Nicolas Cage is not new to the world of cinematic magic. Or planes full of dangerous convicts. Or fast cars, beautiful women and winning major acting awards. But magic in particular has resonated throughout his life, from the family steeped in making magic real onscreen to the area of England in which he lives when not making films, to some of his previous roles. So when the opportunity came to play the Sorcerer in Disney's new 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' (alongside Jay Baruchel in the titular role), he jumped at the chance. Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with Mr. Cage to talk about Arthurian mythology, a childhood love of Fantasia, and the benefits of occasionally making a movie for the entire family...
Emmanuel Itier: When you were a child, did you believe in magic?
Nicolas Cage: Probably, yeah. I don’t really think I ever stopped. To me, magic is the imagination, and combined with a little bit of will power, you can do marvelous things and create marvelous effects on that which is material. For example, a painting or a movie, or even a science experiment or a speech that moves people are all acts of magic, when you think about it in those terms. But the goal is to stay like a child. That’s the key, especially in the arts. You can’t lose the awe and the wonder of the child’s eye.
EI: What was the catalyst to this film? What was the idea? Where did it come from?
NC: I had been very interested in Arthurian mythology and legend and lore, and I had spent quite a bit of time in England. I still live there part-time when I’m not making movies in the States, but specifically in that area of Somerset, where all these legends came from. Not unlike when I was a child reading comic books or Greek mythology, I started to get reignited by reading these Arthurian stories, and all that is philosophical and esoteric started to appeal to me, and it occurred to me that I wanted to make movies that could resonate in some way that would be healing or helpful or positive that wouldn’t just be about “Okay, let’s bang, bang shoot everybody and there is blood and murder,” but make movies that the whole family could go to and get excited about incorporating either science-fiction or magic or mysticism so they would still have a thrill of the mystery and the unknowing but not necessarily the bloodshed.
I was doing a picture called Next. I was playing a magician of sorts in that movie, but I said I really want to play an Arthurian wizard or sorcerer, and I asked Todd Garner about it. He was the producer on Next and he said that’s a good idea. Specifically, I said, “I want to be like a guy in a red velvet jacket with a giant silver wig with all these horses and a carriage that blows through towns in Germany and scares everybody.” He said, “That’s a good idea. Alright, let me think about it because…I’ve got it. You should be the sorcerer’s apprentice — the Disney title.” Just like that. And I thought that’s great.
So I got together with Todd and Norm and tried to expand the story and find ways that we could lengthen this little ten-minute segment in the Goethe poem in Fantasia and make a big two-hour live-action film with it. We pitched it to some writers. We found one. We had our first draft, and then one thing led to another and we gave it to Jerry Bruckheimer who sparked to it. Jerry has a great way of entertaining people and giving them a big panache of spectacle of a ride, and then also he has a way of putting things on a fast track. So when he liked it, I thought this is great for me because I know we’re going to make a big fun movie for the whole family, which is what I wanted to do.
Then we brought Jon Turteltaub in, and that is it — Jerry and I and Disney, because Jon and I had worked well on National Treasure 2, and Jon has a gift for comedy. He has a gift for keeping me light and accessible and in the fun zone, and I guess I have an interest in the darker and more edgier things, so the two of us together make for a happy marriage and we keep sort of balancing each other out. The question is what about the spectacle of the visual effects of the magic, and John really dove into it. He was out of his comfort zone. It was a new world for him. He used to call it Nick’s world. “I’m going to Nick’s world.” But I believe he pulled it off in a big way. I’ve seen little bits of the movie. I haven’t seen the whole thing, but it looks great, especially the visuals.
EI: How did it get to the modern age from your red flowing robe…?
NC: We had to find a way to make it accessible to the modern age, being that we believe that it should be in New York City and it should be something that could be told that would appeal to families today and that they could relate to on some level. But there is still a trajectory when you see the movie from 600 AD to this year. He was trying to find my apprentice until now, so it’s taking 1,000 years to get to the modern age to find my apprentice.
EI: Balthazar has to discover his true potential as a human being in this film, and I wonder if this has you searching in your life as well?
NC: That’s always a work in process — to try to get not only your truest but your best potential. That is never going to stop. There are always going to be experiences and elements that surprise us and get us a little bit kicked off of the ladder, but the idea is to keep trying to learn from it.
EI: What is the upside of making films such as Sorcerer’s Apprentice compared to doing something like Bad Lieutenant, which is darker?
NC: The upside is that you get to make a lot more people happy. You get to give families something to look forward to, to celebrate together almost like a ritual — children and their parents and everything in between. Its like, this movie is coming out, let’s all get together and go and know that you’re in good hands that will be appropriate for everyone to enjoy themselves. I think that is probably the best way I can apply myself as a film actor — making movies that appeal to the whole family.
EI: And what is the upside of doing Bad Lieutenant?
NC: You get to facilitate the other dreams — the ones that are more edgy and punk rock, if you will, or dark, and those are age-appropriate for the midnight audience. I like them too.
EI: What is it about Alfred Molina that makes him such a good bad-guy?
NC: It’s like Werner Herzog once said: the bliss of evil. I think Alfred really portrays that well. He seems like he’s enjoying himself so much when people are in trouble. He has a wicked sense of humor.
EI: Do you have a lot of apprentices in your life?
NC: Not anymore. At one time I did maybe, but now I just have my kids. That’s all I need, but I don’t really see them as apprentices. I learn from them just as much as they might learn from me.
EI: Did you talk at all about this movie to your son in witch terms?
NC: I always talk about whatever I’m working on with my oldest son. We discuss ideas together in both ways. He will talk with me about what he’s working on, and I’ll share ideas with him about what I’m working on because I do very much value his opinion. That’s the core audience, 19, and also his own artistic sensibilities are fascinating to me and always has been. Even since he was very little, I was watching him. He was always fascinating to watch. I have even told him some of my best moves in different movies. I’ve ripped him off. I was watching him move or talk or walk — it stays in my head and I copy him. But he likes that. He doesn’t mind.
EI: How about the little one?
NC: I’m trying to keep him from really knowing that part of my life as much as possible — just try to keep it as normal as I can until he’s old enough to understand it, which is difficult sometimes. But I’m just a dad like anybody else.
EI: You and Jay [Baruchel] seem to have a great chemistry. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship?
NC: I just think he’s hilarious and I think he’s incredibly smart and well-read. You can ask him any question about any subject and he will have an answer for you, and he will attach it to something else and you’ll learn from it. I love that kind of mind, so I think there was this genuine mutual respect and appreciation on both our parts, that we would go to work with this sense of delight that we were going to improvise, and that would only add to the creativity of the scene. A lot of actors don’t like it when you improvise. It intimidates them or they’re out of their comfort zone. They don’t want to go there and just stick to the script, but Jay — improvisation is a huge part of his presentation in films as it is in mine, so it was a chance to really get more like a jazz approach, in the true sense of the word, in that I had another musician to work with or to riff with.
EI: Being that this was your project from the beginning, how do you balance the acting part with making compromises for the greater good of the movie?
NC: It’s always about the movie. If it’s right for the movie to have more of me, then we’ll figure it out, but if it’s right for it to have less, then that also makes sense. It’s whatever is in the best interest of the movie, so I never get into that trap of like, “Oh, there needs to be more of me in this movie.” I don’t think about it in those terms.
EI: It looks like you’ve been thrown around quite a bit or beaten up to a little bit in this movie. Did that get to you?
NC: Now that I’m 46… Do I make sounds when I stand up and sit down? Yes. You could say that I’m starting to be aware of it. But I still get around pretty good. I’m not slowing down yet.
EI: Did you have to train a lot for this film?
NC: No, actually. I did feel I was in the right place in my life to play this part, so I wasn’t too worried about it. I thought it was the right time and the right character.
EI: You didn’t even have to train for the fencing?
NC: Oh, there was a little of that, yes. Because it happened so fast, I only had like a week to train for the fencing, but it was a long shoot so now that you’ve mentioned it, yes, I did train for the fencing.
EI: You’re wearing really wonderful, interesting jewelry. Is that one of your indulgences? Do you take interest in beautiful things?
NC: I do feel that geology is fascinating and I do feel that anything that nature has to offer is special and important and has an energy to it, a vibration to it, so I have always responded to things that were, let’s just say in the natural history pantheon, whether they be fossils or rocks in the raw state, but not in any way of like this is jewelry or a status symbol. Not jewelry but more like God’s art. This is something that nature has to offer, and what I can learn from it, or what can I enjoy about it? How can it support me in some way?
EI: What is the secret of playing an effective wizard on the screen?
NC: I think that first you have to decide what sort of a wizard is he, and in this case, he’s a wizard that is selfless and who is there to guide and help man. And then you have to commit to it and be open to the belief that these things can happen, and once you have that belief and that faith, then you can do it, but you have to look like you really mean it and you believe it.
EI: Did you look at Dumbledore or the other wizards?
NC: No, this is a strictly personal creation that has nothing to do with any other wizards that I have ever seen.
EI: Not even with Merlin? Because you mentioned Arthurian legend…
NC: If Arthur and Merlin are there, it’s only because of my mind and my imagination of what they may have been like but not because I met them.
EI: What was your biggest challenge on the set?
NC: I didn’t feel a challenge. Some people have asked me, “Were you nervous because you’re doing this Walt Disney classic and the pressure of Disney and Walt Disney himself?” and I thought no, I felt that if you are open to those sorts of things, that in some way, Walt Disney was there and guiding us and happy with what we were doing, and I got comfort in thinking about it in those terms. I’m not intimidated by it but supported by it. I did believe that I was in the right place at the right time to make this movie in my life and to make it in such a way where I could believe in it or have faith in it.
EI: What about the digital effects that must be difficult to shoot?
NC: It’s no different than being a child in your backyard pretending that you’re sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship or in a submarine, or pretending you’re in battle with Excalibur in your hand. I did all that, but I didn’t have any of that. I just imagined it, and that’s what acting is — it’s just imagination. So when I hear other actors complain, and I get it because they’re saying, well, you don’t have the actual person to listen to or the source to listen to — I do understand what they mean by that and there is truth in it — but at the same time, I also believe that if you can get yourself into an imaginary state in such a way that it’s visceral enough, you will have no problem making it come to life for you.
EI: Did you love some Fantasia growing up?
NC: I loved it. I was transported by it and it was my introduction to classical music, but for some reason, it was always a late show because I remember I would fall asleep every time I went to the theater to see it because it was so late. It usually was on New Year’s Eve, but boy is that one of the most beautiful movies ever made.
EI: What was your favorite trick in this film?
NC: I really liked the Merlin circle. I liked building the circle and having the different-colored fire come out. I really wanted to use my hands as much as possible. Early on, they were talking about wearing these bracelets and that I would claim the bracelets together and that would create the effect, and I went no, I really I think I need my hands because sometimes I talk with my hands, but also I come from a long line of conductors in my family and I felt that a sorcerer would be almost like a conductor and he would use his hands. So that’s where the idea for the ring as the power source as opposed to the bracelet cam from — that you could use all that. And that, to me, came mostly into effect during the Merlin circle. Moving all those kinds of gestures are fun for me.
EI: You talk about a lack of originality in Hollywood nowadays, but I think there is some real joy in anything well-loved — a story like this one that has been previously a poem and had been a musical also, and trying to keep going with this kind of tale…what do you think about it?
NC: I think it’s meant to be. I think it’s almost like a ring or a grail cycle, or a mythology in itself that keeps being invented and reinvented, and it stays as a part of our psyche or our collective unconsciousness and it’s something that I think will probably not be the last Sorcerer’s Apprentice. There will be another version of it in another form, but I’m glad and I’m happy to say that we’re the first in terms of it being a two-hour live-action feature film. Yes, it was a poem and it was a short little animated sequence in Fantasia, and now, here we are again, but that’s because there is something about it that resonates with people. I don’t really know why — it just does.
Disney's 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' is in theaters now.