NEW YORK – “Metropolis.” Bruce Lee. Woody Woodpecker. A pet cobra. All of these things have been inspirations behind Nicolas Cage performances — sometimes private homages that the actor has used like blueprints to build some of his most exaggerated, erratic and affecting characters.
A conversation with Cage, likewise, pulls from a wide gamut of sources. In a recent and typically wide-ranging interview ahead of the release of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Cage touched on Picasso, Elia Kazan, Timothée Chalamet and Francis Bacon. A book of interviews with Bacon, “The Brutality of Fact,” for instance, helped Cage define his attraction to intense, even grotesque performance — “that which is not obviously beautiful,” he says — rather than naturalism.
“And I’ve kind of approached my public perception, as well as the way I design my film work, as an actor with that concept in mind -- to not be afraid to be ugly in behavior or even in appearance,” says Cage. “To create a kind of taste that you have to discover."
With more than 100 films, the 58-year-old Cage — an Oscar-winner (“Leaving Las Vegas"), an action star ("Con Air") and the source of countless Internet memes for his most theatrical moments in films like “Face/Off" — has long been one of the most particular tastes in movies. Yet by being “an amateur surrealist,” as he refers to himself, Cage has emerged — even after resorting to a string of VOD releases to pay off back taxes and get himself out of debt — as one of Hollywood's most widely loved stars. As “Unbearable Weight” director Tom Gormican says, “the sight of his face sort of makes people happy.”
But for even the mercurial Cage, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” which opens in theaters Friday, represents something different. In it, Cage plays himself. Or, rather, he plays a fun-house mirror version of himself that sometimes interacts with a younger version of himself. The movie is one big homage to Cage in which the actor somehow manages to both satirize perceptions of himself and act out those personas sincerely.
“The through line that’s always been there for me: No matter what I designed, and it has been a design whether it’s ridiculous — and it’s often ridiculous — or whether it’s sublime, it has to be informed with genuine emotional content,” says Cage.
“No matter how broad or what some folk like to call over the top, it had genuine feeling.”
But what to Cage constitutes over the top? This is the actor who, channeling Nosferatu in “Vampire's Kiss," gave one of the most bonkers recitals of the alphabet ever heard. He's fond of answering: “Well, show me where the top is and I'll tell you if I'm over it.”
“I grew up in a house where my mom would do things that if you put it in a movie, you would say that was over the top," says Cage, whose mother, Joy Coppola, was a dancer and choreographer. His father, August Coppola, brother of Francis, was a professor of literature. "But what is the top? When you want to design something and you think about different styles — naturalism, impressionism, surrealism, abstract — then you start to look at it in a different way. It’s not going to be for everybody and it’s not necessarily going to sell tickets. But that’s OK.”
“Movies are a business and it was not without peril that I took this path, but it was important to me,” he adds. “I stuck by it and, sure, I got plenty of rotten tomatoes thrown in my face. But I knew that was going to happen so it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect.”
But what's unusual about Cage is that many of those experiments HAVE sold tickets. A lot of them. Cage's films account for nearly $5 billion in worldwide box office. Still, it's been a while since he was front-and-center in a major studio film.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," which Lionsgate premiered at South by Southwest to warm reviews, allows him to play around with the notion of a comeback. In the film, he's desperate to score better parts than the birthday party he's been offered $1 million to attend. The movie was an opportunity to wrestle — usually comically, sometimes physically — with his own exaggerated mythology.
“He would come up to me and say, (lowers voice) ‘Tom, there’s a guy who wears rings and leather jackets and he lives in Las Vegas and he would never say that line,’” recalls Gormican. “And I would go, ‘Oh, you mean you.’ He’d say, ‘Yes.’ And I’d be like, ‘Well, it’s not you. It’s a character based on you.’ And he’d go, ‘But he has my name.’ I was like, ‘Come on, man, just say the line.’”
“We’d have discussions about who understood Nick Cage more,” adds Gormican, laughing.
Gormican was initially turned down several times by Cage before a heartfelt letter finally convinced the actor to make the film. The issue was that Cage, even at his most outlandish, has never put quotation marks around his performances. He tends to invest fully in even the most unhinged characters. (Werner Herzog's “Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans” comes to mind.) Cage initially feared Gormican’s film would be self-mocking parody, and while it has those elements, Cage steers it in more unpredictable directions.
“Without mentioning names, there were some actors that came out of the gate that I thought were really sincere and profoundly emotional and honest in the beginning and then became too high on their own supply,” Cage says. “They started winking at the audience and, in my opinion, it lost the emotional connection. It’s a slippery slope when you make the decision that you want to be emotional and raw."
The actor does reach some gonzo heights in the film. After one scene, Gormican was honored to hear Cage say: “That was the Full Cage. You got the Full Cage.” Another scene features the two Cages making out, after which the younger exclaims, “Nick Cage smooches good!”
Cage's own exotic tastes — he once had to return a dinosaur skull he purchased that had been stolen from Mongolia — have contributed to his legend. But he insists that he is normal in his life so that he can be extreme in his work — and that some of his self-promotion, like an infamously nutty appearance on “Wogan,” was itself an act.
Cage last year married Riko Shibata, his fifth wife, and they are expecting a child. (Cage also has two grown sons; a sticking point in “Unbearable Weight” was that he not be shown as an absentee father — one fiction Cage wouldn't permit.) After an unusually introspective press tour for the film, Cage is looking forward to returning to the desert outside Las Vegas, where he lives. He could use a break from “Nick Cage.”
But “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" wraps a chapter for the actor. He's finally out of the red after making some 30 video-on-demand films over the last decade to pay off the IRS and his creditors. He makes no apologies for those films. They made him a better actor, he says.
“I was practicing. I managed to keep my access to my imagination at my fingertips. It was a much better way for me to get this financial crisis off my back than doing something like a Super Bowl commercial — and believe me they offered,” says Cage. “That was also a point for me, that I’m not a salesman, I’m an actor.”
Cage can also once again feel some mainstream momentum behind him. His performance in last year's “Pig,” as a grizzled truffle hunter with a past, earned some of his best reviews in years. It was a more naturalistic performance than Cage is generally known for — and a reminder of his limitless range. Having started professionally at 15, Cage reminds that he's been doing this a long time. To him, his path began, appropriately enough, with an audacious performance.
Cage's father, the actor says, had a massive influence on him, exposing him to books, early films and paintings. But he could cut his son down with words.
“And I just wasn’t going to take it,” says Cage. "I knew that he thought more of me than he let on. I tricked him once and I did something that I’ve never done ever again. I lied. I said, ‘Dad, I wrote this song.’ And I played him Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” And he believed me. He said, “Wow, Nicky, that’s incredible.” Then I got the positive affirmation that I needed to believe in myself. That was the one time a lie saved me."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP