We’ve entered a new era of Nicolas Cage, Movie Star. To be clear, he never went anywhere; the actor’s been a consistent and prolific on-screen presence since his teen years, an undeniable leading man since Valley Girl. But to look back through his filmography of the last decade is to see a number of outré, indie, and often low-budget projects well off the beaten path of mainstream cinema (save for his voice work in Into The Spider-Verse, a Crood or two). And while that certainly hasn’t changed, 2021 represents a shift in the narrative—a sign that this has all been by design for one of our most enigmatic stars.
First, there was Pig, an utterly surprising meditation on art and loss. While signs pointed to another pitched-to-the-rafters performance from Nic Cage—the kind his legion fans have come to expect and champion—Pig was perhaps most shocking in its restraint, with the actor delivering a wounded and understated performance that scored him some of his best reviews in years. Meanwhile, Cage has been filming The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent (due in 2022), a meta action-comedy that casts him as a heightened version of himself. Though the star’s “icon” status has long been certain, the film sounds determined to solidify Cage’s standing as the patron saint of gonzo theatrics.
Speaking of gonzo, Cage’s latest film promises just that—in fact, Prisoners Of The Ghostland’s main sales tactic is to remind audiences that the actor once called it “the wildest movie I’ve ever made.” Though Cage will openly amend that declaration today, it’s hard not to see where he was coming from: He plays a reluctant protagonist dubbed “Hero” who must traverse a post-apocalyptic wasteland to rescue the granddaughter of the womanizing Governor, or risk having his testicles blown off by a bodysuit rigged with explosives. From idiosyncratic director Sion Sono, Ghostland blends spaghetti westerns with samurai epics and a dash of bubblegum pop, then challenges Cage to rise to its level of outrageousness.
Rise to the occasion Nicolas Cage does—because he’s Nicolas Cage, and that’s what he’ll always do. In support of Prisoners Of The Ghostland, The A.V. Club had the opportunity to speak with Cage about his work with Sono (who he refers to as Sono-san, his “Warlock Of Cinema”), and why his performances aren’t as “unrestrained” as people might think. In explaining the methods behind his madness, Cage also addresses his track record for working with fresh and exciting collaborators, and shares what it’s like to have his talents “rediscovered,” 40-plus years into his career.
You can watch our conversation with Nicolas Cage in the following video, or read the full transcript below.
The A.V. Club: In the trailer, you’re quoted for saying that Prisoners Of The Ghostland is the wildest movie you’ve ever made. In a career filled with some pretty wild movies, why does this one stand out?
Nicolas Cage: Well, it’s a bit of a mystery to me how that quote wound up on the poster. But, the reality is, I hadn’t even made the movie yet [when I said that]—I was talking about the script. I had met with Sono-san in Tokyo, and he showed me the drawings. We were originally going to shoot it in Mexico, and he had some drawings that were kind of reminiscent of the old Caligula movie with Malcolm McDowell—which I’m not a fan of—but I knew that he was going in a direction that was going to be wild. And it was, at the time, the wildest script I’d ever read.
But, knowing Sono-san and being a fan of his movies like Love Exposure and Noriko’s Dinner Table, knowing that—I call him my Warlock Of Cinema—I was going to be walking in his world, I just wanted to protect his world. He’s not somebody you question, you don’t challenge, you just go—go, man, go! And, if he wants me to ride a silly bicycle, I’m going to ride a bicycle. I was there to protect his vision. That’s how I saw it.
AVC: What more can you say about Sono’s vision for this film, in particular? It’s a very specific world that seems to draw from a number of influences.
NC: Being that he has his own style, I knew that I was going into an abstract space, so to speak, and that I could explore some of my more operatic—if you will—choices, or western kabuki—if you will—choices in performance style. Which I very much welcomed because I had just done—I call him Archangel Michael [Sarnoski]—his movie Pig, which allowed me to explore a more quiet, haiku-meditative style of film performance. And then I immediately got to jump into the western kabuki of Sono-san’s vision.
And it wasn’t unrestrained; some people may think it is, but it was, by design, thought out in terms of the music. So, if I’m reading this script and I’m seeing the word “testicle,” I go, “Okay, well that’ll be fun to really hit out of the park and try to put as many notes into the word [as possible].” Hit out of the ball-park, literally. [Laughs.]
No, listen, I was blessed. I was blessed to work with the Warlock Of Cinema, and I was blessed to work with the genius that is Sofia Boutella. I mean, my god, I adore her. I saw her movie Climax—I watched it with her, and she’s just—there isn’t anybody better. So, I was blessed to work with her, and with Sono-san, and Bill Moseley, who I’ve loved in all of Rob [Zombie]’s movies, who’s an old friend. So, I mean, it really was a treat. Not only is Sono a great filmmaker and an artist, he’s also my friend—he invited me to stay at his house in Tokyo. I mean, he’s just an all-around good dude, and I appreciate that.
AVC: In a recent interview, Sono talked about some of his earliest conversations with you, and some of his influences on Prisoners Of The Ghostland. He mentioned he loves Paul Verhoeven’s films, and he said the two of you talked about spaghetti westerns and even Charles Bronson. What other influences were you bringing to this film?
NC: Charles Bronson in Once Upon A Time In The West is arguably the coolest performance I’ve ever seen. And I was just—not that I’m that, I don’t look anything like Charles Bronson. The man had a face like a mountain lion. But I was a huge admirer of what he achieved in that movie, and I was just trying to bring my inner-Bronson to this. Sono-san knew that, and I’d show up on set with my Charles Bronson T-shirt. And I has just watched a documentary about him, [Charles Bronson, Hollywood’s Lone Wolf]. He was not a tall man, which I found shocking, because he commanded such size on camera, but he also was not happy with his career. I mean, he was just like, “I’m a disappointment to me,” and I started feeling really bad, even though he’s no longer with us.
But Sono-san knew that that was where I wanted to go, or attempt to go, a little bit. And so I think that’s what brought in the spaghetti western elements. Then he brought in the samurai element, which was extremely important to him. And my friend Tak [Sakaguchi] was trying to get me to fight more like a samurai. I said, “Man, I don’t have time.” And he goes, “Well, you can fight more like a boxer,” so I go, “Okay, well then why don’t we do that? Why don’t you have Hero be more of a Western Pugilist boxer to Tak’s samurai style?” And that, to me, is interesting. So that became kind of like the mash-up effect. I had time to do that—that I had time to do.
AVC: It’s funny to hear you say you “don’t have the time,” when that is this sort of motif throughout the movie. There are characters who are literally trying to stop time by holding back the ticking hands on a clock. Was that a theme that resonated with you? This feeling that time is moving too fast, or passing by without you?
NC: Not so much, but that’s an interesting observation and certainly, yes, it is in the movie very clearly.
What really resonated for me—and I approach these waters with you carefully—I grew up reading, my father was a literature professor, and he gave me John Hershey’s Hiroshima to read when I was 10 years old. My god, to read that at 10? To know that that actually happened? You know, our country has lost its moral ground a few times, but, for me, that was a blatant one. I think Hero, on some level—suggested with the line, “I am radioactive”—he was channeling the remorse about the children and the women that went through that nightmare. I think, when Sono-san said, “I want real tears,” that’s what we were tapping into a little. It’s like, “How can I ever—how can Hero ever—make amends?” I think there’s still a lot of pain about that.
AVC: Of course. And the time motif plays into that as well: How could he ever make up for the time and the lives lost?
NC: Yeah. And, in one of the early cuts, I was like, “No, no, no. That’s not Sono-san; what are you guys doing?” They had me looking up, and it was beautiful in his vision, where these children are looking down from the sky at me, at Hero. But they put in a stupid dragon, and I’m like, “He’s not looking at a dragon—go back to the cut. He’s looking at the kids, the children, and he’s trying to subconsciously make amends.” But, how can you? He’s out of time, literally.
AVC: What Prisoners Of The Ghostland and Pig point out is that you have this track record of working with really interesting filmmakers. And, in following your career, we’re introduced to so many up-and-coming directors, international filmmakers. Is that something your conscious of when choosing projects? What do you look for in these artistic collaborators?
NC: Well, thank you. But, the thing is—and I knew this because every actor has ups and downs. I’ve been doing this for 43 years now, and I started when I was 15. Things go in cycles; you know, you’re hot or you’re cold. But I always knew—it happened with Archangel Michael on Pig because I knew that it would take a young filmmaker with an original vision and a voice—who maybe grew up watching some of my movies—to rediscover me, and to know what to utilize. I’m his instrument!
And my vision, as an actor—I’m a dogma actor, in the sense that you go and you rehearse like you’re shooting, so that the director knows what he’s getting. Because we don’t have time to make mistakes with these little movies, we don’t. So you’ve got to come in prepared, you’ve got to know your libretto so you can go off-page if you need to, you’ve got to—it’s in your body. And no fake tears! If I’m going to direct again, those are the requirements. You know, get the glycerin off my set because you’ve got to bring it! Otherwise, it’s genuinely just acting, and what is acting but lying? And I don’t want to look at it that way. That’s what [Laurence] Olivier said: Great acting is convincing lying. Not for me, man. [Laughs.] It’s got to be—you’ve got to inform it, it has to have emotional content.
And, you mentioned Pig: I was blessed to work with Alex Wolff—talk about an emotionally informed actor. Man, that guy is a jazz musician of acting; we were riffing off of each other! So, none of these things could have happened if I didn’t have a great director and great actors to work with.
Prisoners Of The Ghostland is now playing in select theaters, and is available on VOD platforms, via RLJE Films.