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Film critic John Powers

Film critic John Powers reviews Punch Drunk Love, the new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson's previous films include Magnolia and Boogie Nights.



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Other segments from the episode on October 11, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 11, 2002: Review of the film "Punch drunk love;" Interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman; Interview with Jimmy Scott; Interview with Nicolas Cage.


DATE October 11, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Review: Movie "Punch-Drunk Love"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is the new movie by Paul Thomas Anderson that stars Adam
Sandler. Anderson's other films include "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia."
Anderson won this year's best director prize at Cannes. So what happened when
Anderson teamed up with Adam Sandler? Magic, says film critic John Powers.


Like most people over the age of, oh, 16, I'm baffled by the superstardom of
Adam Sandler. To me, the guy's a grab bag of annoying mannerisms--mugging,
talking in baby voices, snickering at his own jokes. So when I heard that he
was starring in the new movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, I wondered if Anderson
was engaging in an act of hubris. You know, a sow's ear and a silk purse kind
of stunt. Well, if so, the magic worked.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is the most inventive romantic comedy in ages, a
wonderfully strange tour de force full of free-floating anxiety, jarring
bursts of violence and miraculous intimations of sweet music.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a sad-sack San Fernando Valley businessman whose
natural shyness has been amplified by seven sisters, who teasingly call him
`Gay Boy' and affectionately mock his infantile lisp. Barry's a lovely guy,
but he's so bottled up that he sometimes just explodes. At one point, he even
trashes a restaurant bathroom.

His salvation appears in the form of Lena Leonard, a divorcee so cracked that
she's played by "Breaking the Waves'" Emily Watson. Once Lena sets her
pinwheel eyes on Barry, she's hooked, and the rest of the movie is all about
him overcoming his fears. This is a complicated process that includes a
scheme to win a million frequent-flier miles by purchasing pudding and a
battle against phone sex hoodlums. Here, Barry makes an angry call to the
head of the phone sex ring, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(Soundbite from "Punch-Drunk Love")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: Yeah, who's this?

Mr. ADAM SANDLER: Hello, sir. My name's Barry Egan. I called your service
the other night.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, why don't you shut the (censored).

Mr. SANDLER: Oh, what's that?

Mr. HOFFMAN: What's the problem?

Mr. SANDLER: The problem is, if you give me a chance to explain, one of your
employees, that girl who I was just speaking with, has been threatening me.
And four blond gentlemen just attacked me and smashed my car and hurt my girl.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It has nothing to do with me, all right? I run a legitimate
business here.

Mr. SANDLER: Listen to me. What's your name, sir? Answer me!

Mr. HOFFMAN: What's your name?

Mr. SANDLER: I'm Barry Egan!

Mr. HOFFMAN: How do I know? You could be anybody, man.

Mr. SANDLER: You're a bad person. You have no right taking people's
confidence in your service. Do you understand me, sir?

Mr. HOFFMAN: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. SANDLER: No, no, no. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut, shut, shut,
shut, shut up! Shut up! Now!

POWERS: Anderson has always had the knack of finding something new in
well-known actors. Think of Burt Reynolds in "Boogie Nights" or Tom Cruise in
"Magnolia." Here, he gives us Adam Sandler as we've never before seen him,
hunched, crunched and muttering, soft-faced, big-pored and flushed with rage.
While it would be a stretch to say that he gives a great performance, he
brings Barry alive with an often-soulful piece of acting that expands and
deepens our sense of his persona as, say, Clint Eastwood once did with his own
tough-guy image.

In a sense, "Punch-Drunk Love" is an Adam Sandler comedy gone berserk. It
takes the archetypal structure of a Sandler picture in which a loser triumphs
over all odds and winds up snagging the sexy blonde. Yet Anderson pushes this
formula to the breaking point. He amps up the contradictory sides of
Sandler's screen image--the adolescent troublemaker and the love-struck
goof--and then lays bare the anger, terror, violence and yearning that lie

May I say, you can only admire the heroic perversity of turning the king of
slobby teen comedy into the star of a rigorously poetic art film. At bottom,
"Punch-Drunk Love" is something of a fractured version of an old MGM musical.
The score veers between jarring percussion and demented Parisian romanticism.
The lovers are color coded blue and red. And Barry's peak of exuberance comes
when he does a soft-shoe while purchasing pudding. Crazily enough, the
movie's theme song is "He Needs Me," as sung by Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl
in the movie "Popeye."

Yet even as he makes us smile, Anderson wants his movie to get under our skin.
He externalizes Barry's inner chaos by making the outside world feel
profoundly assaultive. Sunlight burns bright as a nuclear blast. Cars crash
with unsettling randomness. And for the first few minutes, you may think the
sound has been mixed incorrectly because the whole world's so loud--motors,
footsteps, rattling pipes, everything. No wonder Barry's a jangle of nerves.

This assaultiveness recedes as Barry begins to break free from his anxiety,
and after a glorious romantic visit to Waikiki, the action slowly reaches a
plateau of calm acceptance. For all their surface darkness, Anderson's movies
are all about outcasts and loners finding shelter, ersatz families, someone to
watch over them. He clearly believes, or wants to believe, that an accepting
woman is waiting for even the most difficult guy.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is less emotionally juicy than Anderson's other pictures,
and Lena is more a wish fulfillment than a full-blooded character. Yet the
movie winds up being Anderson's sunniest, attuned to the glorious romanticism
in the wackiest of things. This is a film in which the absurd modern
obsession with frequent-flier miles is transformed into the ultimate proof of
fidelity. And true intimacy is revealed by a man telling his lover, `I'm
sorry I beat up the bathroom.'

BIANCULLI: John Powers is media columnist and film critic for LA Weekly.

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Interview: Philip Seymour Hoffman discusses his acting career

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's featured in "Punch-Drunk Love," has worked for
Paul Thomas Anderson more than he's worked for any other director. This is
their fourth film together, after also teaming on "Hard Eight," "Boogie
Nights" and "Magnolia." But Hoffman also has worked for plenty of other
talented moviemakers and turned in some very memorable performances, including
the lonely guy in "Happiness," the drag queen in "Flawless," and that great
supporting role as rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous."

Hoffman seems to seek out roles for their complexity and variety rather than
for the length of time they're on the screen. This makes him an interesting
actor to watch and gives him a career resume that's fun to discuss. Terry
interviewed Hoffman in 1999, and began by asking him about one of the older
entries on that resume, one of his films with Anderson.


Let's talk about some of your early films, or earlier films.


GROSS: Let's start with "Boogie Nights."

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And just to recap our listeners' memories, Burt Reynolds stars as a
porn director in the 1970s and wants to make the kind of movies where people
come for the plot, not just for the sex. And Mark Wahlberg plays his young
discovery who becomes a star in the porn world. And you're part of the film
crew; you have a crush on the Mark Wahlberg character. And at a party, you
kind of overcome your inhibitions, invite him to come outside to take a look
at your new red sports car, then you give him a big kiss on the lips. And I
want to play the clip of what happens here after that. Here's Mark Wahlberg's

(Soundbite of "Boogie Nights")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Scotty) I'm sorry, Dirk. I...

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG: (As Dirk) What the hell is the matter with you?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I'm sorry. I...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Why did you do that, Scotty?

Mr. HOFFMAN: You look at me sometimes...


Mr. HOFFMAN: ...and I want to know if you like me.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Well, of cour--yeah, I like you, Scotty. I...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Can I kiss you?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Scotty, I...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Please, can I kiss you on the mouth?


Mr. HOFFMAN: Please let me.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Scotty!

Mr. HOFFMAN: I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to grab you like that or scare
you or anything.

Mr. WAHLBERG: It's all right, man.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Do you want to kiss me, or...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Scotty!

Mr. HOFFMAN: No? Oh.

Mr. WAHLBERG: What's the matter with you?

Mr. HOFFMAN: All right. Forget it. I'm j--I'm really drunk. Really, I--I'm
just--I'm out of my head. I'm so wa--I'm really wasted. Really, Dirk, I'm
really just wasted.

Mr. WAHLBERG: I understand.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I'm crazy right now. I mean, I'm really crazy, you know?

Mr. WAHLBERG: Do you want to go back inside?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Do you like my car, Dirk?


Mr. HOFFMAN: I mean...

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Because I wanted to--you know, I wanted to make sure you thought
it was cool, or else I was gonna take it back.


Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

Mr. WAHLBERG: It's great, Scotty.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Happy New Year.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Happy New Year, Scotty.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I love you. I really love you.

Mr. WAHLBERG: Yeah, I love you, too, Scotty.


Mr. WAHLBERG: Let's go back inside, OK?

Mr. HOFFMAN: All right. I--all right.

GROSS: After that happens, you go into your new red sports car and you're
crying, `I'm such an idiot, I'm such an idiot.' Tell us about creating this
character, someone who's surrounded by beautiful people...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...who have sex on screen, and he's very repressed, doesn't really
accept his homosexuality, thinks he's incredibly unattractive and overweight.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I can't tell you how much fun we had doing that film, all of us.
But, yeah, I did have to play the guy whose shirt didn't go over his belly and
tight shorts and the long hair and stuff. But that was all my choice, you
know, and I did that. You know, no one put me in those clothes. That was my
choice. I did that. I did all those things, that character. So, you know, I
have to live with it, all the good things and all the bad things that go with
it. But I do think that that's who he was, and that's kind of how, honestly,
I wanted to play him. And I do think it was honest and it was the only way I
felt like that character could be played with any depth to it.

You know, I had a strong feeling that this character who was--he was my age,
but basically, he was 13, so I did a lot of literal expressions of that. The
literal stuff was the costume. I mean, I basically wore a wardrobe of a
13-year-old. You know, I wanted to--I remember when we were doing--trying on
the clothes, I kept saying, `Smaller, smaller, smaller,' and they're like,
`Well, we're going into Macy's rack now,' they said. That made me feel good.

But then there, it was just, you know, how does a guy from the Valley talk?
You know, how does a guy who's really affected, doesn't know he's gay, from
the Valley, talk, you know. And I just came up with it. I don't know how
I--I just had a lot of different voices in my head, and I kind of meshed them
all together and came up with this voice, and it seemed right. And then it
informed how I moved my body, and then I just do all the internal work, which
I always do, which is, you know, what's it like to just, you know--what's it
like to obsess about somebody? You know, what's it like to want somebody so
bad? What's it like to go through the day and not feel a thing about anything
else but this one person, you know? And you just go from there and see what
happens. I'm proud of the choices we made there.

And Paul was really helpful the whole way through. He was cautious at first
when I brought in what I did, and then we just nurtured it together. And we
both remember after shooting it and seeing it, I remember going to him and
saying, `Thank you for letting me do what I did, and I think we did right by
this part you wrote.'

GROSS: My guest is Philip Seymour Hoffman. Let's move on to another of your
films and this is "Happiness." Now in "Happiness," everyone has some strange,
usually unsavory, quirk and your character--you play someone who is very
repressed sexually...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...stays home and basically, his only sexual companion is himself. He
makes these anonymous sexual calls.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Right.

GROSS: At the beginning of the film, we see you with your psychiatrist and
you're telling him about the obsession you have with your neighbor, and you
describe what you want to do with her, what you would do if you could get your
hands on her. You'd undress her. You'd tie her up. And then you'd do a lot
of things that I couldn't mention on the radio and here's what happens next.

(Soundbite from "Happiness")

Mr. HOFFMAN: Oh, she doesn't even know I exist. I mean, she knows I exist.
I mean, we are neighbors, you know? We, you know, smile politely at each
other, but I don't know I could ever really begin to talk to her. I mean,
what--what can I talk about? I have nothing to talk about. I'm boring, but I
know. I have been told before, so don't tell me it's not true 'cause it's a
fact. I bore people. People look at me and they get bored. People listen to
me and they zone out, bored.

GROSS: As you're saying this to your therapist, he's picking lint off of his
pants, very distractedly.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And then he starts to mentally run through his to-do list and his
shopping list.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: Now this is not the kind of role to make you think, `Hey, he's perfect
leading man material.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, no, it's not.

GROSS: Did you have any concerns about that?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No. No. No, because, hey, he's repressed in a lot of ways,
this guy. This character kind of is in his own orbit compared to most
characters I've played. So I had to play him. It was one of those had to had
to had to things. I read it and it was just so fantastically written, and
when I was auditioning for it--I auditioned about a billion times--and Todd
was so specific with me, and I just knew. When I got the part, I remember my
agent calling me, he goes, `Well, you got it.' I had auditioned, like, five
times. I remember going, `Oh, boy.' That was the first thing I said. I was,
like, `Well, do I really want that?' But I was kidding, meaning I was
excited. I was excited to play this part. It's a great part. It's one of
the best parts I've ever been given. I was lucky to get it.

GROSS: Now you put a lot of tension into your voice for this part.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah. And that, again, was another thing that just--like
I said, the non-literal thing coming back up again. You know, how am I going
to interpret how this guy behaves? I don't know. Sometimes he talks just
like me. Sometimes he walks and acts just like me. But sometimes I was
playing his part--I remember, I don't know, I was just doing something one day
and I was kind of working on it. And I just knew that he was kind of caving
in on himself all the time. So with the shoulders over and the caving in of
the chest and just the voice--the face kind of caved in, too, and that's the
voice that came. I know that none of this makes any sense. It's just actor
mumbo jumbo, but that's kind of what happens. So I had this weird voice.

GROSS: Tension, no energy.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Tension. Yeah, he was just kind of caving in on himself, you
know, which made him sound different, that's all.

GROSS: Let me get to another great film that you were in, and that's
"Wonderland"--real different kind of film, you know, a romantic comedy and a
really different kind of role. And this one--let's see. I'm going to play a
clip from the opening scene in which Hope Davis who plays the girlfriend who
you live with...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...comes home to find that you've taken all your things, you've packed
the car with them, and you're ready to drive off and leave her.

(Soundbite from "Next Stop Wonderland")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Sean) Look, I didn't mean it to be this way. The reasons
why I'm leaving are on this tape. It points out the six points of why I think
our relationship is doomed and why I'm leaving. You can watch it later. I
was going to mail it, but now I'll just give it to you now.

Ms. HOPE DAVIS: Are you taking your VCR? Did you leave that or what?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I bought the VCR. I'm taking my VCR. It's the only thing I'm

Ms. DAVIS: What is laying on top of the car? What's laying on top of the

Mr. HOFFMAN: That's our futon. It's my futon. I'm taking--can I please take
the futon? Please.

(Soundbite of cat)

Mr. HOFFMAN: Violence is not the answer!

Ms. DAVIS: Don't be driving back here in a couple of days, OK? I'm not going
through this over and over and over.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I'm not--that's on the tape. I think that's point number four
on the tape because I have my vision. You have your vision. And I'm leaving
because the Tentoonies(ph) need me.

Ms. DAVIS: The who?

Mr. HOFFMAN: The Tentoonies.

Ms. DAVIS: What's Tentoonies?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's an Indian tribe. It was in the newspaper. It was on CNN.
You don't even watch TV. You don't read the paper. You don't know what's
going on in the world. That's one of my reasons. That's point one.

Ms. DAVIS: You can't just walk out.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I know. I'm...

Ms. DAVIS: You can't just walk out, Sean.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Listen. Listen. I'm going to go and I'm not coming back. I'm

Ms. DAVIS: Take Fidel.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Please take Fidel.

Ms. DAVIS: I'm not taking Fidel, Sean.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Please take Fidel.

Ms. DAVIS: I'm not taking your (censored) cat.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I don't have the time and energy to take care of the cat. I
have to go and get something accomplished. That cat will be in the way. Ow!
I am a man of peace; you are a woman of violence. I'm not a man like that and
you're turning me into that man. That's, like, point number eight. I

GROSS: This is a role departure for you because you're playing a kind of
slightly magnified version of your standard self-righteous and sensitive
boyfriend. You know, there's a whole genre of person who fits that category.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, it's funny 'cause every part you play
there's a genre. You know, that's what I found out, is that every part you
play, somebody's played that type of role 10 million times before. And it's
kind of the job is what new light do you want to shine on that part or that
story. And in "Wonderland" that was kind of my take.

BIANCULLI: Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. We'll be back with more of Terry's
interview after a break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: More from Terry's interview with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
She spoke to him in 1999 just as his film "Flawless" was being released. In
"Flawless," one of his biggest starring roles, Hoffman plays a drag queen who
has a cabaret act. His downstairs neighbor is a homophobic retired security
guard played by Robert De Niro. Early in the film, the guard is disabled by a
stroke. When his physical therapist advises him that singing lessons will
help him talk again, he asks his drag queen neighbor to become his teacher.

In this scene, De Niro asks Hoffman how he became a drag queen. Hoffman
explains that as a child he was always miscast as big male characters in
musicals like "The Snow Queen."

(Soundbite from "Flawless")

Mr. HOFFMAN: We were all on stage, and they had made these dry ice kettles
so the smoke can come out of them, you know. And one night, all of a sudden,
one dry ice kettle exploded and dry ice had flew everywhere. Well, pretty
little Miss No Talent who was playing the snow queen, you know, dashed off
the stage screaming and pulling her hair out. Well, the play must go on, I
believe, and she had dropped a crown. Well, honey, I just picked up that
crown, put it on my head and I was the greatest damn snow queen in the history
of PS-11 Paramus, New Jersey. And I have been wearing dresses ever since.
But I don't like the term `drag queen,' you know, because most drag queens
just want to, you know, parade around looking flawless, you know. And if they
sing, you know, they have to lip-synch to records. And I'm a singer and I'm a
female impressionist. I'm an artist, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, if--oh, say, you're a (censored) drag queen.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Let me savor those lovely words for a moment. All right? What,
are you channeling Jesse Helms?

GROSS: I think a lot of actors have the envision of some day working with De
Niro. You both had to do things that were very physically different for you.
He's playing somebody who had a stroke and is partially paralyzed.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And you're playing someone who's transgendered...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...a man dressing as a woman. So, like, you know, you're both having
to really go to extremes...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: this. What was it like watching him work and get into his
character with a partially paralyzed face and body?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, it's exactly it. He does meticulous work. And he's a
perfect example of kind of what I'm talking about. He shows up to the set and
he's this very healthy man, De Niro. You know, he's very strong. He's still
got a very young physique, you know, and a lot of energy. And he comes here
in the morning and there he is. And then he starts to put on some prosthetics
and do the work he needs to do, and all of a sudden he's this guy who can't
walk and can't talk, and how he informs that role is beautiful. But here he
is coming in in the morning, like, you know, in better shape than I am.

So that's what it's like working with him is seeing him do the meticulous work
and the interpretive work that he does to get at what you eventually see, you
know? And it did help me because he's very calm about it and relaxed about it
and step-by-step about it and A to B to C about it. And that's how you should
be 'cause the movie sets move along so quickly and there's a lot of panic and
tension and `Got to get the shot. We've got to get the shot. We've got to
get done. We've got to get done today or everyone will die' type mentality.
And so when an actor comes in with his stature and kind of says, `I need to do
what I need to do to get where I got to get,' and he slowly does that, it's
helpful to me.

BIANCULLI: Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's in the new movie "Punch-Drunk
Love." I'm David Bianculli. This is FRESH AIR.

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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Nicolas Cage discusses his acting career and his new
film "Windtalkers"

Nicolas Cage has a reputation as an especially intense actor who takes his
roles and his preparation very seriously, whether he's romancing Cher in
"Moonstruck," chasing babies in "Raising Arizona," or eating a real cockroach
in "Vampire's Kiss." Off camera he's equally as interesting. Nicolas Cage's
essay this year for `What I did on my summer vacation' would include marrying
Elvis Presley's daughter. Cage won an Oscar for his performance as a suicidal
alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas," but also has starred in more mainstream
Hollywood action films like "Con Air" and "The Rock." He's starred in two
John Woo films, "Face/Off" and the World War II film "Windtalkers," which
comes out on DVD and video next week.

"Windtalkers" is set in the Pacific island of Saipan. In the movie, as in
real life, 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 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"): I'm 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, 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

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


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.

Mr. CAGE: Well, the first battle sequence--not the first one in the movie,
but with the whole team of men that we grow 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. 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

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

But, you know, it sounds a lot scarier than it is because at the time that I
was doing 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: 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.

Mr. CAGE: It was. 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, 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, yeah, so I've always believed that voice and the actor are important

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.

BIANCULLI: Actor Nicholas Cage. His movie "Windtalkers" comes out next week
on video and DVD. We'll be back with more of Terry's interview after a break.
I'm David Bianculli. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Nicolas Cage.

GROSS: I want to ask you a little bit about "Leaving Las Vegas," which--you
won an Oscar for that, didn't you?

Mr. CAGE: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Now this is based on a story by a writer who was so depressed
he actually committed suicide before the movie was made. You play a character
who wants to drink yourself to death, and then you meet a prostitute who you
fall in love with. But that's not going to stand in your way of drinking
yourself to death. Did you feel like you really understood that kind of
driving 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. 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 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 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: Well, Nicolas Cage, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CAGE: Well, thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: Actor Nicholas Cage speaking earlier this year with Terry Gross.


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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