Nicolas Cage may have the most unclassifiable body of work of any actor in movies today. He began his career with teen roles in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Valley Girl and uncle Francis Coppola’s Rumble Fish, went off the wall for Raising Arizona, Wild At Heart and Vampire’s Kiss, won a Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and then somehow became a big-budget action star in films like The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off. The odd trajectory defines the actor to this day, but behind all of Cage’s (seemingly puzzling) film choices there’s been one constant: his fierce dedication to each and every role, whether he’s crafting performances for Spike Jonze, Ridley Scott and Werner Herzog or headlining Disney tent-poles and comic-book capers. This week, Cage nurtures his fantasy fetish as a 14th-century knight in Dominic Sena’s supernatural actioner Season of the Witch, while he continues filming on the Ghost Rider sequel with Crank directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine.
We got the chance to speak with Cage recently, where we asked him to name his all-time five favorite films. “It’s a shame because there are so many more,” he says, considering his choices, “but if I had to go with the five, I’d pick the ones that changed my life.”
Read on for his thoughts on Season of the Witch, the Ghost Rider sequel, and why, he says, he’s going through his horror movie period.
The first two, I’m gonna go with Elia Kazan, ’cause they’re really the reason why I became an actor in movies. East of Eden, with James Dean, and A Streetcar Named Desire, with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. The performance by James Dean — the scene specifically where he tries to give his father, played by Raymond Massey, the money from selling the beans on his birthday, and he’s rejected — it broke my heart; it was not like anything I’d experienced before, in terms of art, and I’d seen a lot of movies at that point. I was 15, and I’d seen Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Welles’ Citizen Kane — great films, but when I saw Dean in that, it really put the hook in me because I felt like him and I knew then the power of film acting, and I knew then what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do to try to move people with motion pictures. So that’s why I have to put that on the list.
Yes, I admired Marlon Brando and I know that he influenced James Dean and he really kind of changed the world of film acting with his naturalistic style, but it was because of Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche DuBois that I would put that as one of my favorite movies; because of her dialog, the Tennessee Williams dialog, the music, Kazan’s direction, and Vivien Leigh’s delivery of lines like — I’m paraphrasing — but when she says, “the human heart, how can that be straight?”, you know. It was such a powerfully vulnerable, tragic performance that I have to put that on the top five, because that movie held that performance.
Then I’m gonna go into Kubrick. 2001, because it is so enigmatic, it is so poetic, and it remains a mystery to me, even today where I can view it annually, three times a year, and still find something new in it. I’m still mystified by it. It achieved this status of being eternal in a way that didn’t rely heavily on performance; it was the special effects, the music. The fact that it was a success, that it was a commercial success, and it challenged every critic — many critics didn’t get it — so it was really ahead of its time. Nothing’s been ever quite like it again.
Because of Malcolm McDowell I’m gonna go into A Clockwork Orange, because that was the other great teenage performance, along with James Dean in East of Eden. Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of the subject of violence and the mystery of nature and to go against out natures and what is or isn’t necessary, and what is the true evil, and all of these questions that came out of the absurdist and evocative film that is Clockwork Orange, again, is everlasting. And also his lighting: even today when you look at some of the stills from the movie, when they’re in the Milk Bar, it looks like virtual reality and I don’t know how he did it — he was really a master of light.
Finally I’m gonna say The Wizard of Oz, because that movie, again, is not like any other film — it’s a completely original experience and it has stood up against the test of time. Children are still enchanted by it, adults are still enchanted by it, and nobody has ever been able to capture that feeling since; and it’s a musical. Plus, that first introduction to color film, that doorway sequence and going in to Munchkin land — it’s just mind-blowingly beautiful. And her performance, her voice, Judy Garland — you know, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. So, I would say those would be the top five.
Next, Nicolas Cage on his supernatural phase, the absurdity of The Wicker Man, and returning to Ghost Rider.
RT: Did you enjoy making Season of the Witch?
Oh yeah, this was a real adventure for me. I’d wanted to play a knight for quite some time because it was a childhood fantasy of mine, and here I was finally getting to do that — and dealing with supernatural forces that are becoming increasingly interesting to me, because I want to celebrate the movies of people like Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. I’m really trying to build a body of work that does that now. I don’t want to do one kind of film only; I am eclectic and that’s how I stay interested. So right now I’m in that phase, of movies that go into horror and mystery and the unknown.
Christopher Lee’s in the film — did you two talk about The Wicker Man and what it was like remaking his film?
Yeah, we did talk about that. First of all, I’m a huge fan of the original movie and his performance in it is outstanding, and I had to share that with him. We talked a little bit about the remake and he wanted to know what happened and I just said well, look, the movie was true to Neil LaBute’s kind of intentionally absurdist black comedy view of relationships between men and women — and we went for it. Let me put it to you this way: you don’t get dressed up in a bear suit and do those kinds of things to women and not know it’s ridiculous [laughs]. The problem is people didn’t know that we knew that it was what it was; hopefully now they will. I mean, I don’t know how they couldn’t know that, but that’s okay.
The film’s sort of become a cult item over time as people realize how absurd it is.
[laughs] I think so too and I think some things take time to mature, and with hindsight become a lot more understood.
You’re working with Dominic Sena again on Season; had you been looking to do something together after Gone in 60 Seconds?
Well I really enjoyed working with Dominic on that movie. He makes you feel comfortable and you feel relaxed and that you can be creative. In this case he really had a chance to show his visual style. Gone in 60 Seconds was much more of a straight-up urban action film whereas Season of the Witch goes into far more imaginative places and more expressionistic places and Dom’s really great at that in terms of lighting and landscape. I’m glad he had a chance to do that because I don’t know how many people are aware of his ability in that department, but it’s pretty immense.
The year ahead is looking typically busy for you. Have you wrapped the Ghost Rider sequel?
Not yet. I’m about a third of the way through. It’s going very well.
How different is it from the original?
It’s very different. I’m a fan of the first one but that one was more of a fairy tale where as this one is a completely different kind of animal, and that’s what the directors wanted. But I have to say that I’ve never worked with anybody quite like Neveldine and Taylor before. It’s a brand new experience. Mark Neveldine is doing things with the camera that are just mind-blowing. He’s a combination stuntman/camera operator/director and I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s on rollerblades hanging off the bike, hanging from wires that are 300 feet up in the air, I mean he’s getting these shots and virtually risking his life. There’s nobody else that really does any of that. And Brian Taylor is just so knowledgeable about filmmaking: in the same sentence you can talk about Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and then go into Ishirô Honda’s War of the Gargantuas — he just knows movies. And he’s totally been encouraging about me playing the Ghost Rider as well as John Blaze and this has opened up all sorts of new doors. It was because of him and his passion that we were able to go into areas that I think will really mess with people’s minds; some really abstract, kind of wild supernatural stuff that’s a lot of fun.
Season of the Witch is in theaters this week.