There’s long been more than one Nicolas Cage, not only in the sense that the actor has for decades been a big-screen chameleon, but also with regards to the fact that the Oscar-winner’s internet fame has created a memeified persona that often feels divorced from the actual man and artist. Thus, Cage is the ideal person to play an ordinary American who becomes a ubiquitous overnight celebrity—and grapples with the pluses and minuses of that lofty status, over which he has little control—in Dream Scenario, a metaphysical satire about a college professor who, for inexplicable reasons, begins appearing in everyone’s dreams. For Cage’s Paul Matthews, it’s a simultaneously exhilarating and nightmarish situation, and it’s one that writer/director Kristoffer Borgli plumbs for loopy laughs and sharp jabs at our warped contemporary reality.
Produced by Ari Aster and A24, Dream Scenario is another in a string of recent Cage efforts—commencing with 2021’s phenomenal Pig—that demonstrate that the star is far more than simply the outrageous wild man that social media’s bite-sized video clips suggest. Like 2022’s amusingly self-parodic The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it’s a film that takes advantage of Cage’s real-world reputation and standing for fictional madness, which here takes off once Paul becomes intimately familiar to the world and, shortly thereafter, discovers that the spotlight can be a cruel place for those unprepared for the inevitable backlash.
Poking fun at viral popularity and cancel culture with quasi-surreal strangeness, it’s an off-kilter affair electrified by Cage’s turn as a less-than-well-adjusted nobody who learns that becoming a somebody isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. With the film now expanded into wide release, we spoke with the inimitable legend about his productive and diverse 2023, the parallels between Dream Scenario and his own life, and his surprising thoughts about retiring from the movies in the not-too-distant future.
They obviously weren’t all made this year, but you’ve appeared in seven 2023 theatrical releases: The Old Way, Renfield, The Flash, Sympathy for the Devil, The Retirement Plan, Butcher’s Crossing and now Dream Scenario. Does that speak to the fact that your passion for making movies is as strong as ever?
There’s two things going on. Yes, I do like to be on set. I think I’m at my best when I’m working, and I know what’s expected of me, and I love the process of making movies. But two, it was a logjam because many of these movies were backed up. They didn’t want to release them until we went through the pandemic and other things were going on, so they all just sort of magically came out at one time.
I guess the good news about that, because you never really want to have too many movies out at once, is that the characters are so varied, and there’s such a variety of different styles and genres, that ultimately it provides a great counterpoint to, for example, Dream Scenario. Miller in Butcher’s Crossing is nothing like Paul in Dream Scenario. One is very menacing, and the other is very benign. In that regard, I think it’s OK. But I’m not the one who’s doing the releases. I have no control. Once I make a movie, it goes into a factory of sorts and they decide when they want to release it.
What’s amazing is the diversity of these projects: two Westerns, a horror-comedy, a crime film, a psychological thriller, a superhero blockbuster and now this unique satire. Is it rewarding that you can still move so fluidly between so many genres? You’re the opposite of being pigeonholed.
Well, thank you. That’s one of the ways I always selected who was a good actor when I chose the film actors I admired. It was the ones who could change and could play different characters. I think the fact that all these different characters came out at once, in that regard, is a good thing, because it does show a range, and I’m happy about that.
However, the other good thing about it is, if I was ever going to say adios from filmmaking and cinema, now would be a great time, because I got it all done, I’ve said what I had to say, I made my contribution to cinema, and I’m kind of ready to try something else. I’m not saying that I’m going to retire just yet, but I am saying that maybe I have three or four movies in me in total, and I want to go somewhere else. Maybe Broadway, maybe television, I don’t know. I think it’s time, as a student, to try something new and challenge myself.
But you haven’t explored that sort of transition in any real way yet, I assume?
If you accept that you’re going to look at the work from a student’s perspective—not a master’s perspective, but a student’s perspective—you need to challenge yourself in the hopes of learning something, of growing in some way, of stretching in some way. You’re trying to expand and educate yourself. I think I’ve gone about as far as I can go with movies. You just said it yourself—all those different characters came out at one time, and they’re all different genres, and I want to try something else now.
I’d love to be able to say adios on Dream Scenario because I love the movie, and I think it’s one of my best movies, and you always want to leave with a bang, on a high note. But I am ready to try something else.
In Dream Scenario, your character Paul Matthews experiences both the highs and lows of mega-celebrity. Is maintaining a position in between those two extreme poles (beloved! Reviled!) difficult?
I think what separates Paul from me in this conversation is that he didn’t choose an occupation where he knew that he was going to be in the spotlight. He wasn’t a movie star or a rock star; he’s an evolutionary biologist working at a tiny university and he has some students and he wants to get a book published. That’s what makes his situation tragic. My situation, with the exception of the internet, I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t sign up to be a screen actor because I wanted to be famous or because I wanted to make money. I signed up to be a screen actor because I wanted to tell stories and play characters. From a very early age, I was interested in James Dean and what he did, and I got much from his performance in East of Eden, and I felt like I understood him and I wanted to try something like that.
But I did not sign up for viral celebrity, which is a word I don’t like—celebrity. I didn’t sign up for viral fame. That was something that was invented long after I’d already started doing movies like Valley Girl and whatnot. That was an adjustment. In that way, I’m like Paul. I had no idea it was coming, I couldn’t explain it, I was confused and frustrated by it. I was a little stimulated by it, but I didn’t know what to do with it.
That relationship to it makes sense.
There’s a good article in The New Yorker about how the internet has sort of reduced movie actors to punchlines. Part of that is the way it’s perceived, and there might be a positive element there in that it’s kept me in the conversation or in the zeitgeist, if you will. I think there was a vicarious response to the freak-out scenes from different movies that people enjoy, because we all want to behave like that but we can’t because we want to be good members of society. Through that, we can connect with that vicariously. So that landed. But I still didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t until I read Dream Scenario that I thought I’d found a character in a script where I could apply all those emotions that I was reeling from, and put it into Paul’s experiences and his dream-ification. That was the first time I felt I had done something constructive in my work with my memeification.
Did that memeification make you feel like you were losing yourself, in a way? Or at least losing control of your public self?
You’re right. That’s exactly what it was. It’s not the way I intended the performances to be received. I had no control over it. It wasn’t what I had in mind. The element of surprise and where it could go with a character. But I will say that it gave me the wherewithal to play this part authentically. I don’t think I could have played Paul the way I played him if I had not gone through my memeification.
Given the reductive nature of that memeification, was it important to empathetically humanize Paul, so that even though much of his viral saga is funny, he’s not a joke?
That’s exactly right. I didn’t really ever see the movie as a comedy. I played it dramatically, and that’s what Kristoffer, the director, wanted. He never wanted any of his actors going for laughs. He wanted us to play the scenes as authentically as we could, and dramatically. Consequently, it’s funnier, but it’s also tragic. I think this movie operates on multiple levels, and I would be remiss to try to put it in any one box or label it. That’s why I call the movie a masterpiece, because I think it’s enigmatic, I think it’s entirely original, I think it operates on many layers. It’s peeling an onion, and the character’s being stripped down, and in the end—I won’t give it away—it’s bittersweet.
I would agree with that.
Kristoffer is a director who imagined this whole concept. He constructed the screenplay, and he edits the movies himself. So he has his finger on the pulse of this movie, unlike most directors who don’t cut their own films. He’s right in the DNA of how he’s constructing the movie. And I think he’s a craftsman. So what is a masterpiece? It’s a work of art that an artist creates where nothing needs to be added, taken away or altered.
If you look at the idea of the movie being a dream, in its entirety—and that’s one way of receiving it—then you can see how the movie, and the ending, or however modular it is, it all coalesces. I think he’s done something quite brilliant here, and so original. I think he executed it perfectly. I wouldn’t change a frame of this movie.
Does Dream Scenario’s conclusion suggest that everything magical and amazing will ultimately be co-opted by commercial interests? And is that what you also think about the movies—and thus why you want to work with original artists like Kristoffer?
Absolutely. This movie and Pig, these are the kinds of movies I want to be making right now. I’m glad that, right before I turned 60, I got to make two of my favorite movies I’ve ever made. I’m glad I was still here to make them. I don’t want to get the phone call again, where it’s, oh, for Massive Talent, we’re going to put Nic’s face on all kinds of different movies in Walmart. We’ll put him over Terminator 2 and… why? What does that have to do with Massive Talent? Or, we’re going to get you on the McDonald’s Big Mac with National Treasure. I mean, why? I have nothing to say about that. I’m not part of McDonald’s and Walmart.
I don’t have to think about that stuff anymore when I’m making these movies, which are purely about the artistic expression and the joy of filmmaking and telling original stories. I wish I could make all my movies with someone like Kristoffer or Michael Sarnoski, and not get sucked into that hype machine that ties in all the commercialism. Which is what Paul Matthews is going through when they want to get people to dream about him holding a Sprite can [laughs]. I mean, that is brilliant! You do see how brilliant that satire is. I’m amazed that he could conjure this up, and he put it right there, brilliantly, in that two-hour feature-film narrative.
The reason I was surprised that you were considering retirement is that, between this film and Pig and Massive Talent, it feels like you’ve hit an ideal career groove. Are there more like-minded filmmakers, or projects, that you’re eyeing before you hang things up?
Maybe. If I find another script that I think I can do something fresh with it, learn from it. Maybe. I think the old guard, if you will, the keepers of the gate, have all made up their minds about me. I think what’s worked well for me is to keep looking for young filmmakers who may have grown up with me, and may have an idea of what they can do with my instrument that they find exciting, and who haven’t had their dreams ripped out of them. They’re fertile with imagination, their heads are on fire with great ideas. And that’s worked. Michael Sarnoski, I call him “Archangel Michael,” because he did something with me in Pig. I wasn’t going to get that from any studio or one of these silverback directors that have been around for a million years. And Kristoffer Borgli, with Dream Scenario—I feel most alive and vital and fertile when I’m working with people like that.
I’m a big fan of Oz Perkins, who I think is an underrated horror talent. What can you tell me about your upcoming collaboration Longlegs?
I’m so glad you brought that up; I’ve been wanting to mention this, because I want to get it out there. I saw that movie, Longlegs. First of all, I wanted to work with Oz because I loved his Gretel & Hansel movie, and I like the time he takes with his movies, and I think he has a very unique voice and he’s doing things with the genre that are special. Second, I wanted to play Longlegs in a way where… you know, you get these other characters in horror films, like Saw with Jigsaw, and they’re not fully formed people. They’re more like images to spook people. But I wanted to see if you could make a nightmare come to life. With Longlegs, I’m very happy with those results. To humanize a nightmare.
I played my mom, believe it or not. Oz told me at the get-go that he was basically making a movie about his mother, and I’ll let him tell you about his stories. But I said, well, I see this as my mother. So let’s make a movie about our mothers. And that’s what we did [laughs]. I played Longlegs with the vocal rhythms of my mom, and some of her body language and emotion. That’s what you’re going to see in this movie. It’s quite personal on that level.