It’s been a memorable few years for Nicolas Cage, or at least it looks that way to his sizable fan base.
A noted period of extremely prolific yet mostly uncelebrated work in the low-budget world of filmmaking was punctured by a ferocious performance in Panos Cosmatos’ wild action horror Mandy in 2018, while his uncharacteristically quiet — but equally intense — turn in last year’s Pig would bring him the sort of critical acclaim not seen since he won an Oscar for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.
Earlier this year came the ultimate tribute, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, in which he played a fictionalized version of himself. Now, the much-loved cult icon comes to Toronto with another landmark achievement. Incredibly (and Cage thinks so too), Butcher’s Crossing from director Gabe Polsky marks the star’s first ever Western. Based on the book by John Williams, the film sees Cage channel his skills at showcasing humanity’s uglier side into Miller, a mysterious and grizzled hunter who takes his pursuit of buffalo in 1870s Colorado to genocidal levels, and who he says has a splash of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz about him.
While this latest title and its Toronto bow may add to the idea that we’re in the midst of a Cage renaissance, the actor insists it’s all just part of the “ups and downs” of work, and several rare movies that managed to “catch lightning in a bottle.” Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Cage describes how, despite the money and fame (“the hors d’oeuvres”), the greatest reward across his lengthy and wide-ranging career has been the times when he’s gotten close to how he felt when he was 14 years old, watching “performances that shatter my heart,” like James Dean and Marlon Brando.
The star also discusses Werner Herzog, making his own pink leather jackets and Paddington 2, because, when it’s Nick Cage, why not?
Am I right in saying that Butcher’s Crossing marks your first ever Western?
Yes, it’s amazing to me. I know people sometimes laugh when I say I’m from the West, but the fact is, you can’t get any more West than California. I have a California drawl. It’s the way I speak. So I was sort of mystified that I had not been invited to do this in 40 years of cinema. It would be an easy match for me. It wouldn’t be easy for me to do an Arthurian drama, but to me it was easy to fit right into a Western. Gabe actually offered me this script over five years ago, but it only came to fruition recently.
Was this why you wanted to be in the film?
There were a lot of reasons why I was compelled to make the movie and also play the character Miller. Actually, Ron Howard, a million years ago, offered me the role of Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf, but then he changed direction and he went and made The Grinch instead. But I’d grown up reading Jack London’s novels, and I particularly loved The Sea Wolf and Call of the Wild and also [Herman] Melville with Moby-Dick and [Joseph] Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For me, Miller was sort of an amalgamation of Wolf Larsen and Ahab, with some Kurtz thrown in for good measure. Miller has a kind of intelligent element to him, like Wolf Larsen, but he’s also deeply like Kurtz in that he’s misguided in a belief system that has no filter when it comes to killing. And I think that this book Butcher’s Crossing captures some of the essences of all those masterpieces, and you know, the pull of nature and the pull of the kill that exists within all of our hearts, for better or for worse. And in addition to the atrocity of the genocide, almost to the point of genuine extinction of the buffalo, was its direct connection with the First Nation. For Native American people, if you cut off the bison, you cut off the people, because they were a huge part of their life source. So I think Miller is not only villainous, but he also feels like an agent of that implicit genocide involving the Native Americans.
There’s a scene in which Miller is just slaughtering buffalo, in a frenzy and almost for no good reason at all. It’s pretty difficult to watch. As an animal lover, was it difficult to film?
Oh, it was, it was. It was disgusting. But I’m glad I could put it on camera because I’m not afraid to be ugly, and to show the darker side of our nature. Not that this is a message movie, but I think that it maybe holds a mirror and is reflecting what we’re capable of. It’s still happening in different areas. Even with the trees, it’s happening.
You’ve previously spoken about your experience on the horse Rain Man when making Butcher’s Crossing. In our Roundtable you said he was out to kill you. Do you still have PTSD?
I’ve said what I have to say about that, we’ve moved on. I’m working toward brighter things in my life. I mean, Rain Main is a superb horse. I have nothing but nice things to say.
Butcher’s Crossing is beautifully shot — the scenery is extraordinary …
What’s fascinating about it is that I don’t know how we did it. We had no time. I think Gabe will tell you, but it was like 18 days and Gabe, who’s a friend of mine and [Werner] Herzog’s, went to Werner and gave him the script, which as you can tell is a fairly epic story dealing with going into the wilderness and weather and danger and things like that. And Werner said: “You’d have to be a magician to be able to pull this off.” So I don’t know how we did it. I can say that.
Since Mandy, we’ve had Pig and then Unbearable Weight, which were all really well received, and now Butcher’s Crossing. Do you feel at all like you’ve entered a different stage in your career?
You know, I don’t really see it as a career — I even made a note of that in [Unbearable Weight]. I just see it as work. I never had a career, I only have work and that’s the way I look at it. Everyone’s going to have ups and downs. So I just prefer to look at it as work, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a few jobs coalesce in such a way that people can see some creative spark occurring. But it’s very hard for a movie to come together. It’s just like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. It doesn’t happen often. Both Pig and Mandy were like capturing lightning in a bottle and so was Leaving Las Vegas. But those movies only come once every 20 years. Who knows? I thought Massive Talent was terrific. And you probably know how trepidatious I was about entering that experience, because who wants to play themselves in a movie? It was a high-wire act of the first order, and it terrified me.
Over the years you’ve kind of crossed every major Hollywood stage, including superstardom, awards glory and cult fame. Have you had a favorite period?
My favorite experience is when I go to a movie, and I go, “That’s what I’m trying to get close to. The movies that speak to me, to my instrument, to my tastes.” So Ordinary People, East of Eden and Last Tango in Paris. I want film performances that break my heart, that shatter me, that are vulnerable … James Dean with Raymond Massey trying to give him money on his birthday and having a nervous breakdown on camera, or Marlon Brando trying to talk to his wife while she’s in the coffin and having a nervous breakdown … those are the experiences that, as an audience member, got me into wanting to be a film actor. So if there’s a movie like Mandy or Pig or Leaving Las Vegas and I can say I’m just starting to get close to that experience I felt in the cinema when I was 14 watching James Dean or Brando, that’s my goal.
But I always say to young folk that ask what they can [get out of] being an actor: Whatever the reason you want to be an actor, if you want to get your picture on the cover of a magazine, that’s fine. That’s a perfectly good reason. If you want to make a ton of money, that’s a perfectly good reason. As long as it gets you there. But then you might find over time that your interests are going to start to change and then you’re going to realize that you want to tell a story. And you want to tell a story about what it means to be a human being and the flaws that we all have. Then you’re really going to going to change and your characters are going to change and your own talent is going to change.
Fortunately for me, when I started we didn’t have the internet and didn’t have phones with cameras. You couldn’t get famous simply by making a spectacle of yourself on a red carpet or being on reality TV. That shit didn’t exist. You had to have some real talent to get anywhere or to be noticed — that was a fact. But today, anyone can be famous.
You mentioned Herzog earlier. You obviously worked with him on the brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and he’s spoken very highly of you. How much has Herzog — and also Klaus Kinski, who he’s compared you to — inspired you, if at all?
I kind of infamously said I was the Californian Klaus Kinski. I was trying to embody that energy when I went to work for Werner in Bad Lieutenant and I really wanted to come at him the way I would like to imagine Kinski did, to get something like a spark with Werner. I have subsequently thought that Werner was a little hard on Klaus Kinski myself. I’ve seen his own documentary where he was obviously pretty upset about some of the stuff that was leaked, if you will, about him. And I have no qualms. I mean Werner is not someone you talk with, he kind of talks at you and you listen. But I just thought he was a little hard on him. Because they did such great work together. What’s the point of knocking your star if he’s such a superb lead and you’re making magic together? There’s got to be some kind of regard for that. And I think ultimately there was.
Like many, one of my favorite scenes in Unbearable Weight is when Pedro Pascal’s character makes you watch Paddington 2 and you tearfully describe is as “incredible.” Have you seen Paddington 2, and what do you actually think of it?
I think the movie is terrific. I particularly loved Hugh Grant and that I thought he was marvelous — it’s a deliciously wicked performance. I really laughed.
As much as I liked Unbearable Weight, I was sad not to see the phenomenal pink leather jacket covered in patches you were photographed wearing on set. And then I read that it was your own. Is that right?
Yeah, that wasn’t in the movie, it was just my own personal project. I was just going to work in my own jacket. That was how I was passing my time in between jobs. I was like, “What am I going to do today? Oh, I like that patch, maybe I can put together something that’s fun.” I was my own clothier!
I’ve seen you in a number of wild jackets. What does your collection look like?
It’s very eclectic. It’s a mixed bag. I don’t mind going from the ridiculous to the sublime with what I wear. I depends on my sense of humour or state of mind or my mood. Sometimes I just feel like wearing a white t-shirt and some jeans and very stark watch and sometimes I feel like having some comedy value, which means there’s always a bit of humour with it.
Is the pink jacket the most out there?
Probably. I subsequently gave that one to my 16-year-old. He was getting some kicks out of it so he has it now in his closet.
Interview edited for length and clarity.