PARK CITY, Utah — Nicolas Cage really gets into character.
As legend has it, while filming his role as a cocaine-huffing, Vicodin-popping, gleefully unhinged cop in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage was spotted in between takes doing bumps of a mystery powder out of a vial. When the film’s director, Werner Herzog, approached Cage to ask what he was snorting, the actor spun around and yelled, “It’s fucking coke!”
“That was an interesting day,” Cage says with a chuckle, readjusting the glistening gold rings adorning his fingers. “I had this little vial of inositol, which is a saccharine substitute. It looks like blow…but it’s not. I would do it to psych myself up all day long and really feel, from an impressionistic level, what that experience was like. And I got so into it that Werner would say, ‘Now Nee-co-las, vat is een that vial?’”
The query disrupted Cage’s process, and he went off. “I was like, ‘Oh come on, Werner. Really? I’m ready to go and you just take me out of it?! Get off my set! Get the FUCK off my set! Get out of my city!’”
He laughs: “I really pissed him off. I knew I was going in there to be his California Klaus Kinski and I was going to give him a run for his money, and we both love the movie and it worked out fantastic. So it was a good relationship.”
If you thought Cage’s turn in Bad Lieutenant was wild, wait till you see him in Mandy.
There is a sequence in the film, premiering in the “Midnight” section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, that can only be described as Peak Cage Rage.
The year is 1983. Having witnessed his soulmate, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), be burned to death by a pack of homicidal Jesus freaks, Cage’s Red Miller goes on a revenge-rampage. Armed with a crossbow—dubbed “The Widowmaker”—and a gnarly custom scythe, he stalks the wilderness in search of not only the religious sect, but also the trio of heavy-metal demons who aided in his beloved’s capture.
Cage encounters one of these hellspawns in a living room watching a vintage ‘70s porn with its head buried in a dune of cocaine. He lunges at the creature, who then flips Cage onto the ground before stabbing at him with his phallus, which happens to be a sword. So Cage, ever the resourceful lunatic, reaches for a box cutter and slits the beast’s throat, and, as a geyser of blood erupts into his face, cackles hysterically. If that weren’t enough, he gets up, grabs a piece of broken glass, scoops some of the leftover cocaine, and hoovers it.
“It was just all over the place, and I was trying not to choke on all the blood. And I just…I just started laughing!” explains Cage. “I thought that was a great moment in the movie.”
The midnight audience at Sundance did, too, hooting and hollering with each successive Cage killing. Yes, there’s no shortage of bloody mayhem in filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ latest—including plenty of beheadings and a ridiculously awesome chainsaw fight between Cage and a giant.
“Mythologies are violent things, and to be true to them, you have to go to primal territory,” says Cosmatos, who views Mandy as a companion piece to his last effort, 2010’s cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow.
And Cage, who’d recently suffered an accident in Bulgaria while filming the upcoming cops-and-robbers drama #211, had no problem getting “primal.”
“I’d just gotten off of breaking my leg two months earlier and I was pretty angry about how that happened, so I would just keep going back to that experience,” says Cage. “Getting that anger onto the people that killed Mandy was the organic approach for that.”
And in the decade since Cosmatos began working on Mandy, the mythologizing of Nicolas Cage has only grown, replete with online memes, video mashups, bonkers genre fare, and even a stolen T-Rex skull—all the better for his latest, which seeks to capitalize on the Cage mystique.
When, exactly, did Cage become a pop culture icon? I’d argue the transformation began with 1996’s Michael Bay flick The Rock, one of the greatest action movies of all time. Audiences admired how Cage, fresh off of winning the Best Actor Oscar for his devastating turn as an alcoholic with a death wish in Leaving Las Vegas, bucked industry expectations in next portraying the eccentric chemical weapons specialist Stanley Goodspeed.
“I had just shot Leaving Las Vegas and then I was rolling into a big action-adventure film, which wasn’t really done back then,” recalls Cage. “Now you see actors doing it all the time where they mix it up, but at the time I took a lot of hits for it because I zigged instead of zagged.”
According to the Criterion Collection edition of The Rock, which was assembled by Cage, he created the character whole cloth: a “chemical superfreak” who loves The Beatles, doesn’t curse, is ridden by anxiety, and talks way too much during sex.
“Is this a red wine guy? Is he a beer drinker? I’m always looking at every detail to a character,” says Cage. “And I knew that I was in a structure in terms of adventure films, and [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer would say, ‘You can do what you want with the character as long as it propels the story and gets us to the car chase,’ so it’s almost like a slideshow of how I could build the character.”
He continues: “I had to be very quick and succinct as to, OK, I’ll make him be a Beatlemaniac, have the LP be vinyl instead of CD, not curse, and incorporate all these details into the character to let him be alive. I didn’t want him to be some meathead who’s just going to take people out. So they let me do that, but at that time it was still a process for me to figure out how to propel the adventure movie with my idea of what I could do with the character, within the broader context.”
Cage followed The Rock up with the one-two punch of Con Air and Face/Off, arguably the three best action films of the ‘90s, et voila: a legend was born.
“The audience never gave me crap. It was the media,” he says. “They didn’t think that an ‘Academy darling’ should do these kinds of movies, and I was like, well, I didn’t get into this for awards. I love all kinds of movies.”
And god bless him for it.