Nicolas Cage wanted to introduce his pet baby octopus to his visitors. Putting his hand into the aquarium, he dislodged the creature from behind a rock. Angry, it squirted ink over his fingers and shot away to another hiding place.
“He’s mad at me now,” said Cage. “What a pity. Just when we were beginning to get along.”
Cage cares about his octopus and all the other marine life he keeps in his two large aquariums. He finds it restful to lie in bed and watch them. Dentists put them in waiting rooms for the same purpose.
Cage’s apartment is in Hollywood, close by the building where Mae West spent much of her life. He lives there with his Burmese cat Lewis, surrounded by books and Art Deco pieces and paintings. It looks like the pad of an up-and-coming young artist or writer: interesting but not quite finished.
In the four years since he began acting, Cage, 22, has come a long way. If he is not yet a familiar name to the public, he soon will be with his work in Francis Coppola’s latest movie, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” which has earned some favorable notices. “He’s an original,” says Newsweek.
Cage, a quiet-living, reticent actor, has great hopes for “Peggy Sue,” a romantic comedy about a ‘80s woman (Kathleen Turner) transported back to the ‘50s. He plays her estranged husband and her high school sweetheart. He likes it so much, he has been giving interviews to talk about it--something he hasn’t done for any of his films.
Why? Sitting back on a couch while his cat leaped all over him, Cage observed that he’s “not too pleased with what I read about myself usually.”
Like his co-stars Sean Penn and Elizabeth McGovern, Cage did no publicity for the 1984 film “Racing With the Moon.” The movie, it was felt, suffered in consequence.
“But the truth is I’m not a great fan of that film,” said Cage. “It wasn’t as cohesive as it should have been. I’m not really sure publicity would have helped it.” On the other hand, of course, no one will ever know.
Cage now reads the critics, something he didn’t do before.
“An actress friend of mine, Jenny Wright, gave me a book, ‘Poesis,’ by the French poet Lautremont, in which he suggests that the critic is actually more important than the work he or she criticizes. After all, the artist is trying to evoke a response and the critic supplies it. It’s helped me deal with the fact that there are always going to be good and bad reviews. If you look at it as a response, then you can’t be elated or depressed by what is said.”
Unless you have contempt for the critic?
“That makes no difference,” he said. “It’s the response that counts.”
It is just four years since Cage made his first movie for his uncle Francis Coppola--"Rumble Fish.” His name then was Nicolas Coppola, and when he went to audition for the role of a Hollywood punk in “Valley Girl,” he changed it. He took the name Cage from experimental composer John Cage, whom he admires. “I wanted to make it on my own,” he explained at the time, “not trade on my family name.”
Of the seven movies he has made since that time, two were made for his uncle--"The Cotton Club,” in which Cage played Richard Gere’s younger brother, a psychotic gangster based on the underworld figure Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
“I love working with Francis,” Cage said frankly. “His philosophy is that if you’re going to gamble, then gamble with everything you’ve got. He loves taking chances and so do I. And his talent is tremendous. Of course, like every other director, he has sometimes made bad choices. I once asked him if a genie gave him a wish, what would it be? ‘To possess the ability always to make the right decisions,’ he said.”
When Cage was growing up, his father, August Coppola, dean of creative arts at San Francisco State University, encouraged him more towards writing than acting.
But there was never much doubt that he was going to be an actor. When his uncle offered him a role in “Rumble Fish,” Cage, then 18, jumped at it. And with his second movie, “Valley Girl,” he caught the critics’ eyes. “Goofily handsome,” wrote one. “A lovable lout,” said another. They were perhaps not the reviews he would have chosen for himself, but the kind to make people remember him.
“Racing With the Moon” earned him good reviews too, but it was “Birdy,” Alan Parker’s movie version of William Wharton’s novel, that made people realize that he was an actor of consequence. His role as Al, a disfigured Vietnam War veteran who is sent to a mental hospital to coax a near-catatonic Birdy (Matthew Modine) back to reality, gave Cage his biggest opportunity to shine. “Birdy” received the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985.
After “Birdy” he went to Montreal to make “The Boy in Blue,” directed by Charles Jarrott. He played a turn-of-the-century champion Canadian oarsman named Ned Hanlan. The film received only a limited release by 20th Century Fox earlier this year and quickly disappeared. It is not a movie that arouses Cage’s enthusiasm.
Now comes “Peggy Sue.” And he has recently finished another, “Raising Arizona.”
“When I read ‘Raising Arizona,’ I knew it was a film I really wanted to do,” he said. “But after I met with Ethan and Joel Coen (the producer and director), they told my agent they couldn’t see me in the role at all. I was very disheartened.
“I felt so close to this character (a convict) that I decided I just wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we kept on at them to let me read. And eventually they agreed. I flew to New York and saw them and everything went well. I got the part.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Cage remains optimistic about the film business.
“It seems to me a lot of the younger actors are being braver about what they do,” he said. “They’re no longer content just to be marionettes. And I’m encouraged that the studios are now being run by young executives.”
Cage glanced back at the tank where his octopus, Cool, was skulking.
No doubt when feeding time came around shortly (he lives on goldfish), all would be forgiven.
“I certainly hope so,” said Cage with feeling. “I really don’t want him mad at me.”