Depending on which corner of the internet you inhabit, Nicolas Cage could be any of the following: a misunderstood genius, a played-out punch line, a risk taker prone to captivating misfires, the guy from all the memes. How you perceive the actor who dubbed his go-for-broke performance style Nouveau Shamanic — who insisted upon that whole yogurt-on-the-toes thing —will affect how you experience his films. And boy, do those films keep coming.
In his latest, A Score to Settle, Cage portrays an ex-con on his first day out of the clink, insistent upon both reconnecting with his adult son and seeking bloody vengeance on the men whose betrayal landed him behind bars in the first place. Cage brings a kind of live-wire volatility to every scene. In one indelible moment, he plops down at a piano mid-holdup to tinkle out a melody, prompting him to threaten his foe in improvised singsong. It’s either tonally broke or situationally perfect.
On the day of his new film’s release, Cage hopped on the phone with Vulture to discuss the method to his madness. And yes, he’s aware of a certain cameo performance that’s gone relatively viral of late. In fact, we didn’t even need to ask about Never on Tuesday or his prosthetic nose; the icon brought both up himself.
A Score to Settle reminded me a bit of last year’s Mandy, another movie in which you play a man bent on revenge. Is there something about vengeance you find particularly compelling?
Well, yes and no. It’s true that one of my favorite books growing up was The Count of Monte Cristo. I really enjoyed and found great satisfaction in how Dumas uses vengeance to punish those who deserved to be punished. But I was not attracted to that element of the story in this film as the first thing. My attraction was to what I thought to be a relationship filled with a ton of heart, between father and son. Noah Le Gros plays my son in a pitch-perfect way … that’s the reason I made this movie. When I find a character that has an almost abstract, surreal, dare I say even supernatural side — and also has heart — I respond very quickly.
Sure, every story about revenge is a story about passion.
What I would like to say, though, is that I can be very funny. I’ve made a ton of comedies in the past — Raising Arizona, Honeymoon in Vegas — but for some reason, these days, my movies skew toward a darker tone. From that, I’ve found an alliance with horror, science-fiction, pulp genres. More terrifying than humorous. But where I can, I still try to put the humor onscreen.
Right, my favorite scene comes when your character has a breakdown after his enemy describes their blood feud as a “beef.” He just loses it. In interviews, actors often say that the craft comes down to making decisive dramatic choices. What choices are you making in that moment?
I thought the word “beef,” in the middle of everything that’s happening in that scene — it’s more than random. It’s incongruous. It’s irregular. I found humor in that. I thought the more extreme I went with that word, the more painful and oddly funny it could be. I kept nailing that word in a way that grows increasingly strained. When I read the script, I recognized that moment as exactly the kind of odd thing that I find fun to watch and be a part of.
Do you find that with this particular sense of humor, people don’t always perceive that?
In other words, that they’re laughing at me rather than with me?
I mean more that they don’t get it.
That’s possible, sure. Some people don’t get it, some people do, but what matters to me is that I have to play something that I get. If other people are there with me, great. And I’ve been fortunate! I’ve found this group of fans that does see the humor in the things that I do. I was delighted to see this completely bizarre cameo I did blowing up on the internet, from Never on Tuesday, with the long nose. I had a whole character worked out for that one scene, a whole subtext, a complete unspoken backstory. But the fact that it went viral, and people find it odd and fun in the present day, that means we’re in step.
I saw that clip as well. I was surprised to see that even so early in your career, you had this unique style pretty much fully formed.
Yeah, at that time, I’d come out of wanting to be a Surrealist. I was interested in André Breton and Buñuel. I liked all the otherworldly imagery, and I wanted to find a way to embody that through performance.
I heard the prosthetic nose was your idea.
The whole thing, yeah. The character was just some sleazy guy who wanted to pick up a girl in a Ferrari, and that wasn’t so interesting to me. So I came up with a concept: This character had a physical deformity. He looked like a freak; long nose, bullied as a kid, called “Pinocchio” in the schoolyard. His father felt bad for him, bought him a nice red Ferrari to make him feel good. He’s lonely, and so when he sees these people on the side of the road, he wants to help them and see if they’re hurt. I started screaming, “Pinocchio! Pinocchio!” [in the scene], but they cut that out. And I just got back in my car and drove right away. [Laughs.] That’s the whole character, all in 16 seconds. That, to me, is interesting! I wasn’t gonna be some guy in a swanky jacket with gold medallions, “Hey baby, get in my car.” How many times have we seen that?
It’s about delivering something novel by any means necessary?
Exactly! And why not? If I’m in a cameo and I’m not getting paid, just let me do whatever I want and make some of my experimental visions come true. They said “go for it,” the three most beautiful words any actor can hear on a set. And I’d do it again, by the way. I’d do it again, if someone offered me a cameo and gave me free rein to explore. I’d do it again in a second.
I saw Arsenal a couple years ago, another performance involving facial prosthetics and one of the many incredible wigs from throughout your filmography. Would you say that physical transformation is a big part of your process?
Yeah. I loved the hairpiece in Arsenal. It was the same one I used in the original, my brother Eddie’s movie Deadfall. But that was, like, a $5 hairpiece. I don’t usually do wigs in movies; I prefer to put in extensions. But I did wear one in Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s rarer, though, for me.
For a performer, is there a difference between acting with the full hairpiece versus extensions?
[Extensions are] more natural, easier, and healthier. It’s your real hair, with some added on for more life. A hairpiece can be fun to use, though, to create an extraordinary look. For Arsenal, I wanted to look impossibly fake; too cheap to be real. That’s why I chose that, along with the false nose. There was a time when I wanted to create a whole other career and be somebody entirely different, like Andy Kaufman. I wanted to live as David Butter Allen, and for people to not know that I was Nicolas Cage under that identity. I wanted to completely sideline my career!
I’m sorry, Butter?
Butter! But that didn’t go over very well. Uh, a lot of people didn’t want me to do that.
Do you remember when Joaquin Phoenix tried to do something like this, totally rewrote his identity and reintroduced himself as a rapper?
Oh, God, yes. I loved that. I love that documentary. [Ed. note: We’re referring to I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s 2010 docu-fiction hybrid tracking Phoenix’s pivot-as-prank.] And he’s one of my favorite actors. It was genius, and I was thrilled to see it. I couldn’t stop laughing. I was lucky enough to make one movie with Joaquin, and he’s someone who also has a terrific sense of humor lost on some people. We laughed together, and yeah, that documentary was just what I’d dreamt of. I want to watch that again now.