"The worst thing one can be with filmmaking is boring," Cage told the Los Angeles Times by phone last week, laying out what amounts to his personal artistic credo. "The whole point of movies is they've got to move."
A square peg in the round hole of Hollywood stardom, Cage, 52, has always been on the move. Over the years, he has done wild comedies, deadly serious dramas and everything in between. He has starred in hugely successful studio tentpoles like "National Treasure," "The Rock" and "Con Air" and little-seen low-budget direct-to-video films (in recent years, truth be told, more of the latter than the former). He has earned Oscar glory — scoring the lead actor prize for 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas" and a second nomination for 2002's "Adaptation" — and been dismissed as a paycheck-chasing ham.
Say what you will about Cage — and people say plenty (a 2014 episode of TV's "Community" was largely devoted to exploring whether he is a good actor) — he has never been boring.
Cage's three new films offer a wide range of Cage-ian flavors. In Larry Charles' comedy "Army of One" (in select theaters and Digital HD beginning Friday), Cage plays Gary Faulkner, a real-life Colorado handyman who was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 while trying to hunt Osama bin Laden with a pistol, a knife and a samurai sword. In Paul Schrader's gritty crime drama "Dog Eat Dog" (opening in L.A. and New York on Friday and available on VOD and Digital HD Nov. 11), he portrays an ex-con embroiled in a kidnapping plot that goes horribly awry. And in the World War II drama "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage" (now on VOD and in select theaters Nov. 11), he plays the commanding officer of the ill-fated ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, the subject of Robert Shaw's monologue in "Jaws."
We spoke to Cage about his return to gonzo comedy in "Army of One," what compels him to work so much, the rise of comic book movies (born Nicolas Coppola, Cage adopted the surname Cage partly in tribute to Marvel Comics superhero Luke Cage) and why, unlike so many of his peers, he has resisted the siren song of TV.
What drew you to "Army of One"?
The fact that it was a true story and that Gary Faulkner actually went and did all that and he actually used a samurai sword — it just seemed like an opportunity to do something different than anything I've ever done. I need to sink my teeth into characters that keep me interested and stimulate me or challenge me in some way. Gary certainly was that. I found him absolutely exhausting to play because it was just nonstop talking and manic energy.
For some of your fans, that sort of hyper-stylized, over-the-top, comic Nic Cage is their favorite Nic Cage. Is it fun for you to just let it rip like that?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But even though there are moments when I'm choosing to be out of control, I'm still very aware of it in a controlled way. I'm aware that this is a segment of music and I'm going to let myself really go for it but with the understanding that it's being applied for a specific reason.
My other styles of film performance were really experiments in: What can you do with film performance? What can you do without just repeating oneself?
I was a big believer in something I called "art synchronicity," which was that what you could do in one art form, you could do in another art form. I'd experiment with the effects of painting, like Edvard Munch's "The Scream." If you look at "Ghost Rider," I'm definitely trying to channel that expression during the transformation scene. Or these magnificent, iconic collages Andy Warhol would do with Elvis or James Dean — when I did "Wild at Heart," I was trying that in a film performance.
The major studios have cut way back on making outside-the-box movies like "Army of One" and "Dog Eat Dog." When you look back at some of the edgier films you made earlier in your career, whether it's "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adaptation" or even "Face/Off," do you think they would get made today?
I'm not entirely sure they would be. Certainly "Face/Off" — that was a big-budget movie that was high-risk if you think about the story line. It's a brave movie — I mean, it really could have been laughable but I think it worked. With those dollars attached to it, it would not be made today.
The edgy kinds of story lines like "Leaving Las Vegas" — I think they probably would have to exist in the format that we have now, which is video-on-demand.
[Direct-to-video movies] are not really what I wanted but nevertheless they've managed to give these kinds of more challenging plots a chance to be viewed. It gives them a place to exist in some way. I think it's a good thing that at least these movies will be seen on some level and will not become completely extinct.
As someone who grew up loving comic books and who almost played Superman for Tim Burton in the 1990s, are you surprised at the extent to which comic-book movies have come to dominate the industry?
I'm not surprised at all. In fact, as mystical and prescient as this sounds, when I was about 12 years old, when I was really reading comic books actively, I actually had a moment where I thought to myself that the comic book would one day overtake the film industry. I knew that when the technology got to the point that the stories could be seen in all their spectacular glory, it would captivate the world — and it did.
But it's the kind of thing where now I keep being amazed at how many new stories make it to the screen. I didn't think they were going to be able to make "Captain America" work. When it did work and it was a success, it was like, "Well, I guess they're capable of achieving anything at this point."
A lot of film actors have been migrating to TV because that's where a lot of the more interesting, creatively risky, adult-oriented projects have gone. You haven't done any TV. Is that something you think about?
You know, it's a good point and I've been invited many times to go on a show, one of which was on Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" to play Mr. Wednesday, which was a great part, beautifully written. And I said no. And William Friedkin, we've been talking about doing different things.
It probably would be good for me globally as a career move to do television, and never say never — I probably will one day. But the idea of being stuck in one city for months on end playing a part — while that might be interesting, I could see where I might start to feel trapped.
I'm just still a little bit of a snob. I mean, I'm holding on. Again, I'm never going to say never but I'm, like, kicking and screaming that I just want to stay in movies.
You have three movies hitting theaters in the space of two weeks and five more movies currently slated to come out next year. Some people say you work too much and do too many movies that aren't really worthy of an actor of your stature. What do you say to that?
Well, what I say to that is I'm a working dog. I'm at my best when I'm working and when I'm not working I can be a little self-destructive. I can be somebody that has a lack of focus. And I feel that by working, it keeps me on point. It keeps my instrument on point.
A while ago I made the decision that I was going to go more in terms of the golden-age actors in the old studio system, where they were making 150 movies by the time their career was up. Or even someone like Michael Caine.
But it is an interesting point because in any other line of work — medicine or banking or police work or any other work — hard work is something to behold. But for some reason with a film actor, working a lot is looked down upon.
I don't take it personally. It's just who I am. And I've been happy to say that it's worked well for me. I feel like I'm at the top of my game right now.