May 16, 2010

Nicolas Cage - back on top

Back on a roll following Kick-Ass and now Bad Lieutenant, few actors have had as many ups and downs as Nicolas Cage. 'People who do the wrong thing win,' he tells Damon Wise
Until recently, things weren't looking so good for Nicolas Cage. In the 90s he transformed from a geeky, twitchy presence in soft dramas like Moonstruck and Peggy Sue Got Married into the oddest action hero of all time. Unlike Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Cage was a true livewire, a psychotic, tender presence who could kick ass even while being a doting father; who could forget him brawling to the death for the sake of his son's soft toy in 1997's Con Air ("Put the bunny back in the box!"). Cage was something mainstream moviegoers and indie mavens could agree on, a soldier for hire who could be put to service by David Lynch in one of his dark, individualist fantasies or drafted in by Jerry Bruckheimer to serve time in a tour of blockbuster duty.

1. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans
2. Production year: 2009
3. Country: USA
4. Cert (UK): 18
5. Runtime: 122 mins
6. Directors: Werner Herzog
7. Cast: Alvin 'Xzibit' Joiner, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer
8. More on this film

After his Academy award nomination for Adaptation in 2002, however, the once-meaty action roles had begun to reek of ham. He made poor dramatic choices – Lord Of War, The Weather Man and the ghastly Wicker Man – and even his fans began to see the funny side. Websites such as reimagined him as everyone from Batgirl to Hugo Chávez, while his gaudy taste in knick-knacks became as pilloried as Michael Jackson's, the latest being a nine-foot pyramid tomb.

In October last year things turned uglier, with the death of his father, to whom he was close. This came at the height of Cage's public problem with the IRS, which itself resulted in a feud with his financial advisor, who, in response to a lawsuit from Cage, painted his ex-client as a wastrel who frittered all his A-list cash on haunted houses and dinosaur bones.

He has been known to cancel interviews on a whim and his media silence around the release of Kick-Ass, the film that redelivered the old Cage to the audience that grew up with him (in the likes of Con Air and Face/Off), suggested that maybe he was backing away from public life. But then, Cage has never been one to conform to expectations. This, after all, is the actor who switched on the Christmas lights in his newly adopted hometown of Bath ("I'm feeling kind of ELECTRIC right now!" he roared), and anyone who doubts that Cage can still cut it should pay a visit to Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, in which he not only raises the bar for extreme, envelope-pushing acting, he nukes it.

When we catch up with him Cage, now 46, is in good spirits. In Herzog, 67, he has found the perfect collaborator, a Bavarian soulmate and a great respecter of the berserk, the ideal director for this tale of squalor and redemption in which Cage, as gambling, drug-addled cop Terence McDonagh, battles a spinal injury, gangs and his beautiful, high-class hooker-girlfriend's vermin clients while trying to solve a murder in post-Katrina New Orleans. Until his 90s switch into documentaries, Herzog was known for his arthouse collaborations with his barking-mad star, the late, much-missed Klaus Kinski, and Cage openly admits that part of the attraction was trying to emulate that creative chemistry.
nic and eva bad lieutenant Nic Cage and Eva Mendes in Bad Lieutenant.

"I very much wanted to work with Werner," he drawls. "I wanted to have ..." He corrects himself. "Well, I wanted to see if I could have that relationship, in a positive way as opposed to a negative way, that Werner had with Kinski." The two first met at his uncle Francis [Ford Coppola]'s house, when Cage was eight and more interested in the director's tattoo of a skull wearing a top hat. Later, back in the early-90s, there was a chance that they'd work together on a movie about Hernán Cortés, the Spanish dictator-explorer who brought mayhem and murder to South America. "But I was living in Los Angeles at the time," says Cage, "and I just didn't wanna play Cortés, because I grew up around that area, y'know, which has a lot of Mexican, uh, folks there." He laughs. "I didn't want to be the face of Cortés in LA."

But when they did finally work together, the results were dynamic. And just as Herzog's work with Kinski became clouded with myth, rumour and counter-rumour, so has his one and only film with Cage. Herzog, for example, as well as claiming that the movie is about "the bliss of evil", has said this: "On the second day of shooting [Cage] asked me, 'Why is he so bad? Is it the drugs? Is it the destruction of the city? Is it the corruptness of the police?'" The actor wishes to differ.

"I remember him saying the movie was about the bliss of evil," he says warily, "but I don't remember me questioning him: why is this guy so bad? That's not something I'd say. Although I must say that Werner's point of view on the bliss of evil is what makes the film work. Because it's so delicious for audiences to enjoy vicariously this cop doing all the things that we know we shouldn't do. And the presentation that Werner – particularly as encapsulated by those three words, 'bliss of evil' – is what gives the movie its marvellous tone.

"Now," he continues, "I was going at it from another perspective. I was having fun with it; I was laughing on my way home from work sometimes but I also felt ... that I also wanted to show the ugliness of the drugs, and that I didn't want to glamorise it. I wanted Terence to be kinda hard to watch at times, and my face would get screwed up at time from the grimaces from the coke and from the ... the ... whatever else he was putting in his body, and the exhaustion from lack of sleep. So it was important for me that he became almost grotesque, like a modern but degenerated Richard III of New Orleans, the twist in his back, was just trying to call up a little bit of Richard III."

And just as he fearlessly addressed alcoholism with his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas, so Cage dove headlong into the murky mindset of a man on coke, crack and smack. "That was really difficult," he says. "I mean, I didn't know that I could do it, so it was a huge challenge for me. Uh, I ... I ..." Untypically, he starts to reach for the words. "I guess I thought of it as an impressionistic point of view, like a recall. Of whatever may have happened in my past from 25 years ago, where maybe I had, like, a lost weekend, and then I tried to recall that. But that was pretty distant, and a very faint memory. So I decided to meet with different drug counsellors and addicts and just ask them questions about behaviour. So then I carefully graphed out where the more speed-like substances, like coke, would give Terence that feeling of invincibility, and that fast talking, and those sort of lip-smacking sounds, and tics, and swallowing, with the dry mouth. And then when the heroin, or the downer drugs, came into the body, the speech became slower, and the blinking became slower."

Cage plays down Herzog's claims that his improvising terrified the cast, notably two old ladies who were threatened with a .44 Magnum and treated to the C-word in an improvised scene that takes an already insane film to crazy new heights. "They're actresses," he demurs, "so they like to play scared."