Nicolas Cage: Oscar-Winning Actor on Cover of Rolling Stone 1999 - Rolling Stone
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The Passion of Nicolas Cage

The Oscar-winning actor who says he built a career on being “unpredictable and frightening” reveals a side nobody knows

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Murray Close/Warner Bros/Regency/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5861400a)Nicolas CageNicolas Cage - 1998Warner Bros/RegencyFilm Portrait

“I have people who I take care of,” Cage says. “Back then, I was living out my fantasies of what I thought an exciting man should be. I wanted to be unpredictable and frightening, and I guess I was."

Murray Close/Warner Bros/Regency/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Nicolas Cage’s natural walk is a dreamlike lope, stately, with long strides, a little slouch in the hips, a walk that doesn’t advertise the slabs of muscle on his shoulders and chest. But the Cage who walks onto the set of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead is subtly stooped, and his feet seem weighted. His eyes, too, are different. It’s impossible to say where canny makeup gives way to his own investment in his character-emergency paramedic and ambulance driver Frank Pierce — but tonight Cage has the raccoon eyes of a man who’s been losing sleep to nightmares.

From screen roles as diverse as the suicidal alcoholic of Leaving Las Vegas to the otherworldly romantic of City of Angels, Cage has always been a master of transformation. And nowhere more so than in his own life. It wasn’t long ago that Cage was a Hollywood samurai, so pissed off at himself and the world that he’d self-mutilate to play a part and self-medicare by punching walls.

“Nic looks like a man who’s haunted,” says Scorsese. For good reason. Those eyes carry a troubled history: The confused son of a mother who was institutionalized for schizophrenia and chronic depression. The skinny kid who the girls rejected as a weirdo. The simmering outsider who envied the cars, the clothes and the houses of friends and family. The struggling 17-year-old actor who was so teased when his famous uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola, gave him a role in Rumble Fish that he changed his name from Coppola to Cage — after comic-book character Luke Cage — and set about inventing himself as a bad boy.

“That self-obsessed rebel was me,” says Cage. “But that is no longer me.” The Nic Cage of 1999 is an Oscar-carrying member of the Hollywood establishment, a $20 million man able to pull off roles as an action hero (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off) or a romantic lead (City of Angels). At 35, Cage is quick to point out that he has responsibilities. He’s a father to Weston, 8, his son by former girlfriend Kristina Fulton; a stepfather to Enzo, II, the son of actress Patricia Arquette. Cage married Arquette in 1995, two weeks after she proposed to him on the phone — they hadn’t seen each other in eight years.

“I have people who I take care of,” Cage says. “Back then, I was living out my fantasies of what I thought an exciting man should be. I wanted to be unpredictable and frightening, and I guess I was. I mean, Patricia says that at the time I was pure testosterone. I can’t really imagine myself getting that angry now. I haven’t punched a wall in years. So I don’t really know what happened. I mean…” — here Cage halts for a moment of seemingly sincere self-inquiry — “should I be punching walls?”

Right now, Cage is being called to face the cameras as Frank Pierce, the paramedic whose life is coming apart during three nights on the job. To get those three nights on film, Cage and Scorsese had to shoot for 75 knackered days. Dressed in green uniform slacks and a dingy white shirt with a City of New York arm patch, Cage steps into a fluorescent-lit madhouse as Scorsese rehearses his troupe. Salsa star Marc Anthony, dread-locked as the local street wack Noel, is strapped to a gurney and exchanging insults with an older man whose gurney sits toe-to-toe with his. Spooky blowups of head-trauma X-rays glow from the walls, and this emergency room — actually in Manhattan’s notorious Bellevue Hospital but dressed to stand in as the fictional Our Lady of Mercy (a.k.a. Misery) — is littered with bloodstained, dazed and vaguely threatening patients, and a few frantic doctors and nurses.

“No no no no no no, don’t even think about it,” barks the ER’s triage nurse as Frank tries to bust his heart-stricken patient, Mr. Burke, ahead of the line for treatment. Burke’s worried daughter Mary, played by Arquette, is huddled with her family in the doorway — and Frank wants to ease her pain.

Photograph by Peter Lindbergh

“Work out a rhythm so you don’t overlap,” instructs Scorsese as Cage and the nurse spar. Then, suddenly, the gurney holding the old man slips a latch, tilts and seems sure to dump him headfirst and helpless onto the rock-hard linoleum below. In the next quarter-second, quicker than the collective gasp of realization comes, Cage has a free hand under the gurney. He absorbs the lurch, jacks the thing level, and looks around patiently for help from the still-immobilized crew. “A hero in real life!” exults Scorsese. Ragged applause rises from the extras and even the normally deadpan city-rat crew. Cage, smiling shyly, mutters more to himself than to anyone, “I’m not Superman.”

Cage mumbled a mouthful there — he had recently told producer Jon Peters and director Tim Burton that he’d star in their much vaunted super-hero project, sometimes known as Superman Reborn, before it chewed up two star screen-writers and got tabled by Burton. Cage says he planned to play the Man of Steel as “a beautiful freak.”

In fact, Cage has made a career of playing beautiful freaks, memorably off-the-wall heroes, such as the vet with the bandaged head in Birdy. He seemed part Wile E. Coyote and part Jerry Lewis as the trailer-trash dad to a kidnapped baby in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona. As a baker, shy one hand and a few brain cells, he romanced Cher in Moonstruck. There was his comic Elvis turn in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. And the “sunshine trilogy” of Honeymoon in Vegas, It Could Happen to You and Guarding Tess, before Cage found his Oscar-winning role in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas.

Still, Scorsese stood “at the top of the list” of directors Cage wanted to work with. “When Superman fell out, I knew I could do this,” says Cage of Bringing Out the Dead. “And since Marty only makes a picture every four years or so …” Cage’s Uncle Francis made the call to Scorsese that first put the two together. “Nic’s eyes reveal a great tenderness,” says Scorsese. “Like the scene when he’s having pizza with Patricia. It’s a very simple scene, but the simple ones are the hardest ones.” Cage wants to make a deeper point about the spiritual crisis of this paramedic who’s trying to do good in an amoral world: “He’s not the bang-bang, shoot-’em-up kind of hero. In Frank, you’re looking at a very lonely, troubled person.”

Cage relied on help and counsel from Joe Connelly, who wrote Bringing Out the Dead as a novel to tell Frank’s story as fiction while using shards of his own purgatorial 10 years as a medic. “Now I’m watching Nic play it,” says Connelly, “and you look at his face, and Frank’s history is all there — what’s going on in his head is right out in front of you.”

When Cage researched the role on a series of ride-alongs with Los Angeles ambulance drivers, he encountered plenty of grim reality. “I saw a woman who’d been slashed — all these… what looked like cables in her neck. And the worst was this nine-month-old infant who couldn’t breathe and had brain damage from it.

In those moments you could really see how it is a microcosm of life where everything is dark, everything is negative. The days where nobody is saved. The paramedics say you can’t think about all that when you’re on the job. But when I’d go home at night, I’d think, ‘That can happen to my kids.’ Then the images start haunting me, and that’s what’s happening with Frank Pierce on the job. He’s being haunted by this one young lady, Rose, who he couldn’t save.”

In Paul Schrader’s script — his first collaboration with director Scorsese since the days of Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) — the book’s Rose is subtly melded into the character of Mary. Arquette’s burden, says Cage, is “to be the heart of the movie in that she’s the person who we all will be able to relate to, the person who’s going through the very human and real circumstance of her father dying.”

Cage and Arquette report for work not as a married couple with their own remarkable love story but as professionals, willingly taking Scorsese’s cue that they keep separate trailers and pursue their own actors’ truths. “If you didn’t already know that Patricia and Nic had a relationship,” says director of photography Robert Richardson, “you would not have known. Certainly on the set, they treated each other as if they were two actors who were more or less unknown to each other.”

Persistent rumors cast Cage and Arquette as less than ecstatic in their real-life relationship. Cage, usually the soul of self-scouring candor, will allude in our meetings to a personal emotional slough he refuses to define: “From the outside, it looks like I’ve got everything made, and I understand that. I never want to come off like I’m complaining. But as a human being, I have issues, just like anybody else. And some people look at those and go, ‘My God, how are you getting out of bed?’ But I’m OK.”

Arquette is similarly stressed. During the shoot, her father was ill, and her mother died of breast cancer a year before the start of filming. Arquette refers to “my own inner monologue of frustration. I was feeling pretty self-obsessed and singular during this movie.”

Add to that the pressure on Cage and Arquette of acting together for the first time. “I was very nervous initially,” says Cage, “because I was afraid that we would trip each other out just by the fact that we’re married. And that we wouldn’t be able to relax. That quickly went away, about two weeks into it.” Continues Cage, speaking “as a fan and not a husband, Patricia has a remarkable quality to be honest. She’s not going for flashiness, she’s going for truth. To stay in the scene with her, I’d have to find the same level of reality.”

As night winds down on the set, a camera truck lumbers up, festooned with pipes and crowded with crewmen. Behind it is the ambulance. Scorsese is visible in the back, his features half-lit by the video monitor that’s inches from his face. Dawn is creeping in beyond the East River; the company is about to lose the nighttime, and Cage, pretty expert in vampire lore, looks uneasy. “We’ve been in this ‘bus,’ going around in circles, living by night, for six months now,” he says. Cage pauses while a makeup artist does a moment’s brushwork near his eyes. “When I head home,” he adds, “I see people out there getting their coffee and bran muffin to start their day, and I’m terrified.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Phillip Caruso/Touchstone/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5881871m)Martin Scorsese, Nicolas CageBringing Out The Dead - 1999Director: Martin ScorseseTouchstone/ParamountUSADramaA tombeau ouvert

Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Cage on the set of ‘Bringing Out the Dead.’ Photo credit: Phillip Caruso/Touchstone/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

There’s no Hollywood hunk worth his salt who will miss a chance to tell you how he seeks the “vulnerability” in his characters. You generally won’t hear the v-word from Cage, who is meticulous in his choice of language and shreds most Hollywood cliches before they can travel from brain to lips. And yet he’s got it, plentifully; rather than manufacture vulnerability, Cage shows his craft in how he controls and apportions his own ever-present natural supply. Such translucent work might not be surprising if Cage’s career had stayed at the edge of the frame, a succession of gimps and yahoos, as some thought it would. But Cage is a sought-after marquee name, and, not so parenthetically, an action star. What long ago was the news about Cage — that he was the maverick offshoot of a film dynasty — has become simply part of the small print in the course of many retellings.

Raised on the middle-class fringe of Beverly Hills, Nic and older brothers Chris and Marc lived through some difficult years when their mother, Joy Vogelsang, was institutionalized and their father, academician August Coppola, sent them to live for a time with his brother Francis. Cage remembers feeling like a poor relation during visits with his rich and famous uncle. He became fascinated by the marionette Pinocchio and comic books, and only tolerated school for the chance to step onstage in drama class (in Oklahoma! among other shows).

Nic hated high school, didn’t like taking the bus and walking through a parking lot full of posh German iron that the richer boys drove on dates with girls who had no time for him. Does he ever feel like cruising the place in his black Bentley, or maybe the Lamborghini? “The only thing that I would say to you is that I don’t drive past there,” says Cage. “I just never was a high school guy, but…” — here he laughs as a better memory arises — “definitely an elementary-school delinquent.” He skipped part of his senior year in favor of a high school equivalency exam and began a career in earnest, onstage in a Clifford Odets play with a respectable San Francisco repertory company. He surprised his family when he won a part in a teen beach soap opera called The Best of Times, was billed as Nicolas Coppola for a small part in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then won roles in his uncle’s Rumble Fish and Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl. It was just before his breakthrough year of 1983 that he fibbed to his father that he, Nic, was in fact the singer on the Joe Jackson hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

“Oh, God, yeah,” Cage now recalls. “The interesting thing is, he bought it. I’m kind of proud of that one.” Cage watched with empathy as Uncle Francis bankrupted his own Zoetrope company in making the Vegas fantasy One From the Heart. Both Cage and his uncle would see hard times on Coppola’s 1984 alleged comeback, The Cotton Club, a music-stoked gangster extravaganza in which Cage’s Mad Dog Dwyer character was 15th banana. Avid to fully inhabit a killer’s persona and frustrated with endless waits on set to do his few scenes, he talked trash and, one frenzied day, tore up his trailer. After that, “My name in Manhattan was really worth mud. I really made quite a little reputation for myself on that set, trying to live the part. It took me years to get to a point where New Yorkers in the film industry would want to work with me again. I have to say, both my uncle and my father seemed amazingly patient with my shenanigans, so to speak, as an actor.”

Indeed. Alongside Sean Penn in Racing With the Moon, he began rebuilding his resume. Then, on Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, he virtually tore it up. “Remember, film is a permanent record,” co-star Kathleen Turner warned him as he played the part of Charlie Bodell in a voice like Pokey, the clay horse on The Gumby Show.

I have actually heard Francis say that that character has become a standout performance,” says Cage. “I don’t think he regrets it at all. When I look at retrospectives and that character comes on, it really lifts, you know, the mood of the audience. Part of me would like to somehow get back to that kind of recklessness. I think I got to do a little of that with Marty; Frank Pierce knows people are afraid of him, and he’s also a little worried that he’s losing control. He doesn’t want people to really know too much. But every now and then he’ll let the insane guy out of the bag.”

Cage himself let loose one day on the set of Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck when actress Julie Bovasso — who had a small role in the film — sought to direct him. “She was saying, ‘Come on, loud and fast, that’s how you do it, loud and fast.’ And I was doing it very sotto voce, taking my time with it. I believe that there’s only one director on the set, and I got mad. I threw a chair and I said, ‘Don’t you dare tell me how to act!’ I did apologize later. And after that, she was very sweet about it.”

Distressed to see his performance chopped down in the cutting room Jewison said he was in danger of dominating the film — Cage waited a year before taking on the “angry little avant-garde” Vampire’s Kiss, as a literary agent with the voice of an old film diva and a taste for blood. He needed to prove he could still pursue his own acting muse. “My truest public is a small fan base that has been with me since Vampire’s Kiss,” says Cage. “There has always been a handful of people who supported what I was doing and kept me going. I think those people still kind of got into it when I was doing more mainstream fare as well, because if they look at Vampire’s Kiss, they will see a lot of what later was Face/Off in that performance. I love the ease of Jimmy Stewart, Marcello Mastroianni — but we don’t always have to be so serious about being a man.”

Though there would be missteps like Fire Birds, an action picture that Cage did to pay off bills on his new enthusiasm for real estate — he had turned a corner and become a significant actor, a fact validated by his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. The role of Ben Sanderson was a dark immersion that was nonetheless brilliant for its goofy comic touches, and one he specifically sought to avoid in playing the quietly hard-drinking Frank Pierce. “I didn’t want there to be parallels between Frank and Ben in any way,” says Cage. “The comparison that I will make is that I think Ben was actually a happier person than Frank. Ben is tortured as well, but he’s cut loose from his torturer in the last four weeks of his life, whereas Frank is still trying to find some salvation, has this need to save people.”

With typical contrariness, Cage set the Oscar on a shelf and plunged into the world of big-budget blow-it-up extravaganzas produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. He began with the role of offbeat FBI agent-biochemist Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock and quickly moved along to playing the alarmingly hirsute badder-than-the-baddest Cameron Poe in Con Air. These two actioners have teamed with the psychologically twisted Face/Off to establish a new film-star persona for Cage: a box-office battering ram who also will make the occasional smaller picture. Cage sees his varied choices as “having to do, a lot, with times of pessimism and optimism. I remember going through that phase where I did not want to do any dark movies, just do romantic comedies and have light, bright, shiny-penny movies. That came from a real place.

“Recently I was at an amusement park in Santa Cruz, getting on a roller coaster, and I heard someone say, ‘Here comes the bad guy.’ I just thought about it: ‘Now I’m the bad guy?’ OK, maybe they just saw some of Face/Off, didn’t see City of Angels, but somehow I’ve emerged as the bad guy. It would be very easy for me to fall into a slot where I would be very comfortable making movies that were consistently dark and in which I was consistently playing the bad guy. Very easy, and quite fun. Probably the easiest thing for me to do is to convey that darkness. But I don’t think any of the people I work with, my colleagues, really want me exploring that too much. Because I can get trapped in the darker stuff.”

Cage makes no apologies for going the blockbuster route. “I have always wanted to make action movies,” he says. “As a kid, I was drawn to fast cars and Evel Knievel and motorcycles. I still am. It’s a sincere expression on some level, on some part of my personality.” But what of Cage’s sometime pal and acting partner Sean Penn, who told the New York Times Magazine, “Nic Cage is no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a … performer”?

Cage heaves a long sigh and seems to debate making any response. “Well,” he says finally, “I was a bit: surprised, because we had gotten to know each other pretty well, and I thought there was mutual respect there. And I could make a critique of his work. But I’m not going to. I wish him well.” Cage pauses before making his point: “A sellout I’ve heard that word — is only a sellout if you’re being paid to do something you don’t want to do. I want to make these movies. I like working with Bruckheimer. I like the work we’ve done together.”

The mobile army that’s making the Jerry Bruckheimer production Gone in Sixty Seconds has taken over several city blocks in downtown Los Angeles for a car chase that will feature a passel of LAPD “black and whites” pursuing Cage’s character, with lots of burning rubber and a cop car T-boning a city bus. Among the stuntmen getting ready to scatter is an older gent, Ted White, who used to double for John Wayne, and a few people costumed as down-and-outers.

Seconds later, the star himself arrives as if on a chariot, in the driver’s seat of a vintage gray Mustang GT 500. Cage rides in being towed by a camera car. He’s barely visible in there behind rails and racks and camera and lights all bolted and duct-taped together.

The actor smiles at the skewed deja vu of it all; for our previous meeting, on the New York set of Bringing Out the Dead, he was likewise encaged. Now he’s traded in ambulance drabs for a slick and scruffy look in black leather jacket and motorcycle boots. Cage is playing Memphis, a hood (a heartwarming one, of course) who must steal 50 cars in 24 hours to keep his younger brother (Giovanni Ribisi) safe from some real hoodlums he owes money to.

For a number of chase scenes in this film, Cage has been doing the driving. “That takes a lot of concentration, because you never know when you can shoot past a mark or spin out or hit something or somebody,” says Cage. “They put me in stunt-driving school for a couple of days, which, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy. I don’t like peeling out, burning rubber, doing 360s and 180s. But I do like race-car driving. What happens when you hit an apex and come out of the apex of a curve. I’ve had one person tell me I don’t have much natural ability, but Bobby Carradine, who now considers himself a driver first and an actor second, told me I have quite a bit.”

One day not long ago, says Carradine, on Willow Springs racetrack in the California desert, in Cage’s own F-40 Ferrari, “we had a little christening out on Turn Nine, a big, nasty spinout.” When the dust cleared, Cage was still perfectly game. When Cage turned up for a lesson one day, he told Carradine, “There are some heavy things happening right now, but I’m glad to be here, ’cause that all goes by the wayside.” Cage got so good so fast, says Carradine, that within four days “he was already at that stage where drivers can hurt themselves. He’d hit a couple of turns absolutely perfectly — about 9-10ths of what would be the maximum braking points, and the next step is 11-10ths, and you don’t always get away with that. And I said, ‘Don’t get cocky.’

“Nic pulled over and said, ‘I’m stopping the car. Do you know why? I really don’t like being talked to like that.’ I apologized, and we worked it out right there. As his teacher, I had to make sure my charge understood who was master and who was in charge. So I gave him the Ride. And he was quiet during it, and afterward he said, ‘I wasn’t that comfortable with the out-of-control part.’ And I told him, ‘There’s always gonna come a time when you have to go out yourself. For you, that time is now. Promise me you will not go off the road.’ And he was absolutely perfect, heel-toe control, impeccable racing lines through the corners. He’s got a touch only a few guys have got. What I love and I know he loves about racing is, you can’t fake it. I don’t see a limit for him.”

Cage makes a practice of avoiding the sting of birthdays by running the clock still faster. “When I turn 40, I will have already been 40 in my mind for a couple of years, probably,” he says. “Forty for me will — like I have a choice in the matter — be acceptable. There’s a few things I want to accomplish in the five years before. One thing is, I want to become a really good driver.”

Meanwhile, for today he’s being hauled down a long alleyway in the position, always vaguely comical, of a man who must appear to be driving all-out. It’s not like a real day job, he admits: “Hey, I come from Long Beach, California. I always just wanted to be in American muscle cars, you know, going fast.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Atlantic Releasing Corp/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5860269a) Nicolas Cage Nicolas Cage - 1983 Atlantic Releasing Corp Portrait

Nicolas Cage, circa 1983. Photo credit: Atlantic Releasing Corp/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“Nic is kind of a man-child,” says Bruckheimer, who fought initial studio resistance to cast Cage in The Rock and now happily pays the heavily boosted salary that the newfound action star can demand. “He is a little kid inside, and yet he’s an adult, an actor and a father. He has a great way of blocking things out if there is something wrong. I mean, we all go through problems. But we don’t have to stand in front of the camera and be somebody else.”

The deal with stars’ trailers is that whatever production the actor happens to be working on pays the rent for whatever conveyance he lodges in during the shoot. It’s the kind of rider that agents like to stick in contracts — the trailers go from little “honey wagons” up to huge, visible expressions of clout. One look at the land whale that Cage is occupying right now (it’s an adapted bus, about the size of a Greyhound, accessorized today by his Bentley Turbo R parked alongside) tells you he’s got a rich sense of his status very near the top of the Hollywood food chain. “I like it ’cause it’s like a train,” says Cage, who’s impossible not to enjoy in this mode of a kid locked overnight in the toy-shop of his own stardom (you’re tempted to call him, in the words he ad-libbed for his Leaving Las Vegas character, “the kling-klang king of the rim-ram room”).

Painted on the metallic gray of the bus’s massive side is a fuzzy green rendering of the planet Saturn, emphasizing the leviathan vehicle’s role as parttime outpost of Cage’s own Saturn Films production company. Soon Cage will be overseeing the editing of Shadow of the Vampire, starring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe.

It’s been a slightly extraterrestrial year for Cage; on Valentine’s Day he spent considerable money on a chunk of rock from Mars. “A romantic gesture on my part,” he says. “Patricia and I walked in haphazardly to this auction, and I got this little pink sapphire for her. Then this Mars rock came up, and I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be romantic to, you know, be together, and at the highest moments of, whatever, I could drop it in her hand and say, ‘We are going into space’?”

When a pair of framed snapshots of Cage’s son Weston are remarked upon, he speaks of missing him during his current period of overwork. Cage speaks carefully of Enzo, Arquette’s child from an earlier marriage to businessman Paul Rossi. “She takes the lead with that, and she’s a wonderful mother,” says Cage. “I feel that I’m able to provide an objective and very friendly force in Enzo’s life, which I’m proud of. I feel there is a closeness there. I wouldn’t really be able to go into detail. I have to respect their privacy.”

Cage has attributed an increasing reticence in the last couple of years to an agreement he made with his wife. But almost everyone who’s been inside the cinematic work bubble with Cage refers to a new poignancy they’ve seen in him, without specifying its source.

Perhaps no one felt more empathy than Bringing Out the Dead director of photography Robert Richardson, whose troubled brother died of an overdose of prescription medicine just before last winter’s holidays, deep in the shoot: “Nic would share personal grief he was feeling about different subjects, and that allowed me to open up and relieve myself of a burden and of pain. Nic absorbed without judgment. It was lovely.”

Cage’s best work shows what a responsive filament he is for deep feeling. He has said that he used the death of his cousin Gian Carlo Coppola, Francis’ son, as a touchstone for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas. Cage strives just as hard to maintain emotional balance in his personal life. “I cut all the coffee out of my diet, so I don’t get anxiety attacks anymore,” he says. “I have to be in a good place, and what I mean by good isn’t necessarily happy but where I’m functioning, where I know that I feel well. So that means I need to exercise at least an hour and a half for five days a week. I know that I have anxiety problems. I’m attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and I’ve been that way all my life. I have to be careful with what I drink; I can’t have coffee, ’cause I’ll just get totally just hyper. So I take this Saint John’s Wort stuff to help me be balanced and not have obsessional thinking.”

This Cage creed has given him a new feeling of responsibility that he tries to pass along to his family. “I try to teach the value of the dollar,” says Cage, who has instructed Weston to break down his allowance in three different ways: “One-third you’re going to save, one-third you’re going to spend on what you want and the last third you’re going to give to charity.”

Cage reports that his own charity is dedicated to the treatment of mental illness. “It’s OK that I talk about it, ’cause my mother’s OK with it, and she’s fine now,” he says. “But, I mean, what pisses me off is that she went through so much of it for so long. And nobody had a clue, you know, no one knew what the right stuff was to help her, what the right medicine was, and — and it was unnecessary: this unnecessary suffering, for years, which could have just been fixed with the right doctor.”

This is a time of healing for Cage, who has reconciled his sometimes strained relationship with his father. “We talk a lot on the phone, and it’s been very warm and supportive,” he says. “We are starting to have holidays together in Los Angeles.” As for that elusive peace of mind? “For me it: comes from knowing that I’m taking care of the people around me. Somebody once said, life is, you suffer and you suffer so that for two minutes everybody’s OK. That’s what you get: You get two minutes where everybody’s OK.”

If so, Cage is determined to enjoy his time. He and Arquette live in a Bel Air home that was built in 1945 and has a legacy. “It was Dean Martin’s house,” says Cage, who may yet portray Howard Hughes for Brian De Palma. “And I like to imagine the parties that probably went on there with Dino, Sinatra and the Rat Pack, you know, at the bar.”

Cage, then, is living the second act that so many people, and the great preponderance of film actors, are denied. What had looked like a series of career gambles has emerged as a coherent body of work; and what looked like an emotionally dangerous and hurtful sequence of relationships — well, that’s an ongoing story. “This whole thing has been kind of an invention of myself, you know,” says Cage. “I was a skinny, kind of weak kid who had a dream of being the Incredible Hulk. And on some minute level, I still use those fantasies to try to transform myself from that skinny little kid — who is really, still, who I am.”

From across the table in the trailer that he has no plans to destroy, Cage leans forward to sum up the awareness that has been so difficult for him to attain: “After I shed my skin of wanting to be the rebellious, angst-ridden, broody actor, which I think is a very adolescent state of mind, I realized I didn’t have to be that guy to be cool. And suddenly, I enjoyed my life more. I became free.”

Contributing editor FRED SCHRUERS did the question-and-answer thing with Tom Peny in RS 816/817.

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