"I feel like there's a big, wet fish slapping itself against the inside of my head right now," confesses Nicolas Cage, the 24-year-old actor who's become an overnight heartthrob playing a brooding, working-class dreamer in the hit film "Moonstruck."
"Things have changed quite a bit in the past three weeks and I don't know what to make of all the attention the film is receiving," he said, anxiously running his fingers through his hair. "I'm grateful that people seem to like the film, but the whole thing's a little bizarre."
Cage's new-found sex symbol status is a surprising turn in a career that's thus far won him considerable critical acclaim along with a decidedly inaccurate image. The nephew of director Francis Coppola (who cast him in three of his films), Cage is a graduate of Beverly Hills High, travels by motorcycle and rarely granted interviews for his previous 10 films. Consequently he's often portrayed by the press as a Brat Pack bad boy whose family greased the way to fame and fortune for him.
Talking with Cage in his Art Deco apartment in Hancock Park, he proves to be none of those things. Though the apartment decor does include an exotic bug collection and a massive stone lion's head on the mantle, he is nonetheless a reasonable young man who claims to live by night, sleep all day and be "not too good at the Hollywood thing."
"I've never had an aversion to doing press so much as I haven't known how to do it," he said, fidgeting nervously in his chair. "There's a technique involved that I still don't understand, and if you do it wrong, you saddle yourself with misconceptions you'll spend years trying to shake. I also believe that an actor is someone you see playing a character and there's a danger in revealing too much about yourself because that gets in the way of whatever illusion you're trying to create on film.
"And as for this whole motorcycle thing--this has gotten way out of hand," protests Cage, who loves Wagnerian operas and is presently studying wine tasting at UCLA. "Two years ago I was feeling restless and I happened to see 'Easy Rider' and thought, 'Yeah, I have to get a motorcycle.' As it happened, a lot of other people had the same idea at the same time, so I got lumped in with this whole Hollywood entertainer's motorcycle club. I know Mickey Rourke and I like Mickey Rourke, but I've never once rode motorcycles with him. These stories of us roaring up to after-hours clubs are a complete fabrication. I don't belong to any social clubs."
Cage may not be a member of any social club, but it's been assumed that his Hollywood bloodlines had something to do with his landing parts in 10 major films in less than six years. In fact, Cage grew up in a middle-class home in Long Beach, the youngest in a family of three boys. Divorcing when he was 12, Cage's mother is a former ballet dancer and his father, now the dean of creative arts at San Francisco State University, moved the family to the outskirts of Beverly Hills 12 years ago in order to take advantage of the city's superior school system.
"There was always a lot of culture flying around at home, what with the music my father played and the books that he had," Cage recalls, "but my family didn't have a lot of money so I was out of place in Beverly Hills and it was hard for me to ask girls out.
"Am I answering these questions adequately?," he suddenly interjects. "I tend to be a reticent person and people often complain that I don't talk enough. I think my father was kind of hoping I'd become a writer," he continues, "then when I was 17, I got a part in a very bad television show called 'The Best of Times.' That surprised everyone because I'd kept it to myself what I was up to, but the family gradually warmed up to my being an actor."
After appearing in a small part in Francis Coppola's 1982 film "Rumblefish," Cage realized he had to do something to escape his uncle's shadow, so he took the name he presently goes by as an homage to comic book character Luke Cage and avant-garde composer John Cage.
"When I first started going to auditions and was still using my real name, it was obvious that people were thinking about 20 years of someone else's history," he said. "I wanted to be able to go into an office and just do what I had to do, so I took the name Cage, and the first I audition I did under that name was the best audition I'd ever had. That told me I'd done the right thing."
The audition in question was for "Valley Girl," Martha Coolidge's highly regarded film of 1983, and the film made Cage a star. A string of parts in successful films followed, including a critically acclaimed portrayal of a shell-shocked vet in the 1984 war drama "Birdy," and two films ("The Cotton Club" and "Peggy Sue Got Married") with Uncle Francis.
"I'd never deny that working with Francis hasn't been a big help to me because I've learned a great deal from him," Cage said. "He's one of the few directors around who enjoys making unpredictable choices and I like to experiment too so we work well together. Working with him on 'Peggy Sue Got Married' was the most satisfying thing I've done as an actor and I consider it my best performance by far."
Cage's "Moonstruck" co-star Cher shared his opinion of his work in "Peggy Sue," which found him portraying a character who ages from cocky teen-ager into middle-aged failure, and her admiration for his performance led her to urge Norman Jewison to cast him in "Moonstruck."
"Cher and I both admired Nicolas' work in 'Peggy Sue Got Married,' " said Jewison, "but the main reason she felt he was right for the part is because, like the character of Ronnie, Nicolas struck her as a tormented soul." "I was attracted to the romantic element in 'Moonstruck' because I think I am a romantic," Cage said, in explaining why he took the part. "There haven't been that many great romantic films--'The Graduate' and 'Wuthering Heights' come to mind--and I think we need more of them. Even though romance isn't always a fun thing to go through, the things men and women experience through each other are utterly mystical and illusive.
"Ultimately, 'Moonstruck' is a happy family film for an ensemble of actors rather than a purely romantic movie," he said, "and I think it frustrated Norman that I leaned towards interpreting it as a desperately romantic Beauty and the Beast fable. I didn't change my character from the way it was written, but I did try to play up the wolfish part of Ronnie's personality."
"Nicolas did have a darker interpretation of Ronnie than I did," said Jewison, "but we both agreed that a poetic quality was central to the character. When Ronnie is first introduced in the film he's in a basement slaving over hot ovens and he almost has the quality of a young Lord Byron.
"Then, as the film progresses Nicolas blossoms into a classic romantic leading man--and I think this is the first film where he's come off this way," Jewison continues. "There's one sequence in particular that's a sort of blue-collar recreation of Romeo & Juliet's balcony scene where Nicolas has the gangling, vulnerable appeal of a young Jimmy Stewart. Like Stewart, he has a natural gift--those large eyes and that big head are just great for film."
Cage is now riding the wave of a classic and conventional Hollywood success. But lest he be misunderstood yet again, he's not interested in having a conventional career. He offered some evidence of that last year when he starred in "Raising Arizona," an off-beat comedy directed by maverick twins Joel and Ethan Coen, and his follow-up to "Moonstruck" is equally unorthodox.
"One of the reasons I did 'Moonstruck' was because I thought it would allow me to take more of a chance with my next film, which is a low-budget black comedy called 'Vampire's Kiss' that hardly has mass commercial appeal written all over it," he said. "I play a man who's insane and thinks he's a vampire. Everyone told me not to do it, but the script grabbed me by the collar and screamed, 'If you don't do this movie, you're a coward!' I figure that in order to succeed in the film business, you can't be afraid to roll the dice. And as long as I'm betting, I want to bet everything I've got."