Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Talk with Nicolas Cage

My short conversation with Nicolas Cage was conducted over the phone, while I was sitting in the Atlanta offices of my school's newspaper. Cage, meanwhile, was in New York City, filming another of his most unusual roles as the bloodthirsty lead of Vampire's Kiss. The Georgia State University Signal published my interview with this newfound star on March 1, 1988, in connection with Norman Jewison's Oscar-winning comedy hit Moonstruck.

Nicolas Cage can color himself lucky on all counts. After all, when an aspiring actor has Oscar-winning director Francis Coppola as an uncle, Oscar-nominated actress Talia Shire as an aunt, and Oscar-winning composer Carmine Coppola as a grandfather, he can do nearly no wrong on the path to success. Knowledge of the twenty-three-year-old actor's family tree conjures up images of Cage as a coattail rider, but that's an insult to his innately unique talent. Even so, Cage still can't keep from admitting that the connections have helped in his progress. As one of Judge Reinhold's co-workers at a fast-food parlor in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Cage was virtually invisible (his part was edited down drastically, he says). And, in spite of trumped-up screen time, his work in a television movie called The Best of Times went totally unnoticed.

It was only in 1982, when Francis Coppola was casting parts for Rumblefish that Nicolas Cage got his first real break. "He gave me a job reading for other actors for the film," Cage says. "As it turned out, I got a large part, but I don't think Francis liked what I did in Rumblefish. Now he does but, at the time, I think he thought I was too stiff as an actor."

Valley Girl is the picture that really opened the industry's eyes as to Cage's onscreen value. As a beach-hopping punk rocker who falls in love with a spoiled San Fernando princess, Cage stole the show. Even now, more than five years after the film's release, Cage recognizes his debt to his first big hit. "Things didn't really start clicking for me until that film. It really surprised me. Going in, I thought it was just going to be another teen exploitation movie. I had no idea it was going to be as poetic a picture as it was. I guess I owe a lot to Valley Girl.''

Indeed, since it grabbed his uncle's attention and respect. "Francis saw it and decided that it was good work, so he agreed to have me continue to work with him." As a result of Valley Girl, Cage has worked with Coppola three additional times, playing Richard Gere's crazed brother in The Cotton Club, Kathleen Turner's doo-wop singing husband-to-be in Peggy Sue Got Married, and a small role in last year's Gardens of Stone.

Given the curvy twists he has given to these roles, as well as to such parts as Sean Penn's insensitive friend in Racing With The Moon, as a love-struck rower in The Boy in Blue, and as a scarred GI in Alan Parker's much-acclaimed Birdy (a role for which Cage pulled out two of his own teeth and wore bandages on his face for five weeks as mental preparation), one has to wonder what attracts the actor to certain scripts. Cage is quite confident when faced with the question. "I'm drawn to anything that's different from the last thing I've done, simply because it keeps me from being bored," he says. "I'm always looking for something new. And then I guess the other factor is whether or not the part seems real to me, if the character reads well on paper or is someone I can really identify with. Reality is the foundation to everything, I think. If I can take that reality and play with it, make it bigger or smaller, then I'm interested. But if it doesn't seem real to me, then I'm gonna be on a tightrope and there isn't gonna be any net under me."

1987 turned out to be an especially lucrative year for Nicolas Cage. After being served with mixed reviews for his wonderfully eccentric performance in 1986's Peggy Sue Got Married, he emerged with Raising Arizona, his most acclaimed work to date. In it, he plays H.L McDonough, a small-time crook who finds it difficult to change his wronging ways when he gets married to a policewoman (played by Conyers native Holly Hunter). When faced with the fact that his wife cannot have children, the couple puts into action a plan to steal a single infant from a set of quintuplets born to  furniture magnate Nathan Arizona. What follows is a side-aching, side-winding, and often strangely touching comedy about the joys and pains of parenthood. Cage himself thinks is perhaps his best work yet, crediting a great deal of the film's quality to brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, produced, and directed the film.

"It was a luxury to work with them on that script," Cage says. "They had it thought out the way they wanted it. They really took a lot of care with the plot and the words." Cage also take measure to dispel any image of the Coen brothers as pure technocrats (as their products are so ultimately flawless visually). He says that they go to great lengths to make sure their actors are comfortable but are, at the same time, extremely clear on what they want from a performer. "They're instinctive about directing actors. They give you a two-week rehearsal period and, during that time, they toy with anything they might want to alter. But when they get on the set, they're pretty instinctive. They just go with what they feel, with what makes them laugh."

Cage also says that it was the broad, physical strokes of comedy that were called for in the Coens' script that attracted him to Raising Arizona. "It's almost like slapstick has become taboo in cinema, that people like Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy have become antiques. But I think there's a lot to be learned from what they did. To make that kind of wild behavior seem real is what I really want to do. I don't want to put any limitations on myself and Raising Arizona gave me the opportunity to be as big as I wanted."

This actor's one-two punch continued in December when Norman Jewison's Moonstruck opened in New York to rave reviews. Since its debut, the film has garnered six Oscar nominations, yet he was passed over in the Best Actor category (he was nominated for the Golden Globe, though), Cage has received glowing notices for his portrayal of Ronny Cammareri, a one-handed Italian baker who falls for his older brother's outspoken fiancee (Best Actress frontrunner Cher). Though he was taken with playwright John Patrick Shanley's well-crafted screenplay, Cage admits he had certain misgivings about playing an Italian in this very ethnic-flavored film. “I am Italian," he says, "and I find that, in American cinema today, there seems to be a stereotype of Italians, with the hand gestures and the thick accents and this whole mobster image. Just one big-cliche. So when I decided to do Ronny, I also decided I wasn't going to get caught up in any of those claptrap images that Hollywood drums from Italians. I really tried to give the character some dignity."

His character in Moonstruck is a passionate but chronically depressed baker whose impending marriage was destroyed when his character's butchering duties were distracted by the dramatics of older brother Danny Aiello, leading to the loss of Ronny's hand in an automatic meat slicer. With this bizarre chain of events, Cage says his character was exceedingly difficult to work out. "I wanted to keep him from seeming too selfish or self-pitying. It's hard to play a character that talks about all the hardship and suffering he's been through without making him into a wimp."

Still, Nicolas Cage got it down pat. Now, he says, he couldn't be happier with the final product. "Hopefully," he says, "the movie will make people want to fall in love again, want to be with each other, want to work it out. It could be a medicine for couples that are falling apart. They would see Moonstruck and say 'See? It's alright to be angry with one another, it's alright to argue.' Love is not just about holding hands, y'know.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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