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Actor Nicolas Cage

Actor Nicolas Cage stars in the new film Windtalkers. A group of Navajo soldiers developed an unbreakable code based on their language for use during World War II. Cage plays Joe Enders, a Marine guard assigned to protect the Native American code talkers. Cage won an Academy award for his role in the film Leaving Las Vegas. He's starred in many other hit films, including Raising Arizona, Moonstruck and The Rock.

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Transcript

DATE June 13, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Nicolas Cage discusses his acting career and his new
film "Windtalkers"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Nicolas Cage, an actor famous for his riveting performances and his
obsessive preparation. He starred in action films like "Face/Off," "Con Air"
and "The Rock," comedies like "Moonstruck" and "Raising Arizona," film noire
like "Red Rock West" and emotionally complex dramas like "Leaving Las Vegas"
for which he won an Oscar.

His new world War II film, "Windtalkers," opens tomorrow. It's set in the
Pacific island of Saipan, where tactical battlefield messages are being
radioed through a new secret code using the Navajo language. Navajo Marines
are the code talkers and translators. Cage plays a tough Marine who was
assigned to protect one of these Navajo code talkers, but if the code talker
falls into enemy hands, Cage is expected to kill the code talker so that he
can't reveal the code under torture. In this early scene, Cage is keeping his
emotional distance from the new Navajo soldier he is protecting who hasn't yet
proven himself in battle and strikes Cage as a little naive. The code talker
is played by Adam Beach.

(Soundbite of "Windtalkers")

Mr. NICOLAS CAGE ("Sergeant Joe Enders"): What are you doing here?

Mr. ADAM BEACH ("Private Ben Yahzee"): Just trying to help.

Mr. CAGE: That's not what I meant.

Mr. BEACH: You mean what am I doing in this uniform. It's my war, too,
Sergeant. I'm fighting for my country, for my land and for my people.

Mr. CAGE: It's not your people I'm worried about.

Mr. BEACH: Listen, Enders, I'm a code talker. It takes me two and a half
minutes to do what used to take an hour. Now somebody wearing a lot more
stripes than you thinks that's worth something.

Mr. CAGE: Remind me to tell you when you've got bullets flying over your
head.

Mr. BEACH: What the hell's wrong with you?

GROSS: "Windtalkers" was directed by John Woo, who also directed Cage in
"Face/Off." Woo suggested that Cage watch the war film "Guns of Navarone." I
asked Cage what other films he watched in preparation.

Mr. CAGE: There was one with Ricard Widmark. I think it was called the
"Halls of Montezuma," and his performance in that I found very interesting.
He was eating aspirin a lot in the film, and so I like the idea of characters
who are going through some kind of either physical or emotional or mental
instability, so I introduced the idea of a painkiller for Joe Enders as well,
because of Widmark's performance in that.

GROSS: Now you're talking painkillers 'cause in the first scene in the movie
you're injured, and it's an injury that affects your ear...

Mr. CAGE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and your hearing and your sense of balance as well.

Mr. CAGE: Yes. My equilibrium is off.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about staging the war scenes. You know,
you're directed by John Woo in this, and he's a terrific director and really
has a gift for action and for depicting violence as well. I mean, he really
knows how to stage that. Maybe you can take one of the battle sequences,
maybe even the opening sequence, and describe a little bit about what happened
on your end behind the scenes, the kind of advice Woo gave you, if any...

Mr. CAGE: Well...

GROSS: ...and what's going on around you.

Mr. CAGE: Well, the first battle sequence--not the first one in the movie
but with the whole team of men that we grew to know through the film, I think
it's the invasion of Saipan, there must have been about 280 bombs that were
set. You know, there were about 14 cameras that were going at all times.
You know, there must have been, I don't know, 170 men; atmosphere as well as
the actors. Some of them were actual Marines. And you would go through this
whole sort of rehearsal process where you have to find out your marks, which
is to say where you're supposed to land and where you're supposed to move to
and make sure you're going to be on camera when you're doing it and make sure
you don't hurt anybody else, because even though they're blanks they're still
dangerous, so the guns can't be pointed in the other people's faces. It
wasn't until, I'd say, the last hour or two of the day that we actually
started photographing, because the shots were so intricate.

And the main thing I was concerned about is that I just didn't want to blow
it. I didn't want to miss my mark, I didn't want to forget my lines, you
know, because if I did, that meant they had to go all the way back to the
beginning again and reset all the bombs, and I didn't want to wear that. So
that was what really kept me on my toes.

GROSS: So give me a sense of the choreography. This isn't stuff that's going
to be, like, in a script. It's not dialogue.

Mr. CAGE: Yeah. We would just go over and over it. I mean, there was one
sequence where I remember I had to run but be ahead of all the bullet hits
that were going off, because otherwise, you know, some of the wood or the
gunpowder or whatever could get in my eyes. So it really--I mean, it's kind
of hard to describe. It's very methodical. It's, you know, `OK, you're going
to run through here, you're going to stop at this point, you're going to put
down your weapon 'cause you're out of bullets, find another weapon, pick that
up and sort of spin around and stab this guy and shoot'--it was a very
physical shoot. And I remember once there was a bomb that went off, and I
think John, who sometimes likes to surprise his actors by making the bombs
bigger than we were told they were--you know, a bomb went off and I walked
into the fire by accident 'cause the wind shifted, and it actually did burn
me, and then I was torn with this sort of conundrum of having to either do my
job and keep moving forward or back off and not get burned, and I think I went
and moved forward, and then John had to call `Cut, cut, cut,' 'cause he didn't
want me to get burned.

But, you know, it sounds a lot scarier than it is because at the time that I
was going it, I just kept thinking, `My God, you know, I'm just an actor,' and
there were people that really had to go through this for real, and I would
play jokes with myself thinking, you know, `What would it be like if the
director just said, "All right, we're using real bullets now and real bombs
and here we go. Action!"'

GROSS: Well, even so, even with the blanks and stuff, do you ever feel, `This
isn't exactly what I signed up for. I didn't sign up for being bombed and
shot at and having to stab people'?

Mr. CAGE: Well...

GROSS: When I said `signed up for it,' I meant like when you became an actor,
you know, did you...

Mr. CAGE: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CAGE: No, I imagined I was going to go a little bit of everything.

GROSS: Right. Do you think--you've been in a lot of action films. Do you
think that John Woo handles action any differently than other directors who
you've worked with?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I think that what makes John Woo singular is that he's, in my
opinion, a musician. His background in ballroom dancing and, you know, his
love of music is really in the movies. I mean, it's--I asked him point-blank,
`Do your camera moves have anything to do with the ballroom dancing?' He
said, `Absolutely.' Even when the guns go off, it's, like, you know, the
bullets are almost like notes that are percussion that sort of compliment the
expressions of his actors. You know, "Face/Off," for example, was operatic.
The other thing is that his connection with his actors is quite unique. He
likes to dance in a place of extremes, and so do I, so we sort of understand
one another. And he's not afraid to go into a scene without a great deal of
planning. And when I say that, it sounds uncharacteristic of what we just
talked about, but what I mean to say is sometimes five minutes before the
shot, I don't know what I'm going to do, and he doesn't know what he's going
to do, and so he'll put several cameras on it just in case a surprise happens
that he likes. And this makes for a very spontaneous kind of acting. It
makes for a sort of electric kind of performance.

And, you know, it doesn't mean it's always going to work, and a lot of what I
did didn't work and didn't make it in the movie, but what you see is what he
selected, so I feel safe with him. But I think he's that way with all actors,
and that's why you get very unique performances from a John Woo movie, and
that's also why his action films are different from other action films.

GROSS: Woo has a kind of signature shot of two men standing a few feet
opposite away from each other, or opposite each other, each with a gun pointed
on the other. And that shot seems to show up in at least all the films of his
I've seen, and there's a shot like that in "Windtalkers," too.

Mr. CAGE: It's interesting about John because he's a devout Christian and he
hates guns. So when you think about that, it's just kind of interesting, the
sort of dichotomy in the man.

GROSS: Well, that's a perfect shot for that when two guys are standing a few
feet away from each other, each having a gun pointed on the other, it is a
kind of futility of violence kind of scene, 'cause everyone's going to die.

Mr. CAGE: Yeah. It is a pretty bleak picture in the regard, but I think
what I find very stirring is sort of the spiritual aspect of the film, and
when I asked Albert Smith, who was one of the actual code talkers on the set
how he got through it, he said the way he got through it was because of his
faith. And I think that's also a signature of John Woo. There's always some
sort of reference to a church in his films. I know in "Face/Off" there was,
and also in "Windtalkers" my character, Joe Enders, is drawing a church and
some flowers. So even though there's all this death, there's also the notion
of, you know, being closer to God.

GROSS: Do you ever wish you could have that kind of faith, too? Maybe you
have it. Maybe I'm making an assumption.

Mr. CAGE: No, I do have faith. I believe in God, and, you know, I am a
Christian.

GROSS: A lot of the movie is about how your character is constantly looking
death in the face, your own death and the death of the men that you're
fighting with. You've watched your own death time and time again in movies.
Does it put you in touch with the inevitability of your own death? I mean, do
you take it personally when you see yourself die in a movie?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I see it very much as a performance. You know, my own
feelings about death are almost Japanese in thinking. You know, there is a
samurai philosophy that you have to earn your right to die. Death has always
been sort of a friend to me, 'cause I've never ignored the fact that it's
going to happen, I'm very accepting of it, and so since I know it's going to
happen, it's always been something that I wear on my shoulder that says, you
know, `Get to work, 'cause you only have so much time,' you know, `Try to
really live your life to its fullest and maximize your day in every way that
you can; get the most out of it.' You know, wherever it is that we do go, you
know, you kind of earn your right to go there by how hard you've worked or how
much you've appreciated life.

GROSS: Is that an attitude you've worked on or one that just came naturally
to you?

Mr. CAGE: It started when I was about 15. I remember that I, you know,
didn't really believe in--at that time, I didn't really believe in heaven or
hell. I did believe in death, and so I kind of made a vow to myself that if
I could achieve these goals in my life that I would be OK with my death. And
I've since changed my views somewhat, but I don't see death as a horrible
thing. You know, there's a 50 percent chance it could be really amazing,
because no one really knows what it is. And the only thing I know that's kind
of weird--I mean, as long as we're on the subject, you know, I had to, you
know, go through my will the other day with my attorney and all that and, you
know, `What is it that you want if, God forbid, you're in a car accident? Do
you want to go and be in a coma or do you want them to pull the plug?' And
I'm, like, `God, I've got to think about this now, but'--I said, `Well, you
know, I hear coma's not a bad place, so maybe not, but what I do know is that
I don't want to be bombed out of my skull on some, like, massive dose of
morphine. If I go into the next life, I want to go in aware. If there is a
next life, I'd like to be aware,' so I had them write that down.

GROSS: Don't you think, though, you might want the pain dulled if...

Mr. CAGE: Yeah. I mean, that's the tricky part is that, you know, I see
these--remember those--they were Buddhists, weren't they, that did that
activist...

GROSS: That set themselves on fire during the Vietnam War?

Mr. CAGE: Yeah, how do they get to that point to be that in control of their
state to not even flinch when they're burning to death? And I think it's a
life's work to actually prepare yourself for the moment of death.

GROSS: Is this all connected to acting, too, the way you handle it? Do you
see acting as almost an altered state or a kind of act of willed
consciousness?

Mr. CAGE: I'm starting to change even my views on acting. It's strange, I
mean, I do see it as an altered state. I think that's a good way of putting
it. As crazy as it sounds, I almost see it like channeling of spirits, you
know. You know, I once heard Jimi Hendrix talk about, you know, energies and,
you know, how you can gather those things together, you know, with a little
dog hair or--I don't know what he was talking about--in his boot, and I've
been using that almost in some of my interviews that that's my new method,
that I put wild dog hair in my boot and give gifts to the spirits, but it was
more done in jest, but the truth of the matter is, you know, if they are out
there, you know, I would be interested in trying to incorporate that in some
way into my acting.

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas Cage. He's starring in the new World War II film
"Windtalkers." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Nicolas Cage is my guest, and he's starring in the new World War II
movie "Windtalkers," which is directed by John Woo.

There's at least two, like, different threads of your career, one the more
action-oriented roles and the other the more introspective roles like "Leaving
Las Vegas" or "Red Rock West." And I'm wondering if you ever expected to
become an action hero when you started acting, and if you were ever even
physical in that kind of way, or athletic when you were young.

Mr. CAGE: I was probably the last person on the list for starring in an
action movie, and it was--even though I wanted to, because I always liked
action films as a boy, and I had heroes like Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery,
who I was lucky to work with in "The Rock." And, you know, I always saw it as
escapist entertainment, which to me is cogent, it's just as valuable as the
thought-provoking and introspective work that actors do in art films or indie
films, because, to be honest with you, there are times when I don't want to
have to think. I just want to go and get my mind off my problems, or whatever
it is, and have my popcorn and escape.

But to answer your question, I was not someone who was perceived as action
material, and then it was, I guess, Jerry Bruckheimer who cast me in "The
Rock," but even so, I was playing a nerd in the beginning of that movie who
becomes an action hero. But I thought there was a world stage there, which
action is. I was trying to build my foreign market up, and I thought more
people would see the work, and I thought, `Well, why not try to do something?
Just because it's a genre picture doesn't mean you can't create a character.'
So I was trying to dig a little deeper, even with the action material, and
what I found was that I had to be very quick on my feet and very succinct
about what it is I want to say, because it is formula, and as long as it
propels the plot--yeah, the plot of the film, you can get away with it, but it
can be very, very brief. And it's almost like they want to get to the car
chase or get to the explosion, so whatever acting you want to do, you've got
to do it fast, which is frustrating, but it's also good training, because it
does sort of distill you down to the precise essence of the character, so to
speak.

But having said that, I am happy to get back to, you know, independent movies.
I just worked with Spike Jones on "Adaptation" and I did "Bringing Out the
Dead" with Martin Scorsese, so I feel like I've mixed it up still. It's just
because action is such a huge genre, it's so popular, more people actually
think I've made action films than the first 15 years of my career, which was
mostly, you know, sort of intense character studies in indie films, and then
also romantic comedies.

GROSS: Right. Right. Well, since becoming an action hero, you've had to
really change your body, pump up a lot. Has it changed your sense of self
physically?

Mr. CAGE: Well, no. Actually, the truth of the matter is that I've always
been physical, I've always worked out. I started working out when I was 12
years old.

GROSS: What motivated you to do that when you were 12?

Mr. CAGE: I guess...

GROSS: Not that you need any big reason, but...

Mr. CAGE: Yeah. No, well--but I am thinking about it. I guess I wanted to
look better, I wanted to feel stronger. And then I found that it--I got
almost kind of addicted to it. It became a place where I could put my anger,
you know, I had. As a young boy growing up, I had a lot of anger that needed
to be directed or focused, and working out helped me with that. And to this
day, I've used exercise as a place to sort of clear my head and, you know,
relax. Usually it's like the endorphins build up and I feel better. It's
more of a mental thing than anything else for me, although I do prefer to look
trim.

GROSS: Nicolas Cage is starring in the new World War II film "Windtalkers."
It opens tomorrow. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Nicolas Cage. We'll talk
about his roles in "Face/Off" and "Leaving Las Vegas" and hear why he started
acting.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nicolas Cage. His new
movie "Windtalkers" opens tomorrow. It's set on the Pacific island of Saipan
during World War II. Cage's other films include "The Rock," "Con Air,"
"Leaving Las Vegas," "Red Rock West," "Raising Arizona" and "Moonstruck."

I want to ask you about "Face/Off," which is a really great and also really
funny, in its own way, action film that you starred in with John Travolta,
that was directed by John Woo, who directed your new movie. And in this
movie, you're a sadistic criminal. John Travolta is an FBI agent on your
trail. And for reasons really too complicated to explain here, Travolta is
given a replica of your face through cosmetic surgery, so he can go undercover
and infiltrate your network, but then you, the villain, managed to get
cosmetic surgery on your face so that you can look like Travolta, thwart his
plan and also gain intimate access to his family. So it's really an acting
fest, because, you know, you're playing the personality of John Travolta's
character, and he's playing yours, and you're imitating each other's
mannerisms. And it must have been so much fun to do in that respect, to work
with Travolta and he with you, and to have to copy each other's mannerisms and
use that within the performance.

Mr. CAGE: It was. And there were a lot of times when we were like two kids
in a classroom saying, `Are we in trouble yet?,' you know, because we were
really having a lot of fun with it and pushing it to the limits with that one.
But just hearing you describe what "Face/Off" is about, it sounds so complex,
doesn't it? It's like a Rubik's Cube or something. The layers upon layers of
what that plot was about, it was a little bit of a puzzle. You know, it was
like putting together a puzzle. And whereas I did actually start the movie as
the killer for the first 10 or 12 minutes, and that part was a lot of fun to
play, I actually play Sean Archer, the part that John Travolta developed in
the first 12 or 15 minutes, for the whole length of the film from that point
on. So he then got to be the bad guy with all the flashy moves and attitude.
And then I had to become his character, which was more the emotional and sort
of heartfelt character in the movie.

And, you know, John Travolta, he's a superstar, but his idiosyncrasies are
very subtle, and it was rather hard for me to grasp his vocalizations and his
mannerisms. So, I mean, what we would do sometimes is get tapes of the
dailies. So I would be watching him in the movie and try to copy some of his
mannerisms, and then I also would go back and look at some of his older films
and try and study it. But his impression of me is pretty impeccable. He did
it at the American Cinematheque on a videotape where he's pretending like he's
me and, I mean, he still does it and it brought the house down. People just
think it's hilarious.

GROSS: What did he pick up on you?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I think he picked up the way I tend to elongate my words when
I talk, you know, and sort of like, there's a glass object that I'm really
interested in buying today, John.

GROSS: And did you know that you did that or did it make you self-conscious
to hear him doing you?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I didn't know that I did that actually, but now I do, so now
when I hear myself, I'm thinking, `My God, am I becoming a caricature of
myself?,' you know.

GROSS: Is that a kind of self-consciousness that's potentially dangerous?

Mr. CAGE: I don't know that it is dangerous. I mean, you know, when I first
started acting, I felt that my voice was not interesting at all. And it
occurred to me that all the great actors whom I loved were stars that had
voices that are imitable, and, you know, like Bogart or Cagney or Brando or
Eastwood. These are all people that have voices you can imitate, and it's fun
to be able to imitate them. So I worked very hard on trying to understand
what was distinctive about my voice and try to accentuate it. But at first, I
was doing everything I could not to use my voice. Even in "Peggy Sue Got
Married," I used the voice of I think it was Pokey from "The Gumby Show," I
mean, which was really a stretch. But, yeah, so I've always believed that
voice and the actor are important together.

GROSS: The one thing I find interesting about your voice is that it's, on the
one hand, very kind of colloquial sounding, and on the other hand, you have
this impeccable pronunciation.

Mr. CAGE: Well, thank you.

GROSS: You know, so it's an odd mix of things.

Mr. CAGE: Well, my father is a literature professor, and I remember, you
know, he always spoke with this kind of distinction in his voice, and I guess
that was a choice for him. He told me that once, that he because he's a
literature professor, that he wanted to speak with distinction and to speak
accurately with proper English. And so I guess I'm sort of an amalgamation of
my father and also just this kid that grew up in Long Beach, California, you
know, surrounded by people that did not speak with distinction. So it's sort
of a combination of things, I guess.

GROSS: Right. Now getting back to "Face/Off," you said it was hard to find
distinctive things about Travolta to pick up on in your impression of him
in the movie. Yeah.

Mr. CAGE: Well, it wasn't that it was hard to find them, because he is
distinctive, he is unique. But it's just that his are very subtle, so, you
know, I had to try to find ways of not overdoing it. I had to try to pick up
on his subtleties. You know, he's a very facile and smooth performer and, you
know, whereas I think my traits can get a little kind of edgy and bigger. You
know, I can sometimes get--people use the word `over the top,' but that, for
me, is not really a criticism, even though they mean it as a criticism. For
me, it's just a place that I like to go as a style. It's a stylistic thing.

GROSS: So what did you pick up on Travolta?

Mr. CAGE: Well, sometimes, he gets this mannerism in his voice where
(imitates John Travolta) it's almost like a hurt little boy, you know, and the
look gets in his eyes and also there's a little bit of sort of a stutter there
that comes in and, you know, and, `How you doing, Nic? Is everything good?
That's'--you know, like that. And I had to sort of bring that into the
character.

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas Cage. Here he is in a scene from "Face/Off,"
toward the end of the film, when he and John Travolta are face-to-face trying
to kill each other.

(Soundbite of "Face/Off")

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA: I don't know what I hate wearing worse: your face or your
body. I mean, I enjoy boning your wife, but, well, let's face it, we both
like it better the other way, yes? So why don't we just trade back?

Mr. CAGE (As Sean Archer): You can't get back what you've taken from me.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Oh, well, plan B. Let's just kill each other.

GROSS: We'll talk more with Nicolas Cage after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas Cage. He won an Academy Award for his performance
in "Leaving Las Vegas," as a man who has decided to drink himself to death.
He falls in love with a beautiful prostitute, but that's not going to stop him
from reaching his goal. The prostitute is played by Elisabeth Shue. Here's a
scene shortly after they meet. They're in bed, drinking and talking.

Mr. CAGE: Well, I made a choice early on...

(Soundbite of "Leaving Las Vegas")

Ms. ELISABETH SHUE: So Ben with an N, what brings you to Las Vegas? Business
convention?

Mr. CAGE (As Ben Sanderson): No. I came here to drink myself to death.
Cashed in all my money, paid my Am Ex card, going to sell the car tomorrow.

Ms. SHUE: So how long is it going to take for you to drink yourself to death?

Mr. CAGE: I think about four weeks. I don't know for sure, but I think.
I've got enough for about 250, $300 a day.

Ms. SHUE: That should do it. What am I? A luxury?

Mr. CAGE: Yes. You're a luxury and your meter just ran out.

Ms. SHUE: That's a nice watch.

Mr. CAGE: Would you like it?

Ms. SHUE: Yes. Well, you can talk a little bit more. I don't have to be
anywhere. Come on, talk.

Mr. CAGE: In LA, I kept running out of booze and the store would be closed
because I'd forget to look at my watch.

GROSS: "Leaving Las Vegas" was based on a story by a writer who was so
depressed, he killed himself before the movie was made. I asked Cage if he
could comprehend that level of depression.

Mr. CAGE: Well, I made a choice early on in the rehearsal process that I
wasn't going to play him depressed, because I always felt that there's nothing
sadder than a person who's in a sad situation than a person who's in a sad
situation and doesn't know it. So consequently, I thought that Ben Sanderson,
even though the truth is he is so depressed that he's going to drink himself
to death, on the surface, he had freed himself, and he'd be smiling a lot and
laughing a lot, and I thought that would make it even more, you know, sad.
And the idea there was that, you know, if someone isn't holding on to life
anymore--and I compared it to like a man who's not struggling in the river,
you know, he's not trying to hold on to branches anymore, he's not trying to
stay afloat, he's let go, and he's very relaxed, and he's floating down the
river, and that's how I saw Ben.

I saw him as somebody who had let go and was not afraid to die, and therefore,
he could do anything, and he was going to have four weeks to do it, and he was
going to have one big party, and he was responsible about it. He cashed out.
He cleared his debts, and he wasn't going to be a burden to anybody anymore.
He wasn't going to be a burden to his boss. He feels bad that he upset his
boss. I got the idea that he was an elegant man at one point, so that went
into the costumes. You know, the only thing I did do with Ben was I remember
at one point, Mike Figgis wanted me to drive a Jaguar, which was, I think, a
really good idea actually, an older Jaguar, because that would fall into the
notion of his elegance, but I said, `No, I think he should drive a BMW like
every other agent in town.'

So we went with the BMW, and what was curious about that and if you talk about
channeling, is that John O'Brien, who wrote the book and actually did commit
suicide, his automobile vehicle of choice was a BMW, and also apparently I
wore the same watch as John. I didn't know that. And when the family came to
visit us on the set, they said they were stunned at some of the moves that
were coming out of me, because they were so much like John's. And so that's
sort of what got me to thinking about all that. But to answer your question,
I didn't play him depressed.

GROSS: I read that your mother was depressive, that she suffered from
depression. And I don't know whether she was the kind of wise-cracking
depressive that your character is in "Leaving Las Vegas." My guess is that
she wasn't. And I'm wondering if your knowledge of her depression informed
your performance in any way?

Mr. CAGE: Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm sure it did. You know, I think there are
moments in the movie where I watch and I go, `Well, that's Mom,' you know.
But these are things that happen sort of almost by accident or by spontaneity.
I don't think about it. You know, it's sort of on me that way. But she was a
good mother. I mean, she still is, and, you know, she isn't going through the
same things that she was when I was a kid. But it's impossible for it not to
affect me artistically on some level.

GROSS: Your character had to be drunk for a lot of "Leaving Las Vegas."
There's a lot of very cliched ways of playing a drunk person. We've all seen
the cliches. What did you do to try to play the way you thought this
character would be drunk? And I'm wondering if you drank a lot yourself while
preparing for the role just to kind of get a sense of mechanically what goes
on when you've had a lot to drink?

Mr. CAGE: Well, for one thing, I did look at a lot of movies dealing with
that subject matter, and, well, let's see, I looked at Lemmon in "Days of Wine
and Roses" and Milland in "The Lost Weekend" and Dudley Moore in "Arthur," and
they were all excellent performances, and some for different reasons.
"Arthur"--actually, Dudley Moore in that movie, because he was really good
with the sound level--like when people get drunk, they start talking much
louder, and he would do that in the film. And he hit on that. But I think
the performance that affected me the most, where I said, `That person's not
acting, that person's really drunk,' was Albert Finney in "Under the Volcano,"
and he is such a fine actor, I'll never really know, but I was convinced that
when he's walking through those streets with his sunglasses on and his tux,
that he was drunk. But I think Mike Figgis even asked him about it. He said,
`No, you know, you tell Nic that I wasn't. I would sip something to get a
sense of the taste and I would spit it out.'

So I think I went with Albert's sort of model really, but I would, in fact,
drink on a couple scenes in that movie, because I wanted it to be extremely
real. And I remember I would drink on my own and then videotape me getting
drunk so that I could see what I was like, and then I destroyed the videotape,
but I would use that as a way to get into the character. But there was one
scene in the casino where I freak out and I sort of smash the table and break
a glass and start shouting, that I was completely inebriated, and so much so
that I had to crawl to my room after I had done the scene, and I don't think I
ever made it into my hotel room. I actually fell asleep outside the door,
woke up the morning in the hallway.

But the reason why I did that--and I don't recommend it for actors, if
they're, you know, hearing me, go, `Well, I'll try that'--I mean, I don't know
how healthy it is. But I was experimenting with the idea of being out of
control in art, and being in control while being out of control is sort of the
goal, you know. So I said, `Well, this scene--I don't have a lot of dialogue,
and I'm going to go out of control here. I want to go out of control here. I
want to create that kind of connection with the audience where they feel like
there's some danger in the room, and I want them to freak out with me.' So
that's why I did it.

GROSS: And how does it look to you when you watch it?

Mr. CAGE: It's very painful. It looks painful to me and, you know, it is
real, so I feel like I achieved that. But I don't watch it that often, to be
honest with you.

GROSS: Was the director, Mike Figgis, disturbed when he saw how drunk you
were? Did he know what you were up to?

Mr. CAGE: He was a part of the process the whole time. I mean, he knew that
I was...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CAGE: ...going to go there, and I let him know...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CAGE: ...and he concurred.

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas Cage. He's now starring in the new World War II
film "Windtalkers." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Nicolas Cage. He's starring in the new World War II movie
"Windtalkers."

How did you know, as a child, that you wanted to act?

Mr. CAGE: I was six years old. I was sitting on the living room carpet
watching our old round, oval-shaped Zenith TV, and I just remember, I wanted
to be inside that TV so bad. I just wanted to get out of there and get in
that TV. And I think that's my first real cognizant recollection of wanting
to act, that I couldn't understand how people got inside the television set,
and I wanted to go there.

GROSS: And then when you grew up a little bit and started to watch a lot of
movies and TV shows, who were some of the actors who really did it for you?

Mr. CAGE: Well, my favorite television actor was Bill Bixby. The TV series
"The Courtship of Eddie's Father" was one of my favorite shows, and I would
watch that as a boy. But he was also great in "My Favorite Martian," so I
always thought Bixby was a fine performer, and I think even now in some of my
work, you can sort of see his influence a little bit. I mean, I was talking
with a friend of mine a few years back, Crispin Glover, and he was saying he
could see some of that. Even though I'm not aware of it, I'm certainly not
doing that, but I guess it just happened naturally. But the other thing I
discovered later was James Dean in "East of Eden" and also "Rebel Without a
Cause," I was 15, and that really put the hook in me to become an actor.

GROSS: Well, I think that's great that your influences were "My Favorite
Martian" and James Dean.

Mr. CAGE: Yeah.

GROSS: I guess it shows how young you were when you started being interested
in this, that Bill Bixby would have been one of your heroes.

Mr. CAGE: Yeah.

GROSS: But that wasn't exactly the rebellious, sexy image of James Dean.

Mr. CAGE: Well, no. I mean, what was it? It was James Dean's performance in
"East of Eden." I responded more to his--I didn't respond to the rebellion or
even the sexuality, as much as I responded to the pain in him when he tries to
give his father the money that he earned by selling beans for his father's
birthday. I guess it was Massey who played the dad, and the way he's
rejecting him, his body language was just so racked with pain that it moved
me. I mean, it really got to me more than anything else, any song or painting
or any other kind of art form. I knew then that I wanted to be a screen
actor.

GROSS: Now your uncle is Francis Ford Coppola. So I'm wondering if you had
access to films that you otherwise might not have seen, if your uncle ever
screened movies for you or suggested movies for you that you might not
otherwise have known about?

Mr. CAGE: Well, I remember being at his house and him playing movies from
time to time. Michael Powell films I remember him playing. What was the
name of that movie?

GROSS: "Black Narcissus."

Mr. CAGE: The "Peeping Tom."

GROSS: Oh, "Peeping Tom," yeah.

Mr. CAGE: You know, that had a big impact on me. And my father, too, he was
always projecting movies at home, and that's really where I began my
interest in German expressionism was because my father was playing "Nosferatu"
at the house, and I remember it affecting me, giving me nightmares. Even
though I'm watching this, you know, silent black and white movie, I was really
creeped out by Max Schreck's performance, and it stayed with me. And I think
the movie that really freaked me out was "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." My
father played that for me, and it left an indelible impression and that, of
course, later went on to affect my producing "Shadow of the Vampire," so
that's why that movie came together.

GROSS: Well, Nicolas Cage, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CAGE: Well, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Nicolas Cage is now starring in the new World War II film
"Windtalkers," directed by John Woo. It opens tomorrow.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a recording by trumpeter Doc
Cheatham, who was born on this date in 1905. This session was recorded with
trumpeter Nicholas Payton in 1996, one year before Cheatham died. At the time
of this recording, Cheatham was 91 and Payton was 23. Cheatham was still
singing, as well as playing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOC CHEATHAM: (Singing) How much do I love you? I'll tell you no lie.
How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? How many times a day do I think
of you? How many roses are sprinkled with dew? How far would I travel to be
where you are? How far is the journey from here to a star? And if I ever
lose you, how much would I cry? How deep is the ocean? How high is...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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