Nicolas Cage Interview – KNOWING

     March 18, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

A little over a week ago I was in New York City for junket weekend. I’m calling it junket weekend because I covered the press days for “Duplicity”, “Knowing” and “I Love You, Man” in less than 24 hours.

Anyway, with director Alex Proyas’ “Knowing” arriving in theaters this weekend, I figured you might like to read what Nicolas Cage said about the movie and what he has coming up.

The only thing to know is…what you’re about to read is a transcript of the press conference I attended. If you don’t know how these work, the studio invites a ton of press to take turns asking questions. Since each journalist has a story they need to write, usually press conferences cover the gamut of subjects and you’ll definitely cringe at some of the questions asked. But rather than edit it down, I’m leaving it all in so you can see what I deal with on an everyday basis. Also, you can see for yourself why an actor might get mad at some of the questions he has to answer…

And for all of you that haven’t heard of “Knowing” yet, here’s a link to my Alex Proyas video interview and here’s a link to some movie clips and the synopsis.

Again, “Knowing” arrives at theaters this Friday.

Question: How much research did you do for this? Did you get into quantum physics and science to prepare for this role?

Cage: I grew up with a professor so that was all the research that I really needed. I just used my own recall of what that experience was like.

Question: So you could relate from that experience, growing up with it?

Cage: Yeah.

Question: This is the second movie you’ve done where the future’s been involved. What’s your interest in the future, in seeing the future? Do you think we have a predetermined future?

Cage: At the risk at impinging on your own personal opinions, your own relationship to the movie I would just offer that I’m not a chaos theorist.

Question: How did your relationship with your own son inform your relationship to your son in the film?

Cage: Well, I dedicate the movie to my first son, because that’s what the relationship was really. It was me and him. I just have memories and this script came to me at the right time. I had the life experiences and the emotional resources to play John Koestler and indeed some of the lines in the scenes came from direct memories of my times with Weston [Cage]. I had been looking for a way to express those feelings for a long time and having been a single father, a single father out in California I know that there is a gender bias depending on which lawyer or which psychologist or family therapist that you talk to. It’s like there’s a full moon out if a father wants to see his son. That’s just not true. Just because you’re a man doesn’t mean that you can’t raise your kid. I think that families should stay together, but if you are a single father don’t give up no matter what they say. So I wanted to have a chance to express that, to show that archetype in a movie, that you can have a devoted, positive relationship between that family, a father and a son as well.

Question: Even though the movie is about the possible end of the world it’s still a positive film. The story shows how you need to live each day to the fullest. Were you affected at all by the moral of the story?

Cage: Well, first of all, any opinion I give is not as important as your opinion. Your opinion is what matters to me and so if that’s what you took from the movie then that’s absolutely correct. Any awakenings that I may have had happened before I said yes to the movie. So I didn’t really learn anything or get anything from it, but I was just ready to express it.

Question: Is that what attracted you to the script then, that it affected you in that way?

Cage: Just that, again without coloring your own opinion or personal connection to the movie, that I had gone through various thought processes at the time the script came to me where I felt I was in sync with Alex [Proyas] and with the story. It’s one of those rare opportunities where I felt like the filmmaker and myself were completely on the same page philosophically and in terms of style. Alex is an artist. He’s an original and he can really make a movie look beautifully designed in a way that has a signature, his signature. But having said that we both agreed that the character should be almost cinema verite, that there should be almost a documentary style to the performances so that it would make the experience more terrifying for you and perhaps more visceral in some way.

Question: Your relationship to the character of Diana was interesting in that five minutes after meeting in the film there’s desperation in that relationship. Can you talk about approaching that kind of relationship in a film, a desperate need for the other and to trust that character?

Cage: Well, that was the challenge, how do I convince this woman to go along with me and to sort through what’s happening in my life and in everyone’s lives. It was kind of awkward at first because I was trying to go around the scene in different ways that would terrify her and yet at the same time I had to keep her with me. Now the thing is that Diana’s mother had this calling and this ability and she was living with the curse, if you will, of feeling that she was going to die on that particular date. So when I was able to give her those numbers that’s what brought her back, but I didn’t really see how there was any way that I could get around it. I felt that at some point early on in that dynamic that she was going to be scared of John Koestler, that she would have to be scared of John Koestler and not to shy away from that, not to sugarcoat it any way.

Question: With economic climate being what it is, February, too, was the best box office February in history, what role is Hollywood playing in these times?

Cage: Well, more than ever movies reveal themselves as healing, as helpful, as encouraging, as escapist, anything that makes someone get through their day in these times. It’s the best form of entertainment and it’s still arguably the most inexpensive form of entertainment. I always say to myself that if I can make a movie that makes a kid smile or gives them some hope or gives them something to get excited about then I’m applying myself in the best way that I can. I don’t think that just goes for kids. I think that it goes for adults as well and for families. So there is a need to go to the movies and just shut your mind off from the problems that are happening in our daily lives, the stresses between countries, the economy and global warming – all of those things that are on our minds. But at the same time I think that movies can help guide us through those experiences because I think all art tries to grapple with, redefine, come to terms with, express what’s happening now when it’s working. You can be entertained but you can also be stimulated to think about things. ‘Knowing’ is one of those movies where you’re going to get the spectacle and you’re going to have the entertainment in the grand science fiction tradition, but also it will perhaps stimulate some discussion to help you sort out on your own where you might chose to go in terms of your own needs. Now I say that without preaching. It’s up to you what you get from the movie.

Question: Is it realistic to expect that you’d have real life changing experiences while making a movie that change your life in any way? Do films change your life in that way?

Cage: The making of movies? Certainly they can. Anything is possible. Just the other day I was invited to go down to the subway rails and to be two foot from a whooshing subway train because I had to pass getting a certificate for subway rail safety. I never would’ve been in that situation before if I wasn’t making movies. It was dangerous, but at the same time it was fascinating and got me thinking about the third rail, the awesome third rail. One of the great bonuses of being a film actor is that I get to go to different places, meet inspiring people and learn different things. So all those details add up, but again with ‘Knowing’, I’d already kind of sorted through whatever philosophies I wanted or needed to come to terms with before the movie came to me.

Question: What about science fiction as a genre appeals to you and why do you think it’s suited to support the discussion we’re having now about philosophy?

Cage: Well, good science fiction is intelligent. It asks big questions that are on people’s minds. It’s not impossible. It has some sort of root in the abstract. So automatically you’re getting closer to potentially divine sources of interest because it is abstract. It’s one of the only ways that a film actor can express himself in the abstract and have audiences still go along for the ride. They don’t contend it. They accept it, that they’re going to go places that are a bit more of the imagination, a bit more out there and that’s more and more where I like to dance. The other thing is that I got a little tired of movies where I had to shoot people and I got to thinking about the power of film and what that power is. The power is in fact that it really can change people’s minds. I had that experience with ‘China Syndrome’. It made me aware. So I thought if it was this powerful, the power to change people’s minds then perhaps I should just be a little more responsible with that power. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in freedom of speech. I do. It’s just that at this point in my life, in my interests I would rather entertain you with the spectacle and with the imagination as opposed to servicing your blood lust appetites. But that’s not to say that I might not find myself in that situation again. There are ways of doing it, even by showing it where it can be ironic and there can be awareness in that as well. Just not gratuitous in the sense that I want you to get off by watching someone’s head explode.

Question: Have you changed your approach to films since having another child and did you have any input into changing this film’s script to a father and son?

Cage: Well, I dedicated the movie to my first son because of those experiences that I had with him as a single father. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I don’t think that I would’ve been able to play the part twenty years ago. I think that I needed to have those memories in order to play John Koestler.

Question: Alex talked valuing the rehearsal process and insists on it. Does that help you, too? Did Alex allow any improvisation or allow you to put your spin on things?

Cage: Yeah, I generally do enjoy the rehearsal process because that’s where you can share your ideas, get your thoughts and feelings out and see whether or not they’re going to land, whether or not people are going to agree with them, particularly the director. So you can sort out in that process any elements that need to be sorted out before you’re on the set and of course that saves time and it also makes everyone more comfortable working together. And yes, Alex is the sort of director that’s open to suggestions and makes you feel comfortable, relaxed enough to be able to create. It’s quite liberating and he was open to various ideas.

Question: What’s on your plate for the upcoming future as one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood?

Cage: Well, I have a movie called ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’ coming out. Werner Herzog directed that. I have a movie called ‘Season of the Witch’ coming out that Dominic Sean directed and now this week I’ll be doing, commencing photography on ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. Plus, I have two animated features coming out which hopefully make the kids smile.

Question: Following up on ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, what did ‘Fantasia’ mean to you growing up?

Cage: Wonder, enchantment, awe. It was my first real introduction into classical music and it was married to these beautiful, lifelike animated sequences with dinosaurs and ogres and gargoyles. It was just totally inspiring to me. So it’s kind of a big moment for me to be able to play that part.

Question: This film talks about randomness versus fate, science versus fate. Do you think there’s room for both those phenomena on the same side of the coin or are they always going to be diametrically opposed?

Cage: Again, without impending on your own personal choice, there are going to be those that wear the hat of religion and those that wear the hat of science and I still don’t really understand why they can’t wear both hats because personally I think that they go beautifully together.

Question: Doing ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ as a live action film, what’s the take on the story itself and on the sorcerer?

Cage: Well, I haven’t even started filming yet, but I would like to say that the take is that it’s going to entertain you, that sorcerer is good, but there is going to be moments where he’s a little mysterious and just a little perhaps scary to look at. There’s going to be a lot of fantasy and there’s going to be some amazing FX. I’m working with Jay Baruchel who I think is fantastic.

Question: He’s the apprentice?

Cage: He is, yeah. We’re going to have some laughs. I can already feel it.

Question: You worked with Matthew Vaughn on “Kick-Ass”. Can you talk about that?

Cage: Well, that movie was quite a satire in my opinion. That’s an example of sort of the irony of the obsession of violence in the U.S., but truly all over. I think it’s sort of an ironic take on that. So there will be some violent images, but it’s done in a way that I think shows you the absurdity of it. He was easy. He was easy to work for. Again, I felt safe with Matthew. I felt like I could express myself again, like I did with Alex. So I’ve had some good luck so far working with filmmakers that I connected with.

Question: How do you think you would handle the gift of knowing the future like this movie deals with?

Cage: I think that for me I would want to know when it came to my children, if there was a way that I could prevent something. I don’t think there’s anything that would take over my parental survival instincts, but other than that I like surprises. I think that if we knew everything that was going to happen it would be very, very boring.

Question: I thought that Rose Byrne’s character was such a complicated character and so good. Can you talk about working with her?

Cage: It was refreshing to have a movie without it having to resort to love triangles or broken hearts and to have an extremely talented actress play something other than those notes because it’s only fair that actresses get the same shots at playing complex characters as actors do. Rose is very serious about the work. She’s a real craftsman in that that accent is flawless. I couldn’t believe that she was Australian. She has a very pronounced Australian accent though and so that in itself shows you the level of technique and also the willingness for her to go to places with me that were perhaps more surprising again. She didn’t quite know where I would go but I felt that was important to get that spontaneity and she went along with it. So she’s got a lot of guts and a lot of depth. That also goes for Chandler Canterbury. Both of those actors, the movie wouldn’t work without them because they were phenomenally real. Chandler has this enormous depth for his years and he’s so truthful. It seems effortless. Often you hear stories about never working with children. I disagree because children still have that residual magical thinking. They haven’t had their imagination knocked out of them by turning into adults and life experiences. That’s what acting really is in my opinion. It’s the ability to imagine what’s going on around you is real. So it makes it very easy and it’s a joy for me to work with Chandler.

Question: Have your children ever expressed an interest in acting and how would you feel about that? Also, have you ever had a sense of knowing, an inclination that came true?

Cage: My oldest son, right now he’s very immersed in his music, but there might be a time when chooses to go into the cinema. My youngest son is three and a half. And then yes, I think we all have. I think it’s a part of being human having those experiences, call it what you want déjà vu or whatever. You can explain it away with science or you can explain it with something perhaps more paranormal, but I think they’re still talking about the same thing.

Question: Anything that unsettled you though?

Cage: Nothing that I would share with you, but it is all semantics. I mean, if you tell me there’s no such thing as a sea monster I’ll show you a white shark. It’s all semantics in my opinion.

Question: Can you talk about filming the scene in the plan, that action sequence? How much of that was real and how much was CGI?

Cage: That particular sequence with the exception of the plane itself was all real. It was one shot and we rehearsed it all day long. That made it both easier for me to do the scene and also really difficult because it was easy in that those were real people and I was genuinely scared for them. So I didn’t have to act that. You are actually seeing a guy who’s terrified because those are people who are on fire. They’re stunt people, but they’re still people and I took it personally that none of them get hurt. So I had to really rehearse it all day and get to the end of the shot without any mistakes because I didn’t want to go back to the beginning again and have them light those people on fire again. I don’t care if they get paid again. I was worried about them. That was the difficult part of it, making sure that no one got hurt. Now the subway scene was different. That was more imagination.

Question: Did you film the plane sequence once then or did you have to do it again?

Cage: Actually, I don’t remember how many takes we did. I seem to recall that we got it done fairly quickly, under five takes which was great because it was scary.

Question: Do you have any aspirations to direct again in the future?

Cage: I wanted to direct again. I haven’t had time, but I would like to. When you direct you have to really devote a year of your life that project and so it’s not something that I can really do right now, but I will again at some point.

Question: Watching a real person be on fire, and granted you’re acting, but that’s real; do you ever get flashbacks from the work that you’ve done, being scared in those moments?

Cage: When I see the movie I do and so I don’t watch a lot of my movies.

Question: This character is so different from the rest of his family. Your dad was outside of the rest of acting Coppola’s as he was a professor. What do you think happens when there is that break in a career oriented family?

Cage: Well, my father is the oldest of the three children. Carmine, my grandfather, came to America and it was really because of his skills as a flautist, he was a first chair flautist for Toscanini that we kind of came out of I mean really almost like a poverty situation. So it was the arts that did that. My father who I think was being groomed to be a medical doctor always had an interest in books. He was just interested in literature and philosophy and that was his calling. That was before Francis decided that he was going to be a filmmaker. So my father already went on his philosophical and literary path and that was a train that wasn’t going to stop, nor did he want it to stop. I’m happy to say that he’s quite happy now, continuing to write his books. Then the others in the family have more or less done directing and I hope to see more music soon. I know that my son is doing very well in the music industry right now. So we’ll see what happens there.

Question: It’s kind of unusual to have a family tree that cuts across so many talented generations. Do you ever wonder what it is about your family in that way?

Cage: I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about it, to be perfectly honest. You can think about it. I’m not going to think about it [laughs].

Question: You mentioned Rose Byrne’s ability with accents. You worked with a lot of Australians while shooting this movie. Did you pick up any Australian accent tips?

Cage: Nothing that I’m willing to demonstrate right now.

Question: Where does your energy and passion for acting come from?

Cage: It changed. In the beginning it came from an almost punk rock need to express a lot of anger wherever that may have come from. As I got older it became or is coming more from a place of wanting to use the craft to help others in some way, to hold a mirror up to the situations that we’re going through, to actually be more cautious about the way that I use the power of film and to see if there’s anything that I can do in the performances that will resonate in the public a similar string that’s on people’s minds and is on my mind. That way we have that relationship.

Question: Both the ‘National Treasure’ films were some of your most successful. Are you looking forward to a third one and do you have any idea where the franchise might go?

Cage: Yeah, I’m hopeful. Those movies make a lot of people happy. I don’t know yet where it will go or what the story will be because the auspices are all right here right now working on ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. There was some talk about it maybe going into the south.

Question: Do you think you’ll make it later this year?

Cage: I really don’t know. I wish that I did, but I haven’t got a clue. That sounds oddly Ben Gates [laughs].

Question: Can you expand on what you think is unique about Alex Proyas as a filmmaker?

Cage: Well, he has this enormous capacity to design shots and design FX in a way where you know it’s him that’s doing it. They look beautiful. They’re also scary and they have his signature. So I don’t really know where to begin other than that he’s like a painter from any era of painting. He has the same abilities. That’s what I mean about him in that I think he’s an original voice. I don’t feel like he’s ever copying anyone else.

Question: Is there any particular genre of film that stretches your acting muscles more than another and is there a genre you’d like to do that you haven’t done?

Cage: I feel that I want to keep going in this science fiction and also perhaps fantasy direction for a little while longer because I think there’s some room for growth there in my own abilities in that I’ll be a little more liberated working on that landscape. So I’m happy to be here now. I don’t know of any other genres that I’m interested in. I like dramas as you know. Comedies not so much only because I don’t find the same things funny that many other people seem to find funny. I don’t really respond to sex jokes and things like that, and some of my friends look at me and go, ‘Come on, Nic, that was my best joke. Why aren’t you laughing?’ I go, ‘I really don’t know why I’m not laughing. I’m sort of out of sync with it.’ So I’d have to find something that was really about weird human behavior for me to laugh [laughs].

Question: Which one of your earlier roles still resonate for you on a second viewing?

Cage: I don’t really watch my movies again, but I can speak by the echo of it. I would say that ‘Wild at Heart’ and ‘Vampire’s Kiss’ had more of that kind of energy to it. That’s not to say that I can’t still get kind of punk rock or angry, but I just think that I’m doing it for different reasons now.

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