Acclaimed Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage has never been afraid of taking on different roles. But as a drugged-up, corrupt cop in post-Katrina New Orleans, he takes it to another level. Buzzine’s Izumi Hasegawa gives us the inside scoop.
Izumi Hasegawa: How would you describe your character?
Nicolas Cage: He just is. I don’t judge him or think of him as bad or good. It’s more existential — not a part of any religious program, which is what I think separates it mostly from the other film. It just is.
IH: You were instrumental in choosing the location. What is it about New Orleans that led you to talk to Werner Herzog about filming there?
NC: I felt that I had to go through a catharsis, that I had to face my fears. New Orleans is a very potent city in my life, for various reasons. It’s a combination of different energies – African, French, English, Spanish — and there’s a lot of magic there. I’ve had a lot of experiences there, and I wanted to go back and confront it. I knew I would channel that energy and it could either be a disaster or something beautiful, so I was up for the challenge.
IH: Did you have fun letting loose for this role?
NC: I just felt I was in the zone and came prepared and did what I had to do. I thank Werner for letting me go. I didn’t need to be pushed, I didn’t need to be pulled — I just came in and did what I needed to do, and I thank Werner for having the guts to let me do it.
IH: What else do you have to add on your comments about this role being Impressionistic, as you also described your Leaving Las Vegas role as being photo-realistic?
NC: A lot of people like to say things like “over-the-top.” You can’t say that about other art forms, such as a Picasso or a Van Gogh, but why can’t it be the same with acting? In Leaving Las Vegas, I had a couple of drinks. I wanted to. I had prescribed scenes where I decided I would get drunk and anything goes, and I’m glad I did it. But with Bad Lieutenant, I say this is Impressionistic because I was totally sober and I was looking at a landscape from over 20 years ago, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was a challenge. But I believe that the filter of my instrument would give you something more exciting because it was Impressionistic.
IH: What is your acting process? Do you like to do a lot of rehearsals? Does it meld with Werner Herzog’s directing style?
NC: I think Werner and I had a perfect marriage. He moves very quickly. My best takes are my first two takes. He has confidence in what I’m going to do and I have confidence in what he’s going to do, that he’ll get it. Sometimes I do love to rehearse, but I always switch it up, depending on who I’m working with. I know Werner likes to do as little rehearsal as possible because he likes freshness and spontaneity, and I appreciate that.
IH: This is your second collaboration with Eva Mendes in a very different kind of movie from Ghost Rider. What did you two learn from or about each other working together for the second time?
NC: I just feel that Eva has evolved. She was excellent in Ghost Rider, but there’s a new liquid, soft Eva Mendes that’s very fluid and spontaneous in this film. I’ve been a fan of her work and am becoming an even greater fan as I continue to see her growth, and I hope we work together again.
IH: What is your working relationship like with Val Kilmer?
NC: Val and I have an interesting relationship. We have mutual respect for one another and kept correspondence with each other over the years. We don’t have a friendship per se, but we would write letters to each other, from one actor to another, offering support to one another, as we did for Tombstone and Leaving Las Vegas. We always knew there was camaraderie there, and I would say that the best actors of my generation that I would call geniuses are Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. So to get a chance to work with Val was a good thing, and I hope we’ll have more to do together. He is my brother in many ways, as a fellow artist, and I hope we’ll find another movie to do together.
IH: What are the differences acting in independent films and acting in Hollywood films?
NC: I have been blessed to be able to be eclectic, and I’m thankful for that. As I got older, with my work, I became aware of the responsibility of film, and I feel one of the best ways I can apply myself as an actor is to go beyond movie stardom and celebrity. These so called Popcorn movies or family movies actually provide something quite beautiful and something quite necessary, which is a family bonding experience. So God bless the popcorn film, especially movies where you can take the kids, because I remember looking forward to seeing these movies with my parents, and if I can give that back, I’m gonna do it. I don’t care if people have criticism for it or not — I think it’s a good thing, and I still have interest in the midnight audience. I want to make movies for my roots — the people who like to go see Bad Lieutenant at midnight, or Vampire’s Kiss, or Bringing Out The Dead, or Wild At Heart, so I’m gonna keep doing a little bit of everything.
IH: How did you deal with having a bad back throughout the film? Did it take coaching? Why are there no Southern accents?
NC: Let’s be totally honest – I designed Terence. I came in with a vision and a bad back. I was thinking of things like Richard III. I like to get my body into it. My mother was a dancer, so I like to use the body as part of the instrument of acting, so I saw this back injury as an opportunity to transform myself. That’s where that came from. The dialect — Werner and I agreed we don’t need it. He could have been from anywhere. He is a New Orleans cop, his identity was New Orleans, he took pride in being in the South. He said, “We don’t hit women down South,” so that’s his identity, but he could have been from anywhere. Just like me.
IH: Can you talk about your scenes with Lance Nichols?
NC: He was amazing to watch. It was very funny — the incredible scenes we had together. I don’t know how they came up with those ideas, but I remember Werner was really telling him what to do.
IH: What are some of the influences that helped you develop the personality of your character?
NC: I was in Australia when I got the script. The strangest thing is that, in Australia, they still use cocaine to clear your sinuses, and I had a massive sinus infection. I was trying to understand how to recall something from 100 years in my past and I couldn’t get it, and then they sent me to the doctor and he put this cocaine solution in my nose. Then I came out and just started taking notes, and I noticed that my mouth was getting really dry and I was feeling very invincible. Then I started improvising the scenes and coming up with ideas, and swallowing a lot. Then I was graphing it in the script, finding scenes where he was doing coke, and figured out how to behave — to start swallowing a lot or do a lot of lip-smacking. Or scenes where he’d be doing heroin, I figured he’d be very itchy and there’s gonna be nodding, and he’s gonna be much slower. The problem is, I didn’t know when Werner was gonna cut the scene with me taking the heroin or the scene with me taking the coke, so we’d have to regraph the whole direction of the performance.
IH: At this point in your career, you basically do what you want to do. What do you look for when choosing a role, and are you satisfied with continuing to play dark characters?
NC: I do have a personal code that I try to apply. I may be alone in this, but I do sense the power of film, in that movies have the ability to literally change people’s minds. That’s pretty powerful stuff when you consider that, so I try to be responsible with what I want to project, in terms of who’s going to go see it, particularly when it pertains to children, which is a priority of mine. So I am trying to go way from too much killing and gratuitous violence and things like that, and if I do play a character like that, I have to understand why he’s like that and how he got to be that way. Then it’s just the matter of figuring out whether there’s some truth in it — is there any way I can play the part truthfully? Can I give you something new or unusual that has a bit of truth?
IH: You’ve done an interesting job of bringing the eclectic turns that you want to bring into popcorn films. Do you plan that meticulously?
NC: I came out of independent film — that’s my roots. I used my independent film as a laboratory and used what I could discover in that laboratory, because people are going to lose millions and millions of dollars, and I cherry-picked the gold and applied it to movies like Face/Off. So if you look at Face/Off, which is a huge movie, there are bits and pieces from Vampire’s Kiss that I pulled out because not too many people saw Vampire’s Kiss, but I really got a chance to fuse that into my work in Face/Off, and I keep doing that. They work well together.
IH: What validates your work for you at this point in your career?
NC: I don’t need anybody to tell me anything, really. I just feel it. It’s a zone thing. It’s hard to describe these things, because they’re pretty abstract. If you can imagine like there’s a solid piece of wax in the center of your heart, and there’s a little needle that’s pressing through the wax and it gets out to the other side, then you know you’ve hit it. That’s what it feels like.
Millenium Films' 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans' is in theaters on November 20, 2009