IAR INTERVIEW: Nicolas Cage Talks 'Joe,' his Western Kabuki Style of Acting, Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, and Bruce Lee

Friday, 11 April 2014 23:04 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Nicolas Cage Talks 'Joe,' his Western Kabuki Style of Acting, Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, and Bruce Lee

It’s time to once again “Get in the Cage” with Nicolas Cage!!!

At IAR, we’ve had the absolute pleasure of interviewing the Academy Award-winning actor several times over the years. First at San Diego Comic-Con 2011, and later at the press days for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and The Frozen Ground. Cage is truly a delight to speak with, and is one of the finest actors of his generation. He is definitely a one of a kind talent, and has never been afraid to try different approaches to achieve a certain performance. That's high praise!!!

He is appeared in an eclectic list of movies in his almost 35 year long career, which range from critically acclaimed independent films, to blockbuster box office hits. His distinguished cinematic resume includes, among others, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Guarding Tess, Kiss of Death, Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor), The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, Snake Eyes, Bringing Out the Dead, The Family Man, Adaptation., Matchstick Man, National Treasure, Lord of War, World Trade Center, Ghost Rider, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Kick-Ass, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Croods, and The Frozen Ground

Cage’s latest film, which is entitled Joe, has been earning him some of the best reviews of his career and opens in theaters on April 11th. Directed by David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche), the film revolves around Joe (Cage), an ex-con and the unlikeliest of role models. When he meets a 15-year-old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan), he is faced with the choice of redemption or ruin. 

I recently had the absolute pleasure to once again “Get in the Cage” and speak with Nicolas Cage, along with other select members of the press, about his work on Joe and his fascinating career. The Oscar-winner discussed his latest film, his “Western Kabuki” style of acting, returning to a more realistic approach, why he wanted to make Joe, working with director David Gordon Green, the actor’s eclectic career, and what he learned as a child about pain from vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Bruce Lee

The actor began by discussing his recent approach to acting, and his attempt to realize some of his film performance dreams. “I’d experimented with more abstract, or what I call ‘Western Kabuki,’ or baroque style film performance, in some of the more adventure films that I’d done. I was at the point where I just wanted to find a part where I didn’t design the performance, but I just felt it and I could just be in it. Whatever mistakes I’d made in the past, which I won’t go into detail, I wanted to put them into a character, a portrayal of understanding, and use the mistakes in a way so I wouldn’t have to act too much.”

When I spoke to Cage for The Frozen Ground, he said, “I had been trying my own personal experiments with film acting to go out side the box and not get trapped in a naturalistic style, but push the boundaries and go abstract, go operatic, go surrealistic and break the mold a little bit. He went on to explain to me that The Frozen Ground was his “return to photorealistic style of film performance to provide counter point” and show that “it was also one of the colors in my acting palette.”

Joe is certainly a continuation of that photorealistic acting style, and I asked Mr. Cage how he decides which style of acting to use on a certain project. “It’s the material. It’s also where I’m at in my life. There has to be a mechanism in the script that would allow me to go into that ‘Western Kabuki,’ let’s call it, or baroque way, where it still connects with the audience in a contemporary environment.  Like the silent film actors of the ‘20s, or German Expressionistic actors like Max Schreck, they could do all that because that was part of the style back then. So I was trying to figure out how to bring that back into contemporary cinema. The way to do it is to find someone who is either A), going nuts, like Peter Loew in Vampire’s Kiss. B), he’s on crack like Terence McDonagh in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, or C), he sold his soul to the devil and his head goes on fire into a flaming skull and he’s in black leather, and you can be an actual moving tattoo like in Ghost Rider. So those were all fun ways to have it still connect with an audience.”

“But again, when I got around to Joe, and also The Frozen Ground, it was like now I just want to infuse the vessel of the character with my memories and my life experience, and not design a performance from the outside in,” Cage continued. “You can go as big as you want as long as it has emotional content. I always say, if you think it’s over the top then tell me where the top is first. I don’t think anyone can. But if you can tell me where the top is then I’ll tell you whether or not I’m over it. But if you look carefully at my filmography, you will see that between the adventure films there have been a Bad Lieutenant, a World Trade Center or a Matchstick Men. I want to keep it eclectic. I see myself as a student. I would never call myself a master or a maestro. If you take the path of the student, that means you have to try a little bit of everything in hopes that you’re going to learn something or strike some kind of new note and expression in the process. I’m not going for grades; I’m going for an education. I’m going to continue experimenting and trying new things to try to evolve and learn.”

The actor also asked how he got involved with Joe. “The project came together because David (Gordon Green) wrote me a great letter and expressed his interest in doing the movie with me. I read the script. I immediately connected with the character of Joe. Then I read the novel. I read it twice, and then I wanted David to know how enthusiastic I was about it. So I went to Texas and walked around a couple of days, had some tacos, and talked about it. I said to him, I really want to make this movie with you. I wanted to get there early. I spent a month in advance with David, getting into his process and I really wanted to soak up Austin so by the time we got to ‘Action,’ there was a flow to it.”

Finally, Cage discussed a scene from the book that the film is based on, which was not in the original script but that he asked to have incorporated into the movie. What follows is an incredible tangent where Cage compares portraying pain on screen to Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Bruce Lee. After the press conference I told the actor that it was the most amazing end to an interview I had ever heard. 

“Last night we had a screening of the movie and it went really well. I was really happy with the response. Then David and I had a Q&A. I grew up with my father who was a professor. As a result of my relationship with him, I talk around in circles and sometimes I say things that either land or don’t land. Sometimes I say something that’s succinct. They asked me if there was anything in the book that I put back into the script. I thought about my answer because I didn’t think anyone was going to understand me. I didn’t answer it, then this morning I said to David that my answer was going to be all about Haagen-Dazs and Bruce Lee. I didn’t know if there were going to understand that, but David was like, ‘Well, I really want to hear that.’ So here I go.”

“In the book, author Larry Brown has this very beautifully described scene where Joe is pulling buckshot out of his shoulder. The way it’s described in the scene, he’s holding a bottle of alcohol pressed against his shoulder and the blood is mixing with the alcohol. It’s beautifully described as this pink, foaming thing as he’s pulling it out. I said, I think we should put that back in the script because I think it speaks volumes about the character.”

“Now here we go to Haagen-Dazs and Bruce Lee,” Cage continued. “My father once came home with a brand new carton of Haagen-Dazs. It was the first time it came out. He said, ‘I have this Haagen-Dazs and everyone says it’s the best ice cream in the world. It’s vanilla. I got vanilla because I want you to know without the complexity of other flavors, if they achieved the simplest flavor. You can compare it to other ice cream’s vanilla to know if it’s the best ice cream in the world.’ We tried the vanilla and it was, wow, the best vanilla I ever had. Then my father took me to see Return of the Dragon, with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. It was the last fight scene in the movie, and Bruce Lee broke Chuck Norris’ arm. Chuck Norris was in extraordinary pain.”

“Pain is something we’ve all seen and all experienced,” he explained. “We all know when you’re faking it or lying. We know if you’re really feeling it. Pain, of all of the emotions to display is the vanilla. So Chuck was in pain and my father said, ‘You really feel the pain in his performance.’ So I said, let’s put in Joe pulling out the buckshot so I can portray the pain, the vanilla, so people will know that I’m totally committed. So there’s my Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, Bruce Lee, and Chuck Norris story,” Cage concluded. 

Only the great Nic Cage can end a press conference with a story like that!

Joe opens in theaters on April 11th. 

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