When Nicolas Cage was first approached about playing a slightly psychotic version of himself in the movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, he was more than a little hesitant about signing on. His fears only grew when he learned that the “Nicolas Cage” character in the movie would be near broke, living in a hotel, quasi-estranged from his wife and teenage daughter, and reduced to making a personal appearance at a birthday party for a wealthy fan in order to pay off his debt. There’s even a recurring bit where a manic, Wild at Heart-era Cage materializes out of thin air to argue with modern-day Cage.
He started to budge a bit when he finally read the screenplay and met with director Tom Gormican, who co-wrote the film with Kevin Etten. “I didn’t want it to be something that was strictly mocking or like an SNL sketch,” Cage tells Rolling Stone. “I wanted to have a little more depth to it, and Tom expressed to me that he had a genuine interest in some of my earlier work. And then because of my fear, and my belief that that which you are afraid of — within reason, as long as you aren’t hurting yourself or someone else — is the very thing you should go towards because you might learn something, I said, ‘Yes.'”
It was a good decision. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (in theaters April 22) has a 100 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is a continuation of a career renaissance for Cage that began with 2021’s brilliant Pig. We sat down with the actor in a New York hotel room to chat about the movie, the Internet’s odd obsession with “Cage Rage” videos, his long string of under-the-radar Video on Demand movies, his complete lack of interest in ever doing TV work, the possibility of his aborted Nineties Superman project coming back to life, and the legacies of Moonstruck, Bringing Out the Dead, and Adaptation.
Did you recognize yourself at all in the script for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent when you first read it?
When I first met with Tom and the team in New York, I said, “Listen, guys, there’s no version of so-called Nic Cage that doesn’t want to spend time with his children. That’s just not me.” They said, “You’re right. That isn’t you. That’s part of why this is a fictionalized interpretation of you. We have to give this character an arc.”
The other thing is that I’m not career-minded. My mantra has always been “work.” I never had a “career.” I only had “work.” That was a way of going through different movies. I find something in a movie that I think works. It’s like a rock album. Maybe not all of it works in the script, but there’s one or two songs, one or two scenes that work.
Those two aspects were about as far from me as you can get, but Tom’s argument was that we still had to have this character have an arc. I think people know I don’t have a daughter, so that was a big departure. I have two older boys. Those elements helped me get into this presentation of so-called Nic Cage. That allowed me to act. It was still a character of sorts.
What parts of the character are the closest to the real you?
I was happy to get back into a comedy. It’s been so long. I started making movies like Raising Arizona, since I do have a sense of humor, I think. It’s a pretty off-the-wall sense of humor. I think some of the moments are fairly close to me. The scene at the wall [where Cage attempts to mount a tiny wall while high on LSD] is quite… I’m not into psychedelics, but the humor in that scene… I can see myself acting out like that to try and make people laugh at home.
Tell me about playing a younger version of yourself and how that came together.
That was my favorite part. That was the part I really wanted to protect. There was some conversation in the beginning about cutting the Nicky character, but the Nicky character was the one that I thought I could have the most fun with. I had grown up seeing [Jerry] Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, and the Buddy Love character was a character that I always thought was profoundly hilarious. I thought Nicky could bring some of that energy to this movie.
When they first asked me about what the presentation of a younger version of myself might be, they were thinking about Cameron Poe from Con Air. I said, “That’s not me. That’s Cameron Poe. That’s a character. But if you want to look at an absurdist version of me, go back to England when I’m promoting Wild at Heart and going on the Wogan show. That is completely ridiculous. I really don’t like that guy. He’s irreverent, he’s arrogant, he’s obnoxious. I think he would be the perfect model for a young version of so-called Nic Cage to torment contemporary so-called Nic Cage.
How did they film those scenes where there’s two of you? Walk me through the process.
It was very well-written. For me, it was looking at the Wogan show over and over and trying to get some of that energy and dressing like that. I wanted to have the black leather jacket with no shirt on underneath. I thought that would have been really funny, but they didn’t go for that. They did go for a Wild at Heart T-shirt.
The actual filmmaking process was not unlike Adaptation, in that I would have to record one side and put an earwig in my ear. I hear the side I had already recorded as either Nic or Nicky, and act off of that with a stunt double or someone working in the stand-in department. I had some good luck with those people on the set. They were very committed and very helpful.
The character is at least partially built on misconceptions the public has about you. What do you see as the biggest ones?
The media sometimes talks about the Video-on-Demand work. The first thing I want to say about that is that, in my opinion, anyone that says “straight to video” in this age is a dinosaur. It’s past tense. Everything is streaming now. It’s one of the best ways to get your movie out there now and have it re-played. It’s been terrific for me.
But also, people thought I didn’t care. I did. I was caring. I think that I did some of the best work of my life in that so-called “direct to video” period. Massive Talent was in that group. Mandy was in that group. Pig, Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans, Joe, Mom and Dad, Color Out of Space — they were all in that group. The Runner I thought was terrific. I’ll put any of those movies up [against] the first 30 years. If there is a misconception, it’s perhaps overlooking that there was a genuine commitment to performance.
You worked so much in those years.
It was the best workshop, the best acting class I could have. I think it really was practice. I felt it made it so much easier for me to access my emotional content or my imagination. It was at my fingertips because of the training and the constant work. To answer your question, I think that would be a misconception in my view. But then again, all art is subjective. People are open to their opinions and their interpretations. Whatever they want to take from it, they’re not wrong.
I imagine all the Internet meme stuff has been annoying for you. They’ll take a little scene out of something like The Wicker Man and divorce it from all context.
It’s been both a positive and a negative. I think it’s a positive, since it’s made people look at these cherry-picked moments of so-called “Cage Rage” and perhaps go back and look at the movies. I’d like to think that. But yes, on the negative, it’s that it’s out of context. There was a whole first act, or second act, or third act that led up to these expressions. All of it was by design. All of the moves that I had made were by design. Whether they are ridiculous or sublime, they are by design.
They show a bit of Guarding Tess in the new movie. Do you think the studios would still make a movie like that these days, or is the era of mid-budget movies aimed at adults just over?
Keith Phipps wrote this book [Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career] and he said some pretty articulate, intelligent things about the transformations the filmmaking industry has gone through in the 40 years I’ve been doing this. It is a different environment now. The Marvel movie, which I don’t take umbrage with, is probably one of the only movies that people go to the cinema to see anymore. But at least they’re still going to the cinema, which is always exciting for filmmakers. To answer your questions more specifically, I think the likelihood of a Guarding Tess being in a multiplex is slim to none. But then again, we have streaming. I think you’d see it on streaming.
Even something like Con Air or The Rock — those weren’t based on any existing I.P. They were original stories. Could they would get made today?
Boy, I sure hope so. Look, Ronald McDonald can open a Marvel movie. You have these big tentpole names. But to open a movie just based on characters that nobody knows is pretty difficult. I think what folks in the industry want today is a degree of certainty. Anytime you see a movie that’s a little outside the box — that’s not what they know is going to generate income — it’s a risky move. I like to think people are still interested in seeing original stories that aren’t necessarily sequels.
A lot of that creative energy is in TV these days. If you were offered a series that really intrigued you, would you consider it?
Some of the best acting I saw growing up were the shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. You had actors like Robert Culp, Bill Bixby — I always thought they were supremely gifted. I thought the stories were remarkable. You are seeing a renaissance now with the quality of material in television. My interest has always been cinema or films, because that’s what I was most compelled by. I was most inspired by the movie actors that I grew up with.
I only hesitate to say I would because my process now is that I need about two months for the libretto of the screenplay to sink into my instruments so that I can not have to think about dialogue. That’s the first thing that’s going cave an actor in, having anxiety about not knowing their lines. I don’t want that. I’m told that in television you get a script maybe three weeks [ahead] of the next episode. I don’t know if that’s enough time.
On top of which… Martin Sheen’s best advice to me was, “Did you like where you were? Did you like the people you were working with?” I have been very lucky. I have enjoyed where [I’ve] been, and I’ve also enjoyed the people I’ve worked with. But if you’re stuck at one place with a group of people you can’t get in step with? That would be terrifying to me, especially if you don’t like the place.
If a show is a success, it could be on for seven years or something.
I’m not down for that [laughs]. That’s not happening. I like to be nimble. I want to keep moving.
The DC movies are now embracing the multiverse. There’s fan speculation that they could finally bring in your Superman. Is that even remotely possible?
I have to be careful what I say about this stuff. What is it about comic books that [everything] just goes everywhere exponentially within split seconds? What I want to go on record with is: Tim Burton did not cast me. I cast Tim Burton. They wanted [Die Hard 2/Cliffhanger director] Renny Harlin, and he’s a nice guy and perfectly capable. But for me, the vision I had for Kal-El was more of a Tim Burton-style presentation universe.
I was a big fan of Mars Attacks! The studio was worried about Mars Attacks! But they hired Tim per my request, and then they shut the whole thing down. That’s always been both a positive and a negative to me. It’s a positive in that it left the character, and what Tim and I might have gotten up to, in the realm of imagination — which is always more powerful than that is concrete. And a negative in that I think it would have been special. Is there a chance? Who knows. I don’t know. [Laughs.] To answer your question, I don’t know.
The fan fantasy is that you are the Superman in the universe of Michael Keaton’s Batman even though that movie was never actually made. Since he’s back as Batman, they could pull you in somehow.
It certainly would be interesting. It certainly would be interesting. I just would have loved to have seen those giant spiders that they were talking about, and I did see some of Tim’s drawings. He’s such a gifted artist in terms of painting. They were remarkably beautiful.
Are you aware of the cult that has grown around Moonstruck? I know so many young people that are obsessed with that movie. They watch it over and over.
No. That’s very cool to hear. I love the movie. You probably know that I was hesitant about making that movie. At the time, it didn’t line up with my so-called punk-rock fantasies about what we could do with film performance. Vampire’s Kiss was more in line with that. But I did Vampire’s Kiss against my agent’s best wishes, and that was only because I did Moonstruck. We had this trade. My agent [Ed Limato] said, “If you do Moonstruck, I’ll let you do Vampire’s Kiss.”
Moonstruck I love for a lot of reasons today. I think it is a terrific movie. I have matured enough to really see the value of it. I do love the presentation of the Italian American as a loving family [member] and not as a gangster. A lot of the time, the Italian American is presented as a gun-toting gangster. This offers something else. I’m not aware of any renaissance with the movie, but I’m happy to hear about it.
Tell me your goals going forward. Massive Talent is generating a lot of buzz right now. Where do you hope it takes you in the future?
One of the stars that I really admire from the Golden Age [of Hollywood] is Tony Curtis. I liked that he could do something like The Boston Strangler, but he could also do Some Like It Hot or Sweet Smell of Success. He was this gifted talent that could do comedy and drama. Right now, I’m excited that the comedy is back on the menu. It hasn’t been there for, gosh, 15 years. That’s nice that I may have the opportunity to do more comedy.
But I’ve never done a musical. That would be something that I would be curious about. I just want to continue on the roots of the indie drama. That’s my true passion, movies like Pig or Leaving Las Vegas or Joe. Bringing Out the Dead — I saw that recently. I have to say that might be the best movie I ever made.
It’s never brought up when they talk about the great Martin Scorsese movies, but they really should.
I don’t know why. There’s been some talk about Paramount Plus finally releasing a high-def version of the movie, which I’ll be hopefully able to get an interview with Martin Scorsese. Hopefully the movie will generate some new interest and people will rediscover that movie. There’s a lot there.
I think my favorite is still Adaptation. I can watch that over and over and never get tired of it.
Great movie. It was so daunting to make. It was such an acrobatic challenge to do that. I don’t know if I could do that again. I just hit the cusp of it with Nic and Nicky in Massive Talent, but I’m very proud of Adaptation.