tremendously important part of my life for over two decades now, so I can happily tell you that being given the rare opportunity to interview the man himself, one on one, for what ran to seven and a half minutes, almost ended me.
Despite being in the fortunate position where I’ve interviewed many of my heroes, I still have no sense of complacency, resulting in a rather large amount of adrenaline in the build-up to the actual event.
In the moments before meeting The Cage, though, I was so nervous that, when asked to write down my feedback from the Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance screening the night before, my hand was shaking so much that I couldn’t write a thing.
Now, I know that Nic Cage has his critics and that his performances divide audiences like no other, but this was a man whose appearance in Wild At Heart forever changed the way I perceived cinema, introducing me to my first real dose of artistic and independent sensibilities, as well as the psycho-sexual genius of David Lynch.
Years later I found myself using Leaving Las Vegas as an emotional crutch during a rough period in my life, and when I came out the other side, there were The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off ready to greet me, in what proved to be the greatest run of action movies since the 80s.
Sure, last year wasn’t Cage’s greatest, but there’s a total misconception about the quality of the films he’s made, as for every Season Of The Witch, there’s a Kick Ass, for every Bangkok Dangerous, there’s a Bad Lieutenant, and even Knowing has been defended on this site. Now? He’s back with Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.
With time running short and Cage’s enthusiasm for Ghost Rider very evident, the interview finished all too quickly, most likely a saving grace which stopped me from embarrassing myself, for as I walked into the room and saw Cage wearing a black tie, suit and white shirt, my head screamed “Face/Off! Face/Off!”, which I’m fairly certain I didn’t shout out loud.
He was on great form, and as professional and articulate as you’d expect, gesturing a cobra’s movement with his arm with a big smile on his face and full of praise for directors Neveldine and Taylor.
So, without further ado – Mr Nicolas Cage…
First off, I thought the film was fantastic, it was just manic genius.
Thank you, thanks, it’s good to hear you say that – that’s a good word for it! [laughs]
It’s incredibly rare in your career for you to return to a character. What was it about Johnny Blaze that lured you back?
Well there was more that I thought I could do with it. I did have a specific idea about it, actually the genesis of which happened in London, at Westminster Abbey. I was dressed in black leather, head to toe – in those days, I still liked to wear leather jackets and pants and motorcycle boots – and I went to Westminster Abbey on my lunch break, and the bishop from Colorado was there.
It was an environmental summit – I had no idea – and then he introduced me to the Archbishop of Canterbury and to the Pope of the Greek Orthodox Church and there I was, dressed like Ghost Rider with these two very important spiritual leaders, and I thought, “Why not Ghost Rider? He could be working with them”. And then the bishop looked at me and he said [in a hushed tone], “Oh, and by the way, I can be naughty too!”
So I had this idea – Ghost Rider recruited by the church, working with the church in some way and that was it, that was the beginning of it. Then Sony developed the script with Neveldine and Taylor. This time Johnny has been on the lam, it’s been eight years, he’s been living with the curse for eight years, so his state of mind is different, so he’s much more sarcastic, he’s much more ironic, like a cop or a paramedic, who develops a dark sense of humour to cope with the horrors that he has seen. And another element is that I got to play the Ghost Rider, which I didn’t do in [the first film] but I did in Spirit Of Vengeance.
I did wonder, as I got a lot more of a sense of you in the performance as the Rider, especially in the way you moved your body and head, what inspired those distinct movements?
It’s all something that I developed and thought about, even to the point of walking on the set, y’know, so as not to feel ridiculous, but to really believe I was this ghost, this spirit of vengeance, painting my face with a kind of Afro-Caribbean voodoo icon, or a new Orleans voodoo icon. I had white paint and black paint and black contact lenses on my eyes and I sewed bits of ancient Egyptian artefacts into my leather jacket and would channel this spirit of vengeance and really believe I was that. And the fear that, because I wouldn’t talk to anybody, the fear that I would see in the other actors eyes only helped me believe it even more.
Then I would think about cobra snakes [chuckles] I mean, because I used to have one and I would watch it dance. Whenever it was angry it would turn its back to me and would have this pattern of an occult eye on its back, and it would move slowly side to side, to rhythmically put me to sleep and then it would attack! So it would try to hypnotise me and attack – and I thought, well, maybe Ghost Rider should do that. So trying to pull all these odd ways of moving, to kind of take the audience out of their reference point and make them think they’re in the presence of something else.
And the physical performance really heightened the connection between the Rider and Blaze, because the Rider is so close to bursting out of Blaze throughout the film…
Well, there’s little moments where you see a similarity in Blaze and also in the Ghost Rider, little clues that they are one in the same.
Neveldine and Taylor are known for their frenetic style, and you’ve worked with some of the best action directors, how did they compare?
Well, outstanding. I mean it was a great union, they totally understood me and I understood them. I’d make every movie with these guys, they have their own vision. On top of which you have Neveldine… well, first of all, Taylor was the one who really wanted me to play Ghost Rider, he was a huge advocate of that. He got me thinking about the movements and where I could go with it.
Neveldine is a sort of George Hamilton looking dude, circa 1968, very macho guy who’s not afraid to risk his life. You have a lot of young filmmakers today who do things with the camera that are poetic, but only these guys are doing poetic things that are also daredevil moves. He is literally risking his life, he’s got a motorcycle in one hand, a camera in the other, he’s on rollerblades, he’s going 70 miles an hour, any moment he could break his neck, he’s being shot out from wires and photographing while falling off a cliff.
It’s a mindset that is frenetic, but there’s a lot of thought in it and I knew that if I was going to survive working with them I would not be able to think twice about it, I had to jump in. If they were gonna give me any respect at all, I had to raise my level of danger.
Which partly answers my next question; as to whether their style did help to unleash the mania…
I couldn’t think twice about the risks. I knew if I did, if they saw any fear in my eyes, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them, so I would overcompensate, which is always my psychology. My approach has always been that, if there’s a director that wants to do 20 takes, let’s do 30, c’mon how about another, or there’s a director that wants me to jump of a cliff – well let me jump of a cliff, but let me take the wire off. Y’know, it’s that kind of attitude.
Being a comic book fan, I know you wanted to make a film adaptation of one for years. When you finally had a chance to be in one, with the first Ghost Rider movie, how did the expectation of playing a comic hero weigh up against the actuality?
Well you know, when I do a movie, any movie, I have to be honest in it, I have to find a way of playing it, or know that I can play it honestly, that I don’t act on some level, acting implies lying. I want to be truthful and I truthfully find the Ghost Rider character complicated and fascinating. So did it live up to my expectations? Yes. It’s something I wanted to do and I did it honestly – I hope you [the audience] will enjoy it!
Nicolas Cage, thank you very much!
Alas the wrap up came too soon, as always, and my plan to end the interview as I’d started, in this case about returning to another character, Cameron Poe for Con Air 2, never came. But know that it was next on my list…