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Interview: Nicolas Cage
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
July 24, 2006—The following is a transcript of my lone interview, to date, with Nicolas Cage, which was in fact a roundtable with three other journalists. For clarity, I've marked my questions as "JMA" and Cage will be "NC," while the others will be marked as a simple "Q." I enjoyed this one, and found "Nick" to be fairly down-to-earth and honest. The movie we're talking about is Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, in which Nick plays Sergeant John McLoughlin. Along with officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), John was trapped beneath the rubble of the WTC after the 9/11 attacks.
Q: Have you lost weight?
NC: I think I put on some weight. I made a movie in Australia about a year ago where I played a very gaunt figure called Ghost Rider. And I've gained about 10 pounds since then.
JMA: The obvious question here is that it's gotta be a huge challenge to be so immobile and to use nothing but your voice and your inflection -- and you did a knockout job.
NC: Thank you. I have to say that it was wonderfully liberating not to have to think about movement. I was in a contained space for many, many hours -- all day. For months. It actually enabled me to go within and to rely on my imagination to try to re-create, in some small way, what John went through. And sort of like a dog in a crate, in a weird way, the containment of it enabled me to meditate more on what was going on.
JMA: You even get slower and sleepier as it goes on.
NC: Thank you. Well, I tried to rely on... I was thinking about... I'll just give you some of my secrets. I was thinking about HAL in 2001 and his deconstruction. And I thought that John's... it occurs to me that when people are on the cusp of death, sometimes part of the synapses start to deconstruct and break down, and I wanted that kind of slowness to start coming out.
JMA: Was there a kind of template that they used to keep all the crud on your face in all the right places?
NC: I think there was. My hair and makeup stylist was the one in charge of that. And she would make sure it would go in varying degrees, different levels of stress.
JMA: There was one little bit on your cheek that looked like the flesh was ripped open. And also, the fact that you couldn't move your hands to touch it, which would be the natural response.
NC: Yeah. I wasn't able to touch my face very much [laughs]. And there was a lot of smoke and debris that they would blow into the set. All that just helps in some small way with the performances.
Q: Did you spend a lot of time talking with John talking about his experiences and picking up some of the nuances and things that you brought to the role?
NC: Yes. I spent several days with John and interviewed him on videotape, which he was kind enough to let me do. I have to say, when I first met John, I was very, very nervous because I'd never met anyone who's been tested to that capacity before. And he put me right at ease. And he had a lot of faith that Oliver and myself would do our jobs. So he was very forthcoming. And it was really about... he used the line "solve the pain." It was really about how he could solve the pain and survive. There were images of his family. There was prayer. There was will. And just the feeling of the tenacity of "I can't die. I can't let Donna down. I can't let the kids down." He just kept thinking about those kids, and that helped.
JMA: Did you have specific pains that you were aware of that you were supposed to focus on? Like at one point your character mentions his knees being crushed together?
NC: Well, early on I said to Oliver that I feel that the movie is on... one line of the film is a track of levels of pain. And we have to figure out how to play the pain so that it doesn't become monotonous, and so in a sense, choreograph the pain. I remember John Lennon on the end of "Cold Turkey" when he's going through the sounds of withdrawal and the screaming. It was very operatic. And I would think about levels. So we came up with the idea of the numbness coming in to overcome the...
JMA: The waves.
NC: Yeah, the waves. The pain comes in waves. So he would scream to let the pain out, and then the shock would set in and the numbness would come up. So it was this dance of shock vs. pain.
Q: Even though you nailed that, because it came through in your expressions, I would think that that's not a very easy thing to do as an actor. Or maybe it was for you. Or was it?
NC: I don't like the feeling of faking things. I try to make things as real as I can as an actor. Somebody once said that -- I think it was... Picasso: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." And so I would try to find little ways to make pain so I could scream with authority. But I don't want to talk about my little ways of making pain.
JMA: Like pulling a nose hair?
NC: More like rocks and things I could gather and put on my hands.
JMA: Now, you couldn't see Michael Peña on the set. Is that correct?
JMA: But you could hear each other? Were you on the same set at the same time?
NC: Yes. Yes. One of the elements that I wanted to bring into the circumstances we were playing was the element of darkness -- that we were in pain, in the dark. And that we couldn't see each other or anything. So trying to have eyes adjust to light and find the walkie-talkie and those little elements helped to make the situation all the more terrifying. To be in those levels of agony in the dark, not being able to see, to me was another element to explore.
Q: You've now interacted with all these guys, so you've got a sense of who they are and what they've become and what they're still going through. You've also been through, I'm gonna call it "the simulation," for want of a better word. Has it changed your perception or your outlook?
NC: In general?
Q: In general. How about general and specific both?
NC: There's no way, when you're participating in a subject matter that deals with this amount of pain and loss that you can't re-evaluate your own life and how you want to try and make a difference to help others. Otherwise I think you're genuinely a cold, detached person. I care. And I try to have actions that represent how I feel about people who are suffering. I consider, from this experience and from other adventures I've had making films and meeting people, that -- without getting too esoteric -- I feel connected to everybody. And I wanna... if someone's not doing well, I want to find a way to help. And I think it goes both ways.
Q: Do you think you'll follow up with these guys? John and (John's wife) Donna?
NC: I'm sure I will. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other in the future. I don't know in what capacity. I imagine some time will go by and if I'm in town I'll give them a call. Absolutely.
Q: Does this rank as one of your more challenging movies?
NC: Yeah, in the sense that I really didn't want to let John down. And all the men and women who lost their lives in that building -- in both the buildings. I kept thinking about the kids and their letters to the deceased. And I would see that on the walls at Ground Zero. I kept wanting to... if there was any way at all that those letters could be answered, I wanted to somehow try to call that up, you know. To say, "I love you" in the film. It depends upon your state of mind, and what you believe. I'm a big believer in the human spirit and I believe that... I don't think life just ends. And I think that this movie is here now for a reason, and it exists, and I'm very respectful of the departed and that's why I made the movie. Some people have a problem with some of my decisions about how I want to promote the movie. But I feel that, you know, I think if I were to go on "Access Hollywood" or "Entertainment Tonight" and try to plug the film, then it's an insult to the people who lost their lives. So I'm trying to speak to the news, and news-based shows because I think that's the right format. Not everybody agrees, but it's just a philosophical thing.
Q: So what do you think would be the main purpose of the film?
NC: Well, I think... I do think the main purpose of this movie is healing. It's cathartic. It's to... maybe not for everybody right now, and no one's saying, "Go see the movie! You have to see the movie." I know I'm not. Go when you feel like you're ready because I feel like it would be a mistake not to. It's accurate and all the actors cared a lot, and I think Oliver cared a lot to get the details right. And it is positive. Ultimately, it is a story of survival. And that's helpful to people.
Q: Did you like the fact, too, that it ignored the politics?
NC: Yes. Whatever our politics are, I think it would be... it would eclipse... If we don't go into the movie neutrally, it will eclipse the story of survival and courage of what these people went through. And I don't want that to happen.
Q: Did it surprise you that Oliver Stone would have a movie that didn't deal with politics?
NC: No, I think... I felt right away that he knew that this had to be a song for the firemen and the policemen who risked their lives.
JMA: Can I just ask a technical question? People kind of like to know how long it took you to get into your cocoon every day? How long was your day?
NC: Yeah. It was a cocoon of sorts. It was... I didn't have a watch on it, but literally, like eight hours a day, or twelve hours a day in and out.
JMA: Just getting set up?
NC: Oh, no. Not getting set up, but in the box. In the hole. To get set up, it was like an hour and a half of makeup and then climb into the hole and put everything on top, I would say about another 40 minutes, just to get set up. I'm trying to think about... I thought there was something else I wanted to say. It'll come back to me another time. [Everyone laughs]. There was something I wanted to say.
JMA: On the previous subject?
NC: Yeah, maybe. But it's slipped my mind.
JMA: Oh. Sorry.
NC: It's alright.
Q: Any interest in exploring caves?
NC: Yeah... I scuba dive, and then I did think about doing cave diving, and then I really thought more about it and it occurred to me, why would I really want to put myself through that? Because it's dark and you have to bring flashlights, and you have to have a string that follows you so you know how to get back out. And you can get stuck with the tank, but that's another subject.
Q: What's the next movie you're doing? Is it with Will Smith?
NC: Will and I have been talking about trying to do a movie together, but we don't have anything definite right now.
Q: What are you working on? What's the next project?
NC: What am I about to embark on, as we speak? I'm going to Bangkok in two weeks -- which I still haven't gotten my mind around -- and I'm doing an interracial action movie, is what I like to call it. I'm the one white guy with a lot of Asian actors. I think that'll be cool. Because I am Asian now. Part Asian. My son is half Asian. So, I see that as... If he ever asks me one day, you know, "Dad how come you never made any movies with Asian actors?" And I'll say, "Take a look at that!"
Partial Nicolas Cage Filmography: