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Nicolas Cage on Playing

The Oscar winner candidly discusses his struggle to play himself in his new comedy ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,’ his “mutual departure” with Hollywood, why he’s become a meme favorite, and whether he’d be down for ‘Face/Off 2.’ hen Nicolas Cage first heard the premise of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, he was vaguely offended. In writer-director Tom Gormican’s comedy, a fictionalized, egocentric, down-on-his-luck version of Nicolas Cage accepts a $1 million offer from a wealthy mega-fan (Pedro Pascal) to attend a party in Spain and finds himself in a real-life action-adventure and tumbling down a rabbit hole of references to his past roles. “I turned it down three or four times,” Cage tells The Hollywood Reporter in a candid and in-depth interview ahead of the film’s March 12 premiere at SXSW. An impassioned letter from Gormican (Ghosted) eventually won him over. But even after wrapping production, the actor was convinced he couldn’t stomach the funhouse mirror experience of watching himself play himself (until, that is, he was forced to do it). Fortunately, the movie will be anything but torturous for audiences — Unbearable Weight just might be Cage’s most accessible live-action work in years. It’s a feel-good comedic adventure with Cage in a dual role as himself and, occasionally, his imaginary alter ego “Nicky” (a bombastic CG-smoothed 1990 version of Cage). Coming off his acclaimed dramatic performance in last year’s indie fav Pig, the 58-year-old discusses the psychological roller coaster of making Unbearable Weight, explains the method behind his onscreen madness, his “mutual departure” with Hollywood, and whether he’d be down for Face/Off 2.

What was your initial reaction to this idea?

I wanted no part of it. But when I got Tom’s letter, then I thought, “OK, he’s not just trying to mock so-called Nick Cage; there is a real interest in some of the earlier work.” His tone was more of a celebration of some of the actor’s iconic onscreen moments — like being at the bottom of the pool in Leaving Las Vegas or using the gold guns in Face/Off. What really put the hook in me was a sequence that is no longer in the movie. It was a sequence where the Nick Cage character goes into a series of vignettes that are all stylized in the German expressionism of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. So there was a sequence in black and white that was a Gone in 60 Seconds race in a Mustang, there was the Leaving Las Vegas character in a hotel room. It was fun to make and cool to look at. Ultimately, the studio decided it was too far out for audiences. I also really responded to the Nicky character, this younger version of myself. They were initially talking more about like having the character be like Cameron Poe from Con Air — but that’s not me. Look at my appearance on the Wogan show in England when I was promoting Wild at Heart. That guy was an obnoxious, irreverent, arrogant madman. That’s the young version of me that I think that I would be confronting as the contemporary Nick Cage. Not very close. And it’s hard to put family life aside — that is the biggest departure in Tom’s movie. I always put my family first, and I have turned down some enormous opportunities as a result of that. When I was in a divorce situation in 2001 from Patricia Arquette, I wouldn’t leave my son Weston to be in New Zealand for three years shooting The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix. My choice was always wanting to stay in L.A. and be with my son.

Tom’s argument, which is a good one, was, “Well, this is a movie. We’re telling a story, and the idea is this character is evolving.” And I get that, but I have to go on record that that is a pretty big difference. A version of Nick Cage that doesn’t want to spend time with his kid doesn’t exist. I also said to Tom, “I don’t use that much profanity.” He’s got me saying the F-bomb every other sentence. Where’s this coming from? That’s not me. He said, “Neurotic Nick Cage is the best Nick Cage.” I have a lot of quiet moments at home with just my cat, reading. Do we want to show any of that? No, because it’s not fun.

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The funny thing is, when Pig came out, it hit with indie audiences and not only with indie audiences. I called Tom and said, “We’re going to have to rewrite the entire script now.” But the thing was, there was a mutual departure that happened between me and Hollywood somewhere along the way. I started reading a lot of philosophy. I stopped being interested in going to awards shows and selling myself. I made a decision to pursue a life of contemplation. And simultaneously, I had movies like Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Ghost Rider and Drive Angry — three in a row that didn’t work out. There was this marginalization that happened while I was also more interested in philosophy and meditating. So those two things happened at once. But I don’t think the phone ever stopped ringing. I went back to my own interests in independent drama — that’s always been my roots — and I just kept working. If you look at my total worldwide box office after 43 years of cinema, I’m approaching something like $6 billion. Three flops aren’t going to completely eradicate you from Hollywood studios. Well, see, that’s a good question. I had to make a very clear choice. I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to file for bankruptcy. Whatever happened to me in 2009 when Cage had a flurry of financial woes, including having to pay the IRS $14 million in back taxes, I made the decision to work my way out of it. But I only did movies where I thought I could bring something authentic to them. I turned a lot of crap down. But I do think that the constant amount of working — which is probably going to continue — has made me better at my job. I developed this mantra, which is: “I never had a career, I only have work.” And when I say that, I am saying that I’m a better man when I’m working because I don’t want to be that guy that’s sitting by a pool getting bombed on mai tais and Dom Perignon. I have been that guy in between jobs and it’s only fun for maybe two days and then you’re like, “I gotta get healthy.” So work has always been a place where my job is to get up in the morning, to work out, to do 5 to 8 miles on the elliptical, I lift weights, I look at the news, I feed all my animals and then call my boys. When I’m on set, I’m focused, I’m working with other actors. I have a very clean life when I’m filming, and that’s important to me.