(Photo by © NEON)
It’s sometimes easy to forget in the blur of manic performances that have defined Nicolas Cage‘s work in the last decade – the chainsaw-wielding Red in Mandy, his wide-eyed murderous father in Mom and Dad, and other very “Nic Cage” roles that seem to come around every few months – that his is a career of chapters, each of which might singularly define a lesser performer, and that Wild Nic is just the latest. The star emerged in the 1980s as an edgy standout in zeitgest-capturing favorites (Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married), blossomed into romantic lead (Moonstruck) and A-list Oscar winner (Leaving Las Vegas), and crushed the box office a few times as an unlikely action hero in a string of Bruckheimer-produced ’90s favorites.
Then he went and recovered the Declaration of Independence as an Indiana Jones type in the National Treasure movies.
Even within these Nic Cage eras, though, he always managed a few surprises. Consider his vanity-be-damned dual-role as the Kaufman brothers in Adaptation, for which he was nominated for an Oscar during a seeming career slump; or his delightfully unhinged performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans, a turn that would set the tone for our current Nic Cage chapter but which, at the time, was a shock to the system and a turn of the page, even if it was some time coming.
Still, nothing in Cage’s career is as surprising, perhaps, as the new Certified Fresh drama, Pig. Here, Cage plays Rob, a onetime big-name chef who now lives as a recluse in the wilds of Oregon with his best friend, a foraging pig who scouts for the truffles that are his owner/buddy’s sole source of income. When the pig is stolen during a violent break-in at Rob’s cabin, expectations are set for a John Wick-style revenge tale – and another very Nic Cage performance – but writer/director Michael Sarnoski has other things on his mind. And so does Cage. What follows is a somber, moving, and at times wryly funny tale about a man who descends into Portland’s seedy underground foodie world (surprisingly violent), single-mindedly focused on retrieving the one thing in life he deeply loves. It is anchored by a quiet and deeply affecting performance from Cage, one that critics are calling a revelation and among the best work of his career.
The movie is a marker for Cage, too, who told Rotten Tomatoes that Pig came around at just the right time, both in terms of getting back to his roots in more dramatic, soberer fare – though he does get to utter the line “I don’t f–k my pig!” – and in reflecting events and developments in his real life. “I was feeling lost,” Cage told us. “I was feeling the need for isolation. I was feeling, ‘Oh, I’m no longer invited in Hollywood.’ Nor do I want to be invited in Hollywood. I have no interest in going back. I like making quiet little dramas. This is what I’m interested in.”
Ahead of the movie’s release in theaters, Cage spoke to us about this step away from his wild-man roles, what Pablo Picasso has to do with it, and a passion he shares with his latest character: good food and bold flavors.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: This movie has a bit of a strange conceit – the log line for this film is about a revenge-seeking truffle hunter! What was the pitch to you for the project when they were trying to get you on board? What was the thing that sold you on this story?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I can tell you “revenge” never came into the equation for me. I read the script, Michael [Sarnoski]’s script, and I immediately responded to it more as a kind of cinematic haiku, a poem, really, a meditation on loss and a character analysis of a person who had lost great love. I also felt that I was at a point in my own life experience, aggregate collection of memories and dreams and experiences, that enabled me to respond to Rob in such a way where I felt that nothing had to be forced, that I felt I understood Rob.
In fact, I told Michael over lunch that when I read his script I had a very evocative dream of my cat and something horrible happening to my cat, Merlin, who is one of my best friends. The relationship that you can have with our animal brothers and sisters, it’s so much closer in some ways, so much more profound, because it’s not corrupted by the noise of people and what that can harbor in terms of jealousies and angers. It’s just unconditional love.
So, I felt that those relationships – my relationship with my cat, my dog, who’s no longer with us – those are things that I could put into this performance and it’s a perfect time for it. When we all agreed to make the movie, we hadn’t been hit by the pandemic yet, but I think we’ve all gotten closer, even still, to our animal family, because we relied on them so heavily to get through that.
(Photo by © NEON)
Rotten Tomatoes: How old is Merlin, by the way? And was he helpful during the pandemic?
Cage: Merlin is two years old. Very, yeah. I relied on him quite a bit. He’s very affectionate, a Maine Coon cat. Really kind of like another son in some ways.
Rotten Tomatoes: What was your relationship like with the pig, or pigs, you were working with in this film? How was it working with them?
Cage: There was one pig. Her name was Brandy. Like many of us, she was very payment-oriented. She wasn’t really interested in people. If they wanted to get a soulful look in her eyes, they would show her a bit of carrot off camera; or if they needed her to go to a certain mark, they would put some food down. But I think that relationship was really developed with the eye of Michael Sarnoski and our director of photography. They figured out ways of photographing Brandy and Rob so that the relationship never lapsed into schmaltz or Hallmark-card sappiness. It was just a quiet witnessing of these two in the wilderness. I think that made it more heartfelt in some ways, but it was a lot to do with getting her in the right position with the food, and also photographing it in the right manner.
Rotten Tomatoes: You mentioned “soulful” and that I think is a very great word for this film and for your performance, and a lot of people have been saying this is a different Nicolas cCage than we’ve seen in a while. The last film I saw of you in was Prisoners of Ghostland and then I was re-watching Mandy last night. They’re very different from Pig, but it does feel, to me at least as a viewer, that there is a connection between Robin as a character and someone like Red [Cage’s character in Mandy], who also has tried to escape the world and has that peace disrupted. Do you think that Robin really is so different from some of the characters you’ve been playing lately? Or is there a connection?
Cage: I mean, he’s certainly different in the regard that he’s not motivated by revenge, but I do share that observation, that he’s similar to Red in that he’s dealing with tremendous loss, and loss of love, and the feelings that can evoke. I think what people in the media may be struggling with is that I have made it almost a mission of sorts to go into what I sometimes call a Western Kabuki style of film performance, almost an operatic style of film performance – by design. I mean, this was always very carefully and methodically choreographed and though-out, both vocally and dance-wise in terms of movement. I wanted to do that because I felt that we had gotten caught in a trap of naturalism as a style.
Not that I’m Picasso, I’m not saying that, but I remember one conversation that I had with my father, where I was very tripped out by Picasso’s portraits that seemed so abstract with people having eyes on the same side of their face. Like, what is this? I said, “Well, can he also do photo realistic drawing?” and dad said, “Absolutely. He broke free.” I always thought that what you can do in one art form, maybe you can do in another, and why not take a chance and attempt some sort of breaking-free with film performance? But somewhere along the way, I think I needed to remind myself – and, in fact, I think I needed to remind certain folks in critical response – that it wasn’t the only brush I painted with. I mean, I think Joe is a movie that I made not long ago that was as close to my true self as I could get in terms of what was important to him.
(Photo by © NEON)
Certainly, with Rob in Pig, I wanted to get back to a kind of a quiet, meditative, internalized performance. It was not difficult. It was something that I felt I had the life experience for and the memories and the dreams, if you will, to portray without forcing it. So when I read Michael’s script, it was exactly the right material at the right time for what I was trying to convey. I was feeling lost. I was feeling the need for isolation. I was feeling, “Oh, I’m no longer invited in Hollywood.” Nor do I want to be invited in Hollywood. I have no interest in going back. I like making quiet little dramas. This is what I’m interested in. But I can see where it would be shocking to the folks that remember me making five Jerry Bruckheimer movies back-to-back, which at that time was the challenge, in my opinion – no one thought I should do an adventure film or that I even had the wherewithal to do an adventure film, but I had grown up on Bronson and Eastwood and Connery, and I thought, “Well, that would be fun to at least try.”
It’s kind of a situation of wanting to stay interested and also stay challenged. At this moment, what interests me is getting back to my roots, which is quiet dramas.
Rotten Tomatoes: The film has a lot to say about food, different philosophies towards food, Robin’s passion, and everything just looks beautiful that we get to see you cook – or your stand-in cooks make – in the movie. Are you a cook in your own time? And do you have a specialty?
Cage: I want to go on record: I didn’t have any stand-in cooks. I can’t replace my hands. If I see someone else’s hand in front of my hand, I go, “No, no, no.” That takes me out of the movie. I had two excellent teachers, Chef Chris and Chef Rucker from Le Pigeon. Chef Chris taught me the mushroom tart, or pie, and then I learned the squab blueberry dish from Le Pigeon.
Food has always been important to me. Food is what I like to spend my money on. Food, to me, comes first. I think that the chefs today can do amazing things in the world of art, because without food, then nothing else really matters: Food, and then I can enjoy music and then I can enjoy painting and then I can enjoy a great cinema and then I can meditate or then I can write a poem. Whatever it is, food comes first.
I have tremendous respect for these people and I also understand the pressures that go into the world, the epicurean world. Because if you think about this art form – and it is an art – that’s the only one where they’re actually ingesting it physically into their body as an audience, or as a client, or as a foodie, or whatever you want to call it. There’s tremendous pressure and risk with that. You don’t want them to get sick. You want them to have a good experience. Everything matters. The ambience matters, the bread matters, everything. So it’s a high-pressure job and I wanted to convey the regard and the reverence that I have for what they do.
(Photo by © NEON)
Rotten Tomatoes: When you’re home, are you someone who has a go-to dish that you can whip up in five minutes?
Cage: If you’re asking me, am I a chef, I wouldn’t put myself at that level, but I can cook. I make a pretty good seafood arrabbiata pasta. I am passionate about putting different tastes together. I like Japanese food, I like Italian, and Chinese is probably the most complex. I think the continent of Asia, probably, in my opinion, has the greatest and most complex foods of the world. But I remember I once imagined a sweet shrimp or an ebi and I went to my sushi chef and I said, “Could you slice the sweet shrimp open and then could you put the uni inside the ebi and then can you put it on less rice, please, and then wrap it with the seaweed?” I had that taste in my mind and it was so beautiful when I got it.
So, I do like to put tastes together. I remember Joel Robuchon had something that was a… Wow. He put coffee grinds with uni frappe. I mean, who thinks to do that? Who thinks to put coffee and sea urchin together? It was one of the most amazing taste sensations I’ve ever had. So, yeah, I’m very interested in that world and I do like to play around.
I do Eggs Diablo – I really spice up my fried eggs over easy and I just kick in a lot of chili and red chili pepper flakes and some tomato paste. It’s a beautiful little dish that I like to make for breakfast, but yeah, I enjoy it.
The secret to great cooking for me is that you have to have respect for the actual ingredients. Sometimes these chefs get lost in overdoing it with the complexity of the sauce, because they’re trying to mask what’s wrong with the actual source, what’s wrong with the fish. But if you get a great piece of fish, treat it with respect. Just light olive oil, some garlic, some sea salt, bingo. Trip to the moon, man.
Rotten Tomatoes: I need to come to your place. Just finally, they’re giving me the wrap, but for your upcoming Joe Exotic series, are we going to get the Kabuki-style performance? How extreme are we going there?
Cage: That’s not going to be happening, I’m not playing Joe Exotic. We had two really excellent scripts, but I think … I don’t know. I think somewhere along the way, the studio felt that that was a fad that had come and gone and that it was a thing of the past. Frankly, I for one am okay with it because I have other things I want to explore and other characters I want to play.
I was a bit trepidatious about going into the television universe, too. One of the things I really love about independent filmmaking is that I can get in and I can get out. If there’s one problem in the chain of filmmakers, I know I’ve got just four more weeks to go; but a TV character, if there’s a problem and you’re stuck on location for six months, that does seem a little terrifying to me.
Pig is in theaters from Friday July 16, 2021.