Interview of the week: Nicolas Cage

By KAREN BUTLER, United Press International  |  Dec. 5, 2002 at 3:04 PM
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Nicolas Cage is a master of adaptation. In a career that has spanned nearly two decades, the versatile 38-year-old has transformed himself from teen idol ("Valley Girl,") to serious dramatic actor ("Leaving Las Vegas,") to comedian ("Raising Arizona,") to action star ("Con Air.")

This month, he reinvents himself -- twice -- with an outstanding dual role in Spike Jonze's upcoming comedy-drama, "Adaptation," and an impressive directorial debut with the gritty drama, "Sonny."

Asked if it is important for him to excel equally in all genres of film, Cage tells United Press International he chooses projects based on how original and interesting the story is to tell.

"I want a response. I want a reaction," he stated, explaining why he signs on for difficult projects like "Sonny" or "Adaptation," the tale of a real-life screenwriter struggling to adapt Susan Orlean's beautiful non-fiction book, "The Orchid Thief," to film, while his fictional twin brother finds unearned success cranking out Hollywood blockbusters.

"It's just that I read stuff and I react to it in my own way and it starts a mechanism in me going, and I go: 'Well, that's different, that's exciting. I haven't seen that before. I want to do that.' It's just the natural attraction to something."

Cage's roots are steeped in the filmmaking tradition. Nephew to famed "Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola, Cage is also cousin to "The Virgin Suicides" director, Sofia Coppola, wife of "Being John Malkovich" helmer Spike Jonze. Although Cage enjoyed his brief employment in the family business, he vows he will never give up acting to work behind the camera.

"Acting is always at the core of my life, but I'm also excited about producing," he said. "I'm excited about directing, and I have a life in the filmmaking world and so, I want to explore all aspects of it, not just the acting, but acting is the root."

That said, Cage admits he experienced a bit of anxiety the first day of shooting, "Sonny."

"I had never done this before!" he exclaimed. "The ace in the hole was I think I can talk to actors. There was terror like, 'Oh my God I'm actually doing this. The train has left the station and here we go!' I'm there at 5 a.m., feeling like a scared kid going to school for the first time. It was daunting."

Cage says he chose to make his directorial debut with "Sonny," a story about young people working in the New Orleans sex industry circa 1981, because he loved the script and originally planned to star in a film version. When more than a decade passed and no one would commit to direct it, Cage decided to make the film himself.

"The movie sort of went on the shelf and disappeared for a while," Cage recalled. "Although, I will say that it was on a few lists as one of the best scripts that had never been made into a movie in the 1980s, but one thing led to another and I didn't remember the script until many, many years later -- a little more than 15 years later. I thought, 'You know, I ought to read that again,' because I had started to entertain the notion of possibly directing a movie, and when I got it, I optioned it, I read it, and I found myself reliving all the same emotions that affected me the first time that I read it."

The film's title character is played by rising star James Franco, the lead in the acclaimed television biopic, "James Dean." Cage says he chose the young actor to portray the role he had originally intended to play because he and the enthusiastic Franco immediately hit it off.

"We looked at different actors and James came into my office, but I didn't know James' work. I immediately liked him. I liked his passion," Cage remembered.

"I liked how enthusiastic he was about the part and we were alone together and we just read together and he had so much emotion at his fingertips and such an ability to get in touch with the feelings of the character that I felt, 'This is the right guy for the job,' and I loved the way he looked. I thought that he looked great for the part, and then, when you think about a casting situation, that's a hell of a lot of pressure and to be that good in that kind of environment even though it was just the two of us, it's still an awkward thing to lay your soul on the line for a gig. I thought, 'This is only going to get better from here.'"

So, did Cage have to fight the urge to coach Franco to play the part the way Cage would have 15 years ago?

"No," he insisted. "I really believe in letting actors come into a part with their own instincts and that's what I encouraged, but at the same time, James and I would work on things together and share ideas. It was always done in a way that was very, you know, adventurous and creative, and we kind of inspired one another. You know, he, in a lot of ways, pushed me to take chances as a director and I'd come up with a crazy idea, and I'd say, 'Nah, I think that's too crazy,' and he'd say, 'No, I think that you better do it,' and the same with him. He was always open to exploring."

"Adaptation," co-starring Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, opens Friday. "Sonny" comes to theaters Dec. 27.

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