From flaming skulls to playing a dad

From flaming skulls to playing a dad

After playing, among other characters, a one-eyed dad who drinks beer out of his enemy’s skull (Drive Angry) and a motorcyclist from hell who can make his head burst into flame (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance), Nicolas Cage had gotten a reputation as a guy whose love of action pictures had, over the past decade, pulled him away from what he does best, namely, act.

Quirky comedies and thoughtful indies were set aside for films heavy on bloodletting and explosions. Critics, even longtime champions like Roger Ebert, yearned for the Nic of old.
So it’s worth noting that when Cage went looking for his next screen role, he wanted something a bit more understated.

He took off much of that year looking for just the right part. “I’d done more baroque things, more operatic things,” he said. “What I’d call Western Kabuki in some ways, where I was trying to be more stylistic. All I knew is that I wanted to explore a quietude and not have to act, but just feel, or be.”

For Cage, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a screenwriter who commits suicide by ingesting lethal amounts of booze (Leaving Las Vegas in 1995), quiet can be a relative term. What he found was Joe, based on a Larry Brown novel. Cage plays the title character, a hard-living woodsman who illegally poisons trees for a living.

Joe has a quick temper that he struggles mightily to keep in check, but when he happens upon two depraved individuals, things quickly go south. The movie is quiet in the way that Red Rock West (1993), another film starring Cage as a salt-of-the-earth Texan with a propensity for violence, was quiet. In other words, not very.

Joe marks a return to form for this actor, a straight drama after a run of genre and effects-heavy action movies. Early reviews have singled out Cage for praise. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter noted his “bone-deep characterisation of a man at war with himself.”

The first thing you notice upon meeting him is that voice, slow and oddly musical, immediately recognisable even when emerging from the lips of the animated cave man he played in The Croods last year.

“It’s something I worked at,” he said. “I grew up listening to my favourite actors, and they all had unique voices. James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney. And when I started acting, I did not have a good voice, so I had to actively experiment with it and see if I could find rhythms in it, or break it up, or mess with it in some way.”

Cage came upon Joe, when director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, Pineapple Express) sent the script to the actor’s agent. Four days later, Cage gave Green a call; the following day, the actor was flying from Las Vegas, where he lives with his wife, Alice Kim, and youngest son, 8-year-old Kal-El, to Green’s home base of Austin, Texas.

The two drove around the tiny towns outside the city, walked in the woods, talked about the film, had tacos. “I wanted him to know how enthusiastic I was,” Cage said. Green was just excited to hang out with an actor he had followed since the mid-’80s. “I can quote you Raising Arizona,” Green said. “I can quote you Vampire’s Kiss. I really love Valley Girl, Moonstruck, Con Air, Face/Off. I even liked Amos & Andrew, which not too many people talk about as a good movie.”

The cast included the owner of a local barbecue joint, day labourers and Tye Sheridan, 17, who played one of Brad Pitt’s sons in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In Joe, Sheridan is Gary Jones, a good-hearted kid with a dead-eyed drunkard for a dad. Joe becomes something of a surrogate father, teaching him how to drink beer and woo girls with a painfully contorted face that says, when done correctly, “I got a lot on my mind.”

“I grew up watching those Marlboro Man commercials on television,” Cage said, “and I’d always wonder, what is it you’re doing with your face? Is that what cool is? Because it looks like you’re in pain right now, but you’re smiling.”

The paternal lessons provide a comic respite in an otherwise dark film and allowed Cage finally to use an idea he’d had in the recesses of his mind for years. “I think he was trying to find a place to put that his whole career,” Sheridan said.

Much of the film contrasts the good man that Joe struggles to be with Wade Jones, Gary’s father, a louse of a man who beats and robs his son and pimps out his mute daughter. For Wade, Green cast Gary Poulter, a homeless street performer and alcoholic he discovered on the streets of Austin.

His performance has garnered strong reviews, but Poulter drowned in a lake after a night of heavy drinking last year, and he never got to see the completed film. “I was upset,” Cage said. “I said to him, 'If you could just keep it together for one year, just one year, your phone’s going to be ringing, and your life is going to change.' He had real charisma.”
Cage has bought castles and pricey dinosaur bones, along with two islands.

But he has little interest in talking about those sorts of stories. “I’m sure there have been things said about me that aren’t true, but nothing I’d want to redocument here in The New York Times,” he said. He will, however, discuss the routine of his home life: driving his boy to school, working out for two hours at the gym, taking his wife to lunch, learning his dialogue for the next role, picking up his boy from school. “It’s not the most exciting stuff,” he admitted.

Lately, Cage said, he’s been striving for some quiet in his life as well. He turned 50 in January and is looking forward to becoming a grandfather in July. “A friend of mine once said, ‘Be as normal in your own life as you can be, so you can be as messed up as you want in your art,’” he said. “I think it was Rob Zombie.”

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