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November 2004
National Treasure: An Interview with Nicolas Cage


National Treasure: An Interview with Nicolas Cage

By Todd Gilchrist

Nicolas Cage started his career as an audacious, ambitious actor who would do anything- including eating a live cockroach or knocking out his two front teeth- for a prospective role. Thankfully, he hasn't changed, even as the industry offers him those challenges far less often. In the past several years, he's played agoraphobic con men ("Matchstick Men"), self-reflective screenwriters ("Adaptation") and dedicated servicemen ("Windtalkers"). This month, he returns to the action hero mold he set more than a decade ago with the likes of "Con Air" and "The Rock", reuniting with producer Jerry Bruckheimer for the adventure film "National Treasure". Cage recently spoke to blackfilm.com about getting pumped for his latest role, and continuing to find those unique opportunities in an industry ruled by commerce, not art.


Are you still able to find the challenges you were able to find in your early career?

Nicolas Cage: Yeah. I've always maintained that I see myself as a student. There's always something to learn and be challenged by and hopefully grow from. So absolutely.


Of all the action films you get offered, what was it about this one that struck your fancy?

NC: I think that the very thing that made me trepidatious was the same thing that intrigued me, which is the idea of a man going in and stealing the declaration of Independence. I thought: this doesn't seem very plausible, and how can this actually be pulled off. I met with John Turteltaub and he said: But that's what's interesting. He's audacious. He's bold.' And Jerry Bruckheimer always brings in a great group of technical advisers who do the research and try to figure out exactly how to make it within the context of the film seem as believable as possible. And I got to do it in a tuxedo, so that was interesting to me as well.


Do you ever see yourself as bold as this guy?

NC: Without going into too much detail, I have had my obsessions, and he certainly is a character who's obsessed about this treasure, this marvelous Templar treasure, and has devoted his entire life and groomed himself to figure out exactly what he needs to do to find it in the face of great ridicule. And I think I've been obsessed over the years with where I could go with acting, or how I could challenge myself with that, if that answers your question.


Turning 40 changed you?

NC: Well, I always add a year to myself, so I'm prepared for the next birthday. So when I was 39, I was already 40, and now I'm 41 (laughter). It makes me - I'm feeling - I don't want to say happy because that's too fragile a word, but I'm definitely content, and I'm hopeful about the future, although I'm spending most of my time thinking about the present.


How make this believable?

NC: I think you have to give yourself over to the context of the movie and go along for the ride. Which is what I did. I saw it for the first time the other night with the audience, and I was very happy with the way it all seemed to work logically within the willful suspension of disbelief. I enjoyed it. It has a certain spirit which is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but it parts company with Indiana Jones in that there's nothing supernatural about National Treasure. There's enough there that we can wonder about, that we can think about in terms of - does this treasure really exist, and indeed several highly intelligent people who believe it exists have risked their lives looking for this buried treasure.


Wearing a tuxedo: James Bond come to mind?

NC: Well, I think that always comes up whenever there's a tuxedo - comes to one's mind. Cary Grant comes to one's mind. It's interesting because in the beginning, during the rehearsal process, I wasn't exactly sure what the tone of the movie was going to be. And it was Jon Turteltaub to his credit who kept sort of pushing it towards a stylization not unlike what maybe Vary Grant or Jimmy Stewart might have done in the Thirties and Forties, where they seemed to have a very playful touch during these caper movies.


Talk about Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha.

NC: Justin and Diane both have wild senses of humor. They're both very mischievous and kind off the wall in their sense of humor, as am I. As you can imagine, we got along great and had a lot of laughs on the set as well as off the set. We'd go and karaoke from time to time (laughs). And sort of blow it out and be completely ridiculous, which helped, I think. The playfulness and chemistry amongst the three of us - I think it was some Rage Against the Machine, AC/ DC and some Sex Pistols. I think what we did, again in the rehearsal process, tried to work it out - discover the tone of the movie. With all of Jerry Bruckheimer's movies, you sort of tinker things and tweak things on the way, which can be very nerve-wracking, but it can also be very electrifying and spontaneous. You might come up with an accidental discovery that works. And you can also fall off the high wire on your face and completely embarrass yourself. But fortunately with Jerry, he surrounds you with people who really are about as good as it gets in the business - great actors, all the best writers, that sort of tweak it as you go along, terrific editors. So you're pretty safe.


Better not to be married to an actress?

NC: I'll just say that I'm very content at this time in my life.


About people being displeased with America and how will react to movie.

NC: I don't want really want to take any political grandstand here. I do feel that with some of the moments that are touched upon - and this isn't by any means really an historical movie, it's still very much an adventure film in that spirit - it's nice to remember what the founding fathers did. I mean, these were geniuses and it's amazing they were all alive at the same time and knew one another and debated and shook hands and created philosophies and rules by which we still live today. I think there's something to learn from them still and to go back to that and review that - maybe that would be helpful.


Tried on your Ghost Rider costume yet?

NC: I haven't. I'm very curious about that. However, I m still in talks about that particular movie. It's not a definite at this point.


Attracted to comic book films in general?

NC: Comic books for me as a young man were one of the ways I learned how to read. There were other ways too, but I was always fascinated by the mythology of them. Because I used to Greek myths, so I discovered a kind of kindred spirit in the mind of Stan Lee and also DC Comics. And I always felt that they would be successful in film as well even before they became successful, and I knew the big three would be Batman and Superman and Spiderman. I guess the reason I responded to them was that they had the fantasy of the child's mind, and they're a wonderful alternative world to sort of lose yourself in.


Something about other comic roles?

NC: I can't think of anything. I think if this doesn't work, that's pretty much it. I've never made a comic book film and I'll just sort of enjoy my nostalgic memories of them as a boy. I don't read them any more. It's something that really came from the past.


You've been attached to project for so long, what the problem?

NC: Again, it's really just the vision of the movie and how it will be portrayed. It's really talks about script and things like that. It's true that I was involved with Ghost Rider over three years ago and was trying to develop it with another filmmaker. These things are very sensitive. It's a bullseye and you really have to hit it; otherwise it may not work. So it's best for everyone to be cautious and make sure it's got the right auspices.


Did you try on the Superman costume with Tim Burton?

NC: I was never going to do Spider-Man. I know they talked to me about playing the Green Goblin, but it was at the same time I was offered Adaptation. And I was wanting to play twins in a movie, so that's why I opted for Adaptation. Also, I like Spike Jonze's work quite a bit. I also like Sam Raimi very much as well. But it just seemed like Adaptation would give me more of an opportunity to learn something. Superman, yeah, I did do that. I went pretty far down the road with Tim Burton on that. And at the time, Warner Brothers just wasn't ready to pull the trigger so to speak on the script because it was getting incredibly expensive and that was at a period in their career, Warner Brothers, where they were being cautious with the money.


What inspired you to believe in yourself that you could become a famous actor?

NC: Well, at a very early age, I'm talking six, seven, eight, I would watch television and I would see Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West or I'd see Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood and be fascinated by the magic of filmmaking. And would walk to school and actually have crane shots worked out in my mind where the crane would be pulling up and looking down at me as a tiny object in the street walking to school, so I guess it was something that was very pure and organic in me that wanted to be a film actor. I just loved more than comic books, I loved movies. I loved watching the TV and getting lost in films. Anything that stimulated my imagination. My imagination in those early years was really what inspired me and protected me.


How did your family support you?

NC: I kept it pretty close to the vest. I don't think a lot of people knew that I wanted to be an actor. I mean, there were little hints. I enjoyed Halloween and liked disguising myself, wanted to be a disguise artist, thought I was going to be a detective. I remember there was a TV show on where there was a disguise artist detective. So I was into that. I was always transforming myself and play acting, so I guess they might have had an inkling that it might lead to this. I don't think anyone- - no, I rephrase. I don't think anyone really thought for certain that I would actually become a film actor.


Are you surprised how successful you've become?

NC: That's an interesting question that I sometimes get asked. I don't really know that I have the same perception of myself that other people may or may not have. I don't really look at myself as a successful person. I always look at myself as someone who's trying to find the next place to go or the next thing to discover or improve upon. I have a difficult time looking at the cup half full. I always tend to look at it half empty.


Will you play Skeletor?

NC: No. I don't know anything about that.


Work with Woo again?

NC: You know, I think John Woo's a terrific filmmaker and I would love to work with John again. I think we have a good rapport together.


Working with Bruckheimer over the years?

NC: I think over the years we've cultivated a shorthand. We've discovered what each of us bring to the table. He's a producer who very much encourages his actors to come up with ideas and then he goes through a selection process to see what he feels will work or not work within the context of keeping the train moving. Jerry has a vision which is an honest one. He's a terrific movie fan. He loves going to the movies and he likes films that I think are very entertaining to himself and to many other people. So it's a vision that a lot of people share. But what's unique about Jerry is that he really does look in interesting places for his actors, and even writers. He's always looking for someone who might come up with an unexpected choice, something a little bit outside the box which you can see in Con Air. He used a lot of the independent film actors in that, with Johnny in Pirates, John Malkovich. And then he has a sense of nostalgia for veteran actors like Duvall or Jon Voight or Hackman. He does have a terrific amount of taste for talent.


Scenes with Harvey Keitel?

NC: He is, and there's another example of Jerry Bruckheimer casting somebody who we've all sort of grown to know in more independent material and challenging, edgy material. Harvey and I work extremely well together. We both have an odd angle and take on life. I don't know if insane is too harsh a word, but it's sort of a playful and unusual perception which I think mixed well for the two of us.


Why was South Africa the right place to make Lord of War?

NC: South Africa is a fascinating location because it can model for so many other locations. Lord of War is a world stage. It takes place in many different areas. You have Manhattan, you have Ukraine, you have Liberia. And so there's so many locales that you can actually use South Africa for, it becomes very convenient. It's much less expensive to shoot there and now I believe even Dreamworks is going to be building a studio out there. The way the tide is going now, it's becoming increasingly rare to shoot a movie here at home. It just is the way it is. It's simple economics. If you can do a $120 million movie for $80 million in South Africa, then that's what the studio is going to do.


Your character?

NC: It's one of those characters that I guess if you were to take Scarface and replace the drugs with guns, he's a gun runner and he's always figuring out where the political climate is in the world to get rich and sell the right amount of guns, and really has no ethics as to picking sides. He just has got his calculator. And needless to say, it's a politically charged movie.


Do you ever think about slowing down and working less?

NC: I always think about that. I took a year almost off after Matchstick Men to find my next picture which was National Treasure, so I just sort of hit a spurt where there were screenplays that seemed interesting enough and diverse enough to me to want to continue working.


Bruce's question about diversity of roles, how do you look at genres and roles?

NC: For example, I have eclectic taste. I wouldn't want to be on one steady diet of any type of movie and so I think that informs my choices as well. I have eclectic tastes in the movies I want to do. I think it's dangerous when you get trapped in an identity that is one way. I mean, it can work because then the audience knows what they're going to get, and they can rely on that person to do that type of movie every time. But that would be very boring for me and I would be calcified by that. I love keeping myself guessing and keeping you guessing. I don't want to just do independent movies and I don't want to just do adventure films. I enjoy both, and I think both are cogent. I always have. I'm the first to admit that I like going to- - or my memories at least of going to Clint Eastwood movies or Charles Bronson or James Bond. Bruce Lee, I always forget to mention him. He was a huge inspiration for me and when I was a kid, I was Bruce Lee in my mind. And what I like about it is it makes me happy and I think it makes a lot of people happy to go to the movies and to not think about the problems of the day or the problems of tomorrow or the yesterday and just go on for the ride and have the fun of losing oneself in a fantasy.


Any more directing?

NC: That's the one area that I am slow to pull the trigger on because I feel that I am still cutting my teeth in that area and I'm still sort of finding myself as I go along. I'm very happy with Sonny and it was a challenging move. It was, I think a movie that was difficult for people to grasp because the subject matter is somewhat taboo, but that's the very thing that I think is stimulating to me and I have to look very carefully to find the next script that I think would fit in that. In that regard, I think I am trying to find my identity.


Question about music he was playing as a kid.

NC: You see I wasn't listening to any of that stuff when I was a kid. My father was a strong advocate of classical music and so was my family, Carmine Coppola is a terrific composer and conductor and this was always around me in the house so I didn't want to offend my father and play rock and roll. I was trying to win his appreciation and love so I'd be listening to classical music. So I was a late bloomer when it came to rock and roll, very late bloomer.


So what blew the doors off?

NC: The Beatles and A Day in the Life. That blew the doors off. Still does.


You had the name Benjamin Franklin in the movie, that's a national treasure in itself, did you mine any inspiration from that?

NC: Did I mine any inspiration from that? No, not really. That was my name in the movie and I went with it.


Make a connection with the childhood side?

NC: I think so, yes, very much so. I mean at the end of the day it's impossible at certain times not to, on the set, take a look at yourself, oneself. I look at where I'm standing and I go I'm still here. I'm still in the back yard playing like I'm - you know a treasure hunter. It's still very much the spirit of playfulness that children have and it's a great way not to have to grow up.


I'm just wondering what kind of student you were when it came to American history. Were you into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and all that?

NC: No. I was more into Roman Empire ancient history. I was fascinated by the Civil War though, that was interesting to me. And it really wasn't until much later, and even on this movie, that I got to go to these very hallowed ground landmarks like Independence Hall and start to cultivate the enthusiasm that even the character has. Because I wanted to make it - again, even though it's not a historically loaded movie, I wanted to make it fascinating on some level to people. But I would point out that this is a world treasure, this is not just a United States treasure, this is a treasure that belongs to the world and I believe it's even in the movie. I mean these are things here like Alexander's sword, I don't know if that's in the movie, but artefacts that belong to the entire world.


You said you like to keep us guessing. Do you like to be known as eccentric? Like you said you have eclectic taste, do you like having that - that we have that perception of you? Guessing all the time?

NC: I like just keeping it interesting. I don't know if eccentric is the right word. It's just that I like to stay interested, I don't want to get trapped, I don't want to become calcified in one type of movie. I don't want to say this is my identity. I think it's important to the growth if you keep looking for other areas to stay fascinated.


Are you an aficionado of DVDs and also how do you think they've changed the way movies are marketed and pitched?

NC: DVDs are tricky. Yeah, DVDs unto themselves are fantastic. I think it's great that people can go and re-view a movie and rediscover a movie and perhaps discover something that wasn't in there for them the first time out. Where I think it becomes dangerous, and I'm guilty of this, is that the narrations, the behind the scenes footage, yes it's helpful, it's helpful to a young film maker, it's helpful to a young actor to listen to what maybe some of their inspirations are doing or thinking and learn from that, but it's also the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz and it's destroying, I think, the work of art itself. It's destructive to the illusion and the magic. Who really wants to see everything? See the strings. When I go to a movie I want to see the illusion and lose myself in it and I'm afraid that too much of that gives away all your secrets and it takes away the mystery.


Do you consider yourself a trendsetter, to follow up on that question.

NC: I could never refer to myself that way because that wouldn't be very modest in my opinion. But I do like to set trends for me and I hope other people enjoy that as an audience.


Nick, your character in the film, your family has a tradition that's passed down, a belief that others don't really share. Is there anything like that in your prestigious family?

NC: I'm very proud of my family and I think it's a family that's loaded with creativity. But with creativity comes a price. I mean there's the flip side of creativity which is I guess the - as you said eccentric or bizarre behaviour that goes along with that I guess can be judged by others.


Of all the things that you've had to have learned to look like you know what you're doing because you're playing the role, I imaging standing in front of a weather map might have been one of the most challenging. What was that like?

NC: That was daunting yes. That was interesting because it's all backwards and I don't know what these symbols are and you have to look in the camera and point to the symbol even though you can't really see it and its' flipped. The image is flipped because of the nature of the lens so you have to do it in a backwards fashion and then you have to rattle off a million things that don't really mean anything to you. So it was a memorisation challenge as well as a physical challenge.


Founding father?

NC: I mean they were all so fascinating. I mean Jefferson comes to mind. I liked his interest in science. But then again Franklin had that as well. And then Hamilton, he seemed quite intense in a lot of ways. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite there to meet.


Depending on what movie you do, do you draw a different line between entertainment and real truthful characters?

NC: I sometimes think things like that through. I mean there are times where I really don't want to entertain you. I want to make you really uncomfortable and make myself uncomfortable. I never want to get comfortable unless the goal is to try to do something extremely entertaining. I think there are different movies for different needs and Lord of War for me is a bit uncomfortable. This is not somebody I would ever really want to be, but it's interesting to explore that character in that world and wear those shoes.


Your character does something that he knows is technically wrong for the greater good, is it something that you would ever do to pursue a role that may or may not be appropriate?

NC: Not now. I mean if you had checked with me when I was 18 oh yeah. I mean I did it, didn't I? I mean that horrifying cockroach in Vampire's Kiss. But now I don't think it's worth it. I want to keep the happy balance between life and work.


Nicholas, you mentioned that you were into Greek and Roman Mythology, are you also into the more contemporary myths?

NC: I like anything that makes you wonder. That isn't totally spelled out for you. Somewhere in - mythology is interesting too because it also implies it's a myth whereas the Templar Treasure many people believe that this is fact. I like things that could be real but aren't totally defined yet. There's supposed to be - like I was watching unusual animals on Discovery and they really believe of all these animals that have eluded people, like the Loch Ness Monster which proved to be a hoax and Big Foot, blah, blah, blah. But all the scientists got together and were convinced that somewhere up in the Asian mountains of Tibet or I don't know what, there is a short red haired two legged ape man and they've seen it and they're trying to get it. Now that's fascinating to me and I'd like to go meet this guy. I want to look at him. I want to say hi to him and I discovered the wild dog when I was in Africa. And we have dogs around us every day, but to see a wild dog in its own nature it's like seeing a cave man. I kind of know you, but I don't, and you're interesting. I guess why I'm going off on the diatribe is that I'm fascinated by the as yet undiscovered, but possible.


Right now the world is maybe not that enthusiastic about things American anymore, what can you tell them about this movie, because it's big market is very American right now.

NC: Well again I would go back to the treasure itself, which is a world treasure. I mean this is, as I said, is a treasure that contains artefacts that belong all the way around the world and it's presented that way in the movie.


Is there a very different approach at all for you from frenetic roles to something like this?

NC: I guess the approach is just that I have to get the character across in a much more compressed amount of time because it's, as I said before, it's like a freight train that's moving extremely quickly to deliver a lot of suspense and thrills. So you have to be very succinct in your choices as to what you're trying to say about the character.


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