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Nicolas Cage on Playing Nicolas Cage: “I Wanted No Part of It”

The Oscar winner candidly discusses his struggle to play himself in his new comedy 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,' his "mutual departure" with Hollywood, why he's become a meme favorite, and whether he'd be down for 'Face/Off 2.'

When Nicolas Cage first heard the premise of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, he was vaguely offended.

In writer-director Tom Gormican’s comedy, a fictionalized, egocentric, down-on-his-luck version of Nicolas Cage accepts a $1 million offer from a wealthy mega-fan (Pedro Pascal) to attend a party in Spain and finds himself in a real-life action-adventure and tumbling down a rabbit hole of references to his past roles.

“I turned it down three or four times,” Cage tells The Hollywood Reporter in a candid and in-depth interview ahead of the film’s March 12 premiere at SXSW.

An impassioned letter from Gormican (Ghosted) eventually won him over. But even after wrapping production, the actor was convinced he couldn’t stomach the funhouse mirror experience of watching himself play himself (until, that is, he was forced to do it).

Fortunately, the movie will be anything but torturous for audiences — Unbearable Weight just might be Cage’s most accessible live-action work in years. It’s a feel-good comedic adventure with Cage in a dual role as himself and, occasionally, his imaginary alter ego “Nicky” (a bombastic CG-smoothed 1990 version of Cage). Coming off his acclaimed dramatic performance in last year’s indie fav Pig, the 58-year-old discusses the psychological roller coaster of making Unbearable Weight, explains the method behind his onscreen madness, his “mutual departure” with Hollywood, and whether he’d be down for Face/Off 2.

What was your initial reaction to this idea?

I wanted no part of it. But when I got Tom’s letter, then I thought, “OK, he’s not just trying to mock so-called Nick Cage; there is a real interest in some of the earlier work.” His tone was more of a celebration of some of [the actor’s iconic onscreen] moments — like being at the bottom of the pool in Leaving Las Vegas or [using] the gold guns in Face/Off.

What really put the hook in me was a sequence that is no longer in the movie. It was a sequence where the Nick Cage character goes into a series of vignettes that are all stylized in the German expressionism of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. So there was a sequence in black and white that was a Gone in 60 Seconds race in a Mustang, there was the Leaving Las Vegas character in a hotel room. It was fun to make and cool to look at. Ultimately, the studio decided it was too far out for audiences.

I [also] really responded to the Nicky character, this younger version of myself. They were [initially] talking more about like having the character be like Cameron Poe from Con Air — but that’s not me. Look at my appearance on the Wogan show in England when I was promoting Wild at Heart. That guy was an obnoxious, irreverent, arrogant madman. That’s the young version of me that I think that I would be confronting as the contemporary Nick Cage.

Anybody watching this film is going to wonder: Your family life aside — because that’s clearly fictionalized — how close is the main Nick Cage character to your actual offscreen personality?

Not very close. And it’s hard to put family life aside — that is the biggest departure in Tom’s movie. I always put my family first, and I have turned down some enormous opportunities as a result of that. When I was in a divorce situation [in 2001 from Patricia Arquette], I wouldn’t leave [my son] Weston to be in New Zealand for three years shooting The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix. My choice was always wanting to stay in L.A. and be with my son.

Tom’s argument, which is a good one, was, “Well, this is a movie. We’re telling a story, and the idea is this character is evolving.” And I get that, but I have to go on record that that is a pretty big difference. A version of Nick Cage that doesn’t want to spend time with his kid doesn’t exist.

I also said to Tom, “I don’t use that much profanity.” He’s got me saying the F-bomb every other sentence. Where’s this coming from? That’s not me. He said, “Neurotic Nick Cage is the best Nick Cage.” I have a lot of quiet moments at home with just my cat, reading. Do we want to show any of that? No, because it’s not fun.

The Nick Cage in the movie feels his career is not where it should be. Do you feel that way? That, despite all your success, there’s a level of performance, acclaim or box office you need to hit again?

The funny thing is, when Pig came out, it hit with indie audiences and not only with indie audiences. I called Tom and said, “We’re going to have to rewrite the entire script now.” But the thing was, there was a mutual departure that happened [between me and] Hollywood somewhere along the way. I started reading a lot of philosophy. I stopped being interested in going to awards shows and selling myself. I made a decision to pursue a life of contemplation. And simultaneously, I had movies like Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Ghost Rider and Drive Angry — three in a row that didn’t work out. There was this marginalization that happened while I was also more interested in philosophy and meditating. So those two things happened at once.

But I don’t think the phone ever stopped ringing. I went back to my own interests in independent drama — that’s always been my roots — and I just kept working. If you look at [my total] worldwide box office after 43 years of cinema, [I’m] approaching something like $6 billion. Three flops aren’t going to completely eradicate you from Hollywood studios.

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Pedro Pascal and Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

The film pokes fun at the idea that you say yes to a lot of projects. In 2019, you had seven movies. Your character explains it the way you have explained it in past interviews: You like to keep working. So my question is: What happens when you stop working that you don’t like?    

Well, see, that’s a good question. I had to make a very clear choice. I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to file for bankruptcy. Whatever happened to me in 2009 [when Cage had a flurry of financial woes, including having to pay the IRS $14 million in back taxes], I made the decision to work my way out of it. But I only did movies where I thought I could bring something authentic to them. I turned a lot of crap down. But I do think that the constant amount of working — which is probably going to continue — has made me better at my job.

I developed this mantra, which is: “I never had a career, I only have work.” And when I say that, I am saying that I’m a better man when I’m working because I don’t want to be that guy that’s sitting by a pool getting bombed on mai tais and Dom Perignon.

I have been that guy in between jobs and it’s only fun for maybe two days and then you’re like, “I gotta get healthy.” So work has always been a place where my job is to get up in the morning, to work out, to do 5 to 8 miles on the elliptical, I lift weights, I look at the news, I feed all my animals and then call my boys. [When I’m on set], I’m focused, I’m working with other actors. I have a very clean life when I’m filming, and that’s important to me.

Along the way, has there been a title where you’ve looked back and gone, “That’s one I wish I hadn’t done”?

There’s a difference between remorse and regret. I don’t have any regret. And when I say that, what I’m trying to say is that I’m applying my mistakes to my present so that I learned to improve on myself and be a better man. And I do think every movie I’ve made that hasn’t worked has all led me to this place where I’m at now, where I can do a movie like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and I can tell the story with some integrity and authenticity to it. Everything happened for a reason. I have to look at it like that because that’s the healthiest and most positive way of looking at it.

One film that’s referenced a few times in the film is 1997’s Face/Off, which is such a fan favorite. There’s been recent talk of a sequel, and that there’s a script reportedly in the works with writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard attached. Is that a story you would like to revisit?

I have not heard hide nor hair about it. So often these things we read about are just conjecture without any base or foundation to it. I feel the same about National Treasure 3. It’s been 14 years. There’s no there, there. So, is it fun to think about? Sure. Would [Face/Off 2] be an exciting movie to make? Oh, hell yeah. But John Woo was such a huge voice in that movie. It couldn’t be a remake. I think these filmmakers even said as much — that something like that would have to be a sequel.

You obviously did Ghost Rider and, since then, Marvel has grown so huge and you’re a known comic fan. Have you ever been tempted to try and go back into that world?

These are hot topics, and I get it, because these are the types of things that become like wildfire on the internet. I’ve always admired the realm of the comic book and I’ve always thought stories were really colorful and entertaining and, frankly, kind of wholesome in a really positive way. I don’t know what the umbrage is with people that want to knock them. I certainly think there’s great value in that they’re bringing happiness to people.

You’re about to attend the premiere of Unbearable Weight at SXSW. You previously declared that you will never watch the movie. Are you sticking to that?

So let me go on record now: I have had to watch the movie two or three times because I had to put my other hat on — as a producer — because I got caught between the studio and the director. I think both sides ultimately contributed equally to making the best final result we could. But I had to come in and say [to the studio], “Look, I understand you’re trying to get a certain length to the picture, but you’re losing a lot of the flavor Tom brought.” I also had to say, “I think some of these scenes are not landing, Tom.” Both sides were coming in with valid points, and I had to be a mediator.

And what was that like for you? 

It was a mental decision to turn half of my brain and my heart off, and be as neutral about it as I could be and simply look at it as a movie, and pretend I’m not in the movie and just see what’s working. I just made a conscious choice that I’m not going to get emotions or ego involved. I don’t think I want to watch it again. I think the movie is good. I think it’s funny. But, you know, that’s enough for me. It is a trip man, man. It is a trip to have to watch two versions of yourself acting off of each other.

There’s obviously many references to your previous work. Personally, I liked the “not the bees” nod. Was there anything you were like, “Let’s not do that one,” or “Let’s add this in there”?

I put “not the bees” in there. That wasn’t in the script. I was sending that up. This was an opportunity to play with the memeification that has transpired around that. [Fans have] created this other persona that has a life of its own. It’s like their Frankenstein’s monster, and so I’m playing with that. There were a few things I predominantly already spoke about.

About that: There are so many products inspired by you online — like the creepy Nick Cage sequin pillow that is shown in the film. What do you think when you see something like that?

The main thing that goes through my head is, “Why?” There are a lot of other actors who are far more famous than I am that don’t have this. Maybe this has something to do with the characters I played and the way the internet cherry-picks facial expressions that I made the choice to do in film because I wanted to break free from naturalism. You go back to silent movie stars, German expressionism, I was trying to be abstract. Naturalism is a style, and I wanted to get more expressionistic. In movies like Vampire’s Kiss or Face/Off, these characters are larger than life and all had issues — whether it be mental illness or drug addiction or whatever. There’s an organic engine driving this behavior, and that was why I made the decision to apply myself and experiment. I can honestly tell you that whatever I designed, choreographed or vocalized, I always made sure there was genuine emotion behind it.

I think the internet’s response to it, that they’ve tapped into it vicariously, is because these characters are doing things we all want to do, but we’re too well-behaved to actually do in our own lives. We’re good citizens, but I’m fairly certain we all want to blurt something out every now and then — or chant the alphabet. In a way, it’s gratifying. Ultimately, it meant there’s a connection with the audience, and people are getting something from it. That’s positive.

Finally, you’ve frequently said that your best friend is your Maine Coon cat Merlin, who you mentioned earlier. I just adopted my first cat. What are your tips for having a great relationship with your cat?

I think the key is to respect them. And to let them come to you. The hand is very important. When you pet them, that connection is the great reward. When they start purring, you know they genuinely appreciate you being there. Lately, Merlin and I have had some issues because I got a little Pomeranian and he’s not happy about that. But Merlin is an unusual cat. It’s not the same as the other relationships I’ve had with cats throughout the years. There’s a real, almost human level of affection emanating from him which is almost like a son. It’s pretty intense.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

PMRC, which owns THR, has a 50 percent stake in SXSW.