Nicolas Cage Talks About the Zeitgeist, Cool and Ghost Rider 2

Nicolas Cage is known for a seemingly endless list of great film roles, in a wide variety of genres (ranging from light comedy to action thriller) .  Some of his most memorable films include Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Kickass and a dual role as twins in Adaptation.  This week he stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his newest film, Ghost Rider 2.  Excerpts of the interview appear below.

Ron Bennington: Obviously the mythology of comic books has pretty much become mainstream now.

Nicholas Cage: Yeah and that’s exactly what it is in my opinion. It’s like an American mythology. It’s a uniquely American invention, the comic book. It began with two Jews who invented the Superman character. And as a result of that, that character in Action #1, we have all the other characters, all the other superheroes. And when I first discovered these colorful characters like the Hulk or Ghost Rider, I was about 8. And I would look at these comics, especially the monsters, and I couldn’t get my head around how something that scary to look at, using the forces of evil could also be good. It was like this weird philosophical awakening at a very young age. Very complicated stuff. Even though it can have an absurdist quality to it because it’s a comic book. Well now with the advent of filmmaking, they’ve touched the world. And it’s no different than a Greek or a Nordic myth or a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Ron Bennington: And if you’ve ever read any of the Joseph Campbell stuff, he always talks about mythology being needed. That every culture has to have mythology.

Nicolas Cage: “Hero With A Thousand Faces”. And Jung, even more than Campbell, really tapped into that. That the myth is without you and within you. And you can access these characters in yourself because it’s part of a zeitgeist. And Campbell wrote all about that to great effect and then of course influenced Star Wars. But it’s a theme that it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from or where you live, you can tap into it.

Ron Bennington: When you brought up zeitgeist too, that’s a thing that always interest me. That these things will just come into a culture whether it’s from you or a guy 3000 miles away.

Nicholas Cage: And it’s always happening adjacent to one another. And it’s just happening at the same time. Like Alan Moore talks about how the invention of the steam train was happening at the same time around the world in some way. But who got the idea first? My dad was like that, he would listen to music, like he was just really into Scott Joplin when we were growing up. He was listening to ragtime and all that and all of a sudden, all these movies started coming out. Or he was writing a book about Vietnam and a Vietnam veteran and suddenly Vietnam, all the movies about Vietnam started happening. So people tap into what’s happening now in the zeitgeist.

Ron Bennington: And yet we still have no way of explaining that. Some people will explain it away with religion or whatever, but even beyond that it seems like maybe someday we will get to that point where we know whatever this kind of invisible or unheard music that we’re all picking up at the same time.

Nicholas Cage: And it’s probably also a response to the environment and what’s happening in the times that everybody can feel. So, comic books, now we call them graphic novels for adults, really speak to that. They tap in to all that.

Ron Bennington: And for you as an actor, you have to, I guess, be ready to move with the zeitgeist. Because you’re going to get roles that wouldn’t have existed in the 1940’s or the 1960’s. You couldn’t sit back and go alright, I going to have a Paul Newman type career because you’re not going to get roles that he would have been presented, types of roles and you will have to make moves that he never would have made.

Nicolas Cage: And they made not be relevant today because they may not be of the zeitgeist. I can’t plan it. I can’t think it. I just have to listen to my body and to what sounds that I’m responding to or what visions I’m responding to in terms of what kind of movies I want to make. There are many reasons to make a movie. Some of them from the necessity which is the mother of all invention. But also, if you do something from a pure place it has to come out because you need to get it out. Not because you want to win awards or because you want to be on the cover of magazines or all the vain stuff, but because you have to do something positive with this energy, then that’s going to be an honest expression. And right now I’m interested in horror films or science fiction films because that gives me a chance to provide a context where I can express some of the images I have in my mind about where I want to go with film acting. Naturalism is a style that I’m becoming increasingly bored with. It’s fine. I’ll do it. I’ll do very photo realistic natural movies with small performances, but I also want to expand and open it up a little bit and be larger and more operatic with it. So I have to do characters that have their heads light on fire and flaming skulls to provide that context.

Ron Bennington: So how quick do you let yourself? You hold a script, how quick before you decide this is one? Does it stay with you for awhile? Or do you get it quick?

Nicolas Cage: Well usually you find out who you’re working with and if you like the director’s work, it can be a pretty quick decision. But sometimes it has to stay with you for a few weeks before you can say yes. And if you have the added bonus of having a novel already written and then a script from the novel then that’s really rich. You have sorts of source material to pull from.

Ron Bennington: So with the Ghost Rider character, I imagine you’re going to know this material because you’re a fan of this your whole life. You’re going to know this as much as anybody in Hollywood let’s say.

Nicolas Cage: Ghost Rider is more of a symbol. He’s like the first superhero that was inspired by Goethe and the Faust story. He’s a symbol for, to me he’s like a metaphor, first of all, he’s incredibly cool looking. A flaming skull in leather on a bike is wonderful to look at. But he’s a symbol of like a mistake and what can you do after you made the mistake. Taking negatives and turning them into positives. I don’t use the comic book. I don’t go back to the comic book and think that this is how I going to play it. In cinema, you have a whole new landscape that you can play with and I wanted to introduce Ghost Rider this time because I didn’t play him in the other movie with movement and my body language to convey something that would feel like a bad dream. I didn’t want you to understand him entirely. He’s a bit enigmatic. So I would try to find the movements of animals that I responded to, like cobra snakes would sway back and forth and then attack. They’d try to hypnotize you and attack or the way praying mantises move their heads.

Ron Bennington: When you get directed now, I mean it reminds almost like when Michael Jordan gets coached. He has to allow himself. Once you get to a certain point, you’ve gotta to kind of hand that power over or find some sort of different partnership. I’m sure it’s not the same way when you were directed when you were young, correct?

Nicolas Cage: It has to be. Yeah, it’s not the same because I started very young. I started when I was 15. I was still trying to find my voice. By the time, you know it’s been 33 years now, by the time I got to this place, I think people know what I have to offer and will either access it or not, or try to reinvent it. But when you’re working with a director, you have to collaborate. Predominantly you have to facilitate the director’s vision. Fortunately in this case, their vision works with my visions. So together we could have a balance that I think worked very well.

Ron Bennington: And you have to go in to that with every film. You have to into every film of “Can I be with this guy? Can I be a partnership?” The reason why I say that is because I always think in a Nic Cage film, you make choices that I can’t imagine anybody else making. So I’m sure that the director is stunned sometimes.

Nicolas Cage: Well what I’ll do is, to be fair, I’ll say look, let’s do this exactly as it’s written and let’s do 2 or 3 takes, let me get 2 or 3 takes with what I’ve been working on all night out of the way. And you come in and you sculpt and you tell me what you want. And then we’ll do that. And then let’s just do a surprise take and let’s see if we get anything. The beauty of that is you don’t have to use it, but if you like it and it surprises you in some way or it shocks you in some way or it stays with you after you see it in the editing room then go for it.

Ron Bennington: And that keeps you being one of those guys that’s like the most quotable people out there. People love to do your lines from movies or little impressions of you.

Nicholas Cage: The idea of film acting is ultimately interpretive. You have to interpret the libretto of the script. But if you’re really in the zone inevitably if you’re a jazz actor, you’re going to find a new bit of dialogue that is even more organic to the character because you’ve really internalized the script so you understand the guy so well that you that you’re able to start riffing with it. And that’s when you get some really good stuff.

Ron Bennington: And that’s still a rare thing. It’s not that often that you’ll hear people that will be that comfortable.

Nicholas Cage: The biggest hurdle is to make sure you’re other colleagues, your other actors are okay with it. So even for them, you have to do it as written and then say now let’s play. You’re great. Give me something. You improvise. And let’s make music together. That’s no different than jazz.

Ron Bennington: Although jazz isn’t played as much. We’re living in kind of an American Idol society now, so it’s different.

Nicholas Cage: Well yeah. I’m a bit anachronistic. Yeah.

Ron Bennington: Even when you use the word “cool” which I think is just you and Tarantino are the only two people who think of cool in the “Hey, this is outside the mainstream”. 

Nicholas Cage: To me, what is genuinely cool is when an artist in any art form listens to his or her muse and and stays true to it. No matter what. I mean if it’s against all the odds. To just stay true to that to me is brave. And if you do that there’s a very good chance that you will tap into that zeitgeist we were talking about. And then invent something. What I love is like Led Zeppelin for example, that’s a band that did no press. They just did no press at all. And they were infinitely mysterious. And they created some of the most magnificent complicated sounds in the history of rock-n-roll. And they sold millions of records and they just kept to themselves. I find that cool. It’s like very hard to do that in this day and age. I have to do the press. It’s part of the deal with the studios. They want you to go out and peddle the movie.

Ron Bennington: I agree. I remember when I was a kid with Jack Nicholson. You just never really saw Jack Nicholson come walking out on the Tonight Show.

Nicholas Cage: And I love him for that. And I always use him as the model, but people say that was a different time. You can’t do that. So when I go out, I find ways of using these Tonight Show spots and still trying to find ways of putting edge into it where it doesn’t…like I snuck on. I don’t really belong on television. So I don’t get homogenized.

Ron Bennington: Thanks so much for being in.

Nicholas Cage: Thank you for having me. It was a very interesting interview. I’m glad I had a chance to talk with you.


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