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Forget Hollywood's 'old guard,' Nicolas Cage says the young filmmakers get him

An balding older man with glasses screams in fright while standing in the living room of a suburban home.
In Dream Scenario, Nicolas Cage plays a college professor who suddenly begins appearing in other people's dreams.

If you don't recognize Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage in his new movie, Dream Scenario, that's by design. "A lot of thought went into trying to create a character that was as far away from my own presentation as I could get," he says.

In the film, Cage plays Paul Matthews, a college professor who finds himself suddenly appearing as a bystander in the dreams of his friends, family, students and, eventually, millions of strangers. The role required the actor to change his nose and hair, walk with a bit of a stoop and alter the way he spoke.

"I've found that over the years I'm more recognized by my voice, my so-called Mojave drawl, than anything else," Cage says. "And so I thought I would raise [my voice] a bit and add a more adenoidal sound to Paul's speaking delivery."

Cage has been acting for almost 45 years and has appeared in more than 100 films. Dream Scenario is one of five scripts he's encountered over the course of his career that he knew, immediately upon reading, he had to take on. (The others were Raising Arizona, Vampire's Kiss, Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation.)

Cage says Dream Scenario screenwriter/director Kristoffer Borgli is part of a new generation of filmmakers who've grown up watching his films and are open to expanding the types of roles he's offered.

"I've made different kinds of movies, different genres, and ... I realized at some point that what I guess I would call the 'old guard,' the keepers of the gate, had already made up their minds about me," he says. "I wasn't going to get any vitality from that group, so I started actively seeking ... the young filmmakers."

As for his next project, Cage says he might be ready to try television: "I've never done that. I always see myself as a student. Where can I go that I can learn something? Where can I go that I'm afraid of it because it challenges me?"

Interview highlights

On knowing he wanted to act from a young age, and finding the confidence to pursue it:

I think it began when I was very, very young. I was maybe 4 or 5, and I was in front of the television set and I thought the people inside the TV were so much more interesting than the people at home that I wanted to try and get inside the TV. ...

I felt blessed that I was doing exactly what I always meant to do, that I'm in a job that I think my DNA was programmed for. I feel that I'm lucky that I found it. I almost didn't. I had another path that I was going to take if it didn't happen. And I was going to do one more audition. And then if that didn't work out, I was going to get on a boat and go fishing and write short stories. So the acting worked out, but I was thinking about a plan B? Yeah. ...

I think Valley Girl was really the time that I found my voice. And I have to give [director] Martha Coolidge credit. Without her, Nicolas Cage would not exist. She was the one that empowered me, guided me, and she gave me a great direction. ... I think if Martha had not discovered me, I would be on the boat. And she really gave me the confidence, the belief in myself that I could do this.

On changing his last name from Coppola to Cage:

I had a shrewd reason. It wasn't just to try to avoid so-called nepotism. I changed my name, the first time, on my audition for Valley Girl. I did it partly because on the set of Fast Times [at Ridgemont High], it was a subject of teasing that I was a Coppola, and I had no right to think that I could act simply because of my illustrious uncle [Francis Ford Coppola]. ...

So I changed my name to Cage. And happily, Martha [Coolidge], she did not know the connection. That's a true story. And she cast me as "Cage." It was the first time that I went into an audition with my new name and I got the part, and that was hugely empowering for me to believe I could do it on my own steam.

But the shrewd reason — and no one really talks about this and I haven't brought it up before — is that I had the prescience to know that filmmakers are a very competitive and somewhat egocentric group, directors. And I didn't think that any director would want another director's name — no less the name "Coppola" — above the title of their movie. So I was also thinking that, in terms of business.

On becoming an internet meme for acting with exaggerated expressions and gestures in films like his 1989 movie Vampire's Kiss:

For me, as a young man who was interested in all art forms, [I] was even interested in what I called "art synchronicity" — meaning that what you can do in one art form you can do in another art form; if you can be impressionistic, surrealistic, cubist, even in painting or in music, well, then why can't you be that in film performance?

I was looking in the past of film performance, like the German expressionistic performances of Max Schreck in Nosferatu or Fritz Lang, and I ... called it choreographed acting, but I found a lot of energy in that.

And so I wanted to, with Vampire's Kiss, try to bring that back into a modern film. And I could do it because the character, sadly, was losing his mind. So I could do all these bizarre gestures. And subsequently, while I was doing that, the internet was kicking into high gear and they were cherry picking these sort of expressions ... and it became "meme-ified." ...

I had to come to terms with it. I didn't want everything to be reduced to just one image or one meltdown, if you will, or so-called "Cage rage." But again, the silver lining was that the meme-ification kept me in the conversation, but it wasn't what I signed up for. So yes, I was stimulated by it, I was confused by it, and I was frustrated by it.

On looking back at his early work in film:
I don't go down memory lane unless I'm forced to. And I did a profile in Vanity Fair where I was looking at old movies, and one of them was Moonstruck. But I do think that there was an energy to the early work that I'm happy with. And I think I felt that it made sense that I was an actor. That I was being able to or being invited to play these parts. And it was life changing for me. It was in many ways cathartic, in many ways therapeutic. It was very, very helpful that I could do something constructive with all the energy that I had.

On why he thought he'd never win an Oscar:

I did Leaving Las Vegas because nobody else wanted to do it. It was the darkest script in town. No studio would touch it, and they were all afraid of it because of the material. And I thought, "Well, heck, I'm not going to win an Oscar anyway for anything, so let's do it," you know? And then, lo and behold, when you're not looking for something, it comes to you.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.