Nicolas Cage on Accessing His "Inner Jaguar" for Hunting Thriller 'Primal'

Nicolas Cage - Getty - H 2019
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
The star talked about taking inspiration from Humphrey Bogart's performance in 'African Queen' for Nick Powell's "wild" movie and how much he loves the "absurdist" aspects of genre films.

Nicolas Cage's prolific output in recent years has cemented his reputation as one of the busiest A-list actors with a bewildering number of projects either in development, in production or about to be released.

Interspersed between Hollywood movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and critically acclaimed indie hits like Mandy, the Oscar-winner has enthusiastically embraced genre fare such as hunting thriller Primal, which hits select theaters and is also available to stream on demand today. 

Directed by Nick Powell, who worked with Cage on the 2014 period epic Outcast, Primal tells the story of a hunter named Frank Walsh who captures a rare white jaguar and in his attempts to transport the big cat to his buyers is trapped on a container ship with a prisoner who is being shipped by the NSA back to the U.S. The prisoner, who is a rogue assassin, manages to escape his cage and release the jaguar, too, forcing Walsh to capture both man and beast before it's too late. The film also stars Famke Janssen, Kevin Durand, LaMonica Garrett and Michael Imperioli.

Before Primal's release, Cage spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about working with Powell again, accessing his "inner jaguar" to take on the role, the influence of Humphrey Bogart on his performance and how he loves to lean into the "absurdist" aspects of the film. 

I was lucky enough to see Primal and it is a lot of, well, wild fun. So I guess my first question is, what parts in particular did you really enjoy on this film? Because it looked like you enjoyed a lot of it.

Well, thank you. I haven't seen the movie myself yet, but I will say that I was thrilled to be reunited with Nick Powell. He's a director that I enjoyed working with on Outcast. Neither of us were too happy with the way that film [was supported]. So we were looking for an opportunity to collaborate again and when he brought me the script to Primal well, I thought this is perfect because it is really meant to be a wild ride, a lot of fun. I tried to embrace the title itself, in that here I am facing off against a white jaguar and facing off with a man twice my size. Trying to figure out how I can access my inner jaguar if you will to stay in the ring with them.

I was in good hands with Nick. He really knows how to [film] fight sequences. But he is also great with character and character development. We talked a lot about some of our favorite actors and performances, like [Humphrey] Bogart African Queen.

Was Bogart an influence? 

Yeah. Not that I could ever be as great as Humphrey Bogart but [Powell and I] talked about how I could at least borrow and emulate that kind of energy and get the perfect character that Bogart would play, you know someone who is not a people person, he's an isolationist, he's alone in the jungle and he just wants to be with his animals. So I thought that the idea of having all these toxic animals and also the jaguar itself and then having to square off with somebody twice my size would be a wonderful absurd adventure and hopefully entertaining.

Given the premise of Primal, there are slightly absurdist elements, did you want to lean into that aspect? Did you think "let's go for it"?

Right, right absurdist. I think that's a great way [to describe it]. I love that. I love situations that are so unpredictable that you can find the comedy in it and you can also find the danger in it. I like being on that fine line of which way is this going to go and hopefully be a little unpredictable. In my own life I try to keep things calm and peaceful as I can, so when I get an opportunity to put something on camera that's hopefully dangerous, that's absurdist and wild, that's always a cathartic and enjoyable experience for me.

There are lots of great lines in the film, I especially liked the "regular Einstein!" line. Are these lines improvised or were they in the script? 

A lot of them were improvised and that's one of the great pleasures of working with Nick. We stick to the blueprint, which is the script, but go off page when it's right. You know, [the line] "you kill my cat, I'll blow your head off!" that was a lot of fun to say. [The line] "great pandas in the San Diego zoo" all of that stuff comes out of the comfortable relationship I have with Nick Powell.

Speaking of Nick, whom you worked with before on Outcast, how does it compare working with him to say some other directors you've worked with recently, like Panos [Cosmatos] and Dimitri [Logothetis]? How was/is it different?

Nick, like [Mandy director] Panos, is somebody who is not only terrific with choreography, he also is really keen on the character development. And I have wanted to work with him again after the experience on Outcast — I knew that we had more to say together. And I feel the same about Panos. I mean, I think that Panos and I got up to something pretty, pretty wonderful [on Mandy], that was all from Panos' imagination. And [Primal] is from Nick's imagination, so I knew I was in good hands with both of them.

[Jiu Jitsu director] Dimitri had the added factor of being an actor himself. So that was fun to work with him and I was delighted that we were going to do something that was really far out, combining martial arts with aliens. I like the idea of not repeating myself and putting myself in different situations in film and hopefully bring something a little bit unique. Dimitri was terrific with the character development as well and we talked a lot about that. Now, in Primal [as I said] I was playing someone inspired by Bogart in African Queen, But with Dimitri I was trying to channel a little Dennis Hopper. I love him so much in Apocalypse Now. It's always great to work with directors who allow you to celebrate your heroes. 

Back to Primal, in the film you play a hunter, or is it more accurate to say animal poacher? That's a really controversial profession, did that bother you at all? 

I would say my character, he's not a desirable man. He's not a hunter in that he kills animals, he's taking them and selling them. I don't think he's a good guy, but he has to transform or learn a better way by the end of the movie. I love animals. But I liked it in the script that he was somebody that had a lot of edge, but he's not necessarily somebody I would want to spend time with. But he does go through a transformation by the end. The idea, ultimately, is that man is the problem and not the animals. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

See the trailer for Primal below.