Nicolas cage is frying eggs over easy on the pervertedly flat and even sidewalk of the Las Vegas Strip. It’s a record breaking 117 degrees. July. The eggs sizzle feebly. Cage has just been crawling around on the cooking concrete in a custom Saint Laurent suit. His relatively new wife, Japanese actor Riko Shibata, hovers over him. She points the unforgiving heel of a glossy black stiletto into his slightly glistening temple. This is the second of our photo setups. The suggestion of a long, bizarre, and morbidly poetic day ahead in the cracked and tormented Mojave desert.
But what of eggs? As Hollywood’s finest surrealist, who has remarked in interviews that he committed much of his early career to building mythology around his public persona, Cage invites— no, teases—conjecture. So let’s briefly consider the godfather of surrealists, Salvador Dalí, who adored egg symbolism.
One particular Dalí piece, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, comes to mind. It has an almost Vegas feel. Amongst a fantasia of toppled, opulent infrastructure, eggs survey the scene like owls. The painting’s hero, Narcissus, features not as a tragically gorgeous man, but that of his immortalized incantation—a gold and white flower. While I’d never suggest Cage a narcissist—contrarily, I find him groovily grounded and a wonderful listener—I would suggest his surrealistic metamorphosis over time is unequivocal to anything in Hollywood.
“We were out there doing our thing,” Cage will recall of the photo shoot a couple weeks later. “We did something kind of historic—photographing in 117 degree weather and building sandcastles.” And he adds with a twinkle, “I don’t think that’s been done before. And Riko loved it!”
The Egyptians loved eggs. The sun was thought to be an egg, laid every day by the celestial goose. Remember The Phoenix? Said to have emerged from this egg, which feels extra gargantuan today.
It’s easy to imagine Cage an admirer of the Phoenix. He loves animals. He has a pet crow, among others. He also loves to metaphorically phoenix from the ashes. Not from those of tragedy or dejection, but of presupposition. Defining Cage and his work is elusive at best.
Cage’s latest phoenix, in fact, takes the shape of a pig. See what I did there? Pig, of course, is about a pig. And its owner, Cage. It’s a love story. Cage plays Rob, an isolationist truffle forager on a quest to retrieve his stolen bestie, Brandy. That the hair-raising scream Brandy belts out, as she’s being thieved in the night, is not unlike that heard by the daily thousands inside this country’s omnipotent corporate farming complex... is perhaps no accident. Pain is liminal, fractal—felt in many ways.
So, Pig presents pain—and its bedfellow grief—through a convex panorama of estranged family and haute cuisine and micro-fame and arthritically revisionist purpose. There’s humor, oddity, and tragedy. Much has been said about it. Following the theatrical premiere a couple of weeks after our shoot in Vegas, Cage’s performance wins accolades:
“ ... a profoundly moving turn” —The Independent
“ ... intensely quiet and soulful” —The Spectator
“I didn’t expect a Nicolas Cage film to be the voice of this moment. I was wrong” —CNN
I ask Cage if he did a deep dive of sorts into mycology for the film’s preparation. He looks at me with a slight wryness and says, “Well, I did get to prepare an incredible dish.” This is a scene in the film, and it yields sought-after truths. That truffles must be dug from the ground, symbolically unburied, is not lost on Cage. “And that is the other thing,” he reflects. “It can be about the relationship between Rob and the pig, but it could also be that one element, on another layer, that is actually obscuring the deeper well of loss, and it’s all coming back now.”
On the drive out from LA, the World’s Tallest Thermometer in Death Valley’s adjacent Baker, CA, flicks its tongue upwards to 112. A greasy yellow dot matrix in the humming heat. This is at 1 am. Atop the vistas of Vegas, the city’s thorax stretches at a 15 degree angle. Luminescent tentacles fan into the hillsides. It’s going to be a steamy one. Almost as if the scene below knows you’re to rendezvous with one of Sin City’s treasured residents. Cage will tell you, the next morning, he hates that biblically pejorative moniker for the otherwise warm and fuzzy town he so adores. Silently, you acquiescently determine you’ll cease its use.
Cage did 42 films between 2010 and 2020. I ask about something he said in Vegas as he slipped into a crocodile Tom Ford waistcoat: “I would love to look ahead to mostly independently-spirited projects.” He explains for me: “I would say that’s about staying true to the imagination. And I am enjoying that. I’m digging the work I did with SpectreVision’s Color Out of Space, and Mandy.” The latter could be described as celluloid meets revengeful psilocybin, the neural pathway-clearing fungus among us.
He continues, “And I’m loving what happened with Pig, what Michael [Sarnoski, director] and Vanessa [Block, co-writer] got up to, and Alex [Wolff, co-actor] and Adam [Arkin, co-actor]. That was like lightning in a bottle.” The Greeks loved truffles. They thought them to originate from water, heat, and lightning. “And I should mention Brett Bachman, who was the editor. And the photography was fantastic. What an unusual thing.”
‘Unusual’ is a sentiment that proliferates much of the film’s reviews. Concerning its narrative arc and premise, yes, but more so that of Cage’s choosing the role. We’re told he’s “ready to be taken seriously again”, that we get to “rediscover” the actor’s range, that we’re “reminded” of his deeply vested talents. Cage himself remarks to Vanity Fair a couple weeks before the film’s release, “I was interested in a return too—almost like reminding myself, and many of the folks in the critical universe, that [quieter performances] are another one of my paintbrushes.”
Do we need to be reminded of Nicolas Cage? Reminded of Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas, of Adaptation? His “choices” over the last decade have lent to a certain blend of demonstrable dismissal and befuddlement in the media—his remark above acknowledges that. But Cage, like the Greeks, like Venus and her Pagans, is drawn to underground lightning. Some of which is innocuous, some dangerous. Some bursting upwards through the earth, lighting up the sky.
Even as a film star, Cage’s place in it all is not normal. He has amassed cult fandom, avant-garde associations, and unparalleled meme-making. How did he get here? In short, the guy’s a ham. An absurdist. An art-house oddball. Mischievous and rogue. I mean, what is it about Cage’s grinding his loins into the scantily snug backside of a woman, the two of them teetering in chronic bliss, that reads not just sinister, but ultra depraved? Is it his rolled back eyes? Is it his grunting? An iconic scene from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart comes to mind, Laura Dern in his incendiary embrace. Not just a portrait of debauchery, but a reminder that Cage has never, and will never, tire of exotic fashion prints. Or what of the guttural pleasure bubbling out into the humidity following his stylishly fluent freebasing in a NOLA parking lot? Assuming a similar physical approach to that of Dern—this one more penetrative—of a streetwalker in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutentant: Port of Call New Orleans?
Beyond the box office, Cage channels the lurid, luridly.
The word ‘lurid’ comes from Latin luridus, meaning “pale, sallow, sickly yellow.” Describing unhealthy skin or teeth. Luridus could also describe horrifying things that might make a person turn pale. Roman writer Pliny the Younger used luridus to describe the unsettling color of the sun shining through a cloud of ash during the volcanic eruption of Pompeii. I would use luridus to describe what becomes of our photoshoot during this 12 hour romp through Las Vegas.
It starts with Liberace, as so many things do. The city is synonymous with the fabled and fabulous pianist-entertainer of five decades, who of course famously appeared on the Radio City Music Hall stage in a Fabergé egg. When Cage senses that our scripted photo setups around the city have a touch of elasticity, he is tickled.
The Liberace Museum declines given short notice, but that’s ok. Cage has caught the spirit. Moments later, he coyly cracks open a Red Bull. He then looks around the room and asks, in a sort of trepidatious mumble, if we’ve heard of the Bodies exhibition inside The Luxor? His eyes dance. He tells us the exhibit features cadavers and organs. He’s never been. Does he want to shoot there? He’s not sure. The idea visibly unsettles him. He slips into his next look and tries to shake off the idea, as if it wasn’t his... as if shaking off... dead skin.
In a move I retrospectively realize is panic resolve at having potentially created a creepy mess for himself, Cage then proposes a similarly unsettling, but perhaps more abstract destination: Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum. Bagans, a paranormal investigator, actor, author, and producer, is of course known for hosting popular Travel Channel show, Ghost Adventures. His museum features in a 1938 Tudor Revival mansion randomly in the heart of Vegas. It’s been dubbed Best Haunted Destination in the country by USA Today, and the team is delighted to welcome us.
We step out into an inferno of glass and sand and steel for the next photo. I organize Cage and Shibata into a stretch limousine. Captivated by our agenda’s shape-shift. At Cage’s zest for anything unique and stirring. Not just a reminder of why the hundred plus films he’s done are so varied in scope and demeanor, but also of his celebration of life off-screen, pushing its boundaries. With real estate and exotic wares. A to-be tomb in New Orleans. A panoramic history of fashion righteousness. High-profile marriages. A grandiosity and edge-seeking that today seems at a (perhaps romantically preoccupied) relaxed low boil. Nonetheless boasting a glimmering, childlike alacrity.
We approach a pedestrian skybridge adjacent the Hard Rock. Cage and Shibata coolly focus on the permit-less photo setup. Never mind the hundreds of recently quarantined tourists scuttling about. I reflect on the term Cage has coined for his acting style: nouveau shamanic. The guiding principle of this twinkly concept is to push one’s self to where you’re not feeling you’re faking anything with a performance. Cage culled this from a book, Brian Bates’ The Way of the Wyrd, where he championed the notion that actors descend from the old world shamans. An electrified earnestness, almost altruistic. Today, we’re on a journey with Cage, our shamanic enabler.
“Are we talking climate change?” Cage asks later, inside a Japanese okonomiyaki restaurant in Little Tokyo, near his Downtown Los Angeles apartment. “I feel terrible about it. You can’t help but think about the polar bear on the little block of ice. It’s an enormous worry. And it’s jumping in degrees every year it seems.
It’s happening faster than people initially thought. It’s clear to me that science proves that this is going in the wrong direction.”
Back in Vegas, Cage reclines alongside Shibata into a gravelly pile of beige, earthen waste in a bizarrely undeveloped parcel in the heart of the city (perhaps a decades-gone toxic dump that makes springing a hotel atop not permit friendly?) The two of them stare upward into the bleating sun as though an eclipse or arrival might swallow them into a higher plane of consciousness, or at least somewhere less hot. “The thing about Las Vegas,” Cage continues, “is that it really gets you on light more than anywhere else in the world. Whether it’s the light of the sunlight... and also all the electricity. The Mojave Desert is officially now the hottest desert in the world. It used to be the Sahara desert five years ago. The recent temperatures have hit something like 133, which is insanity.”
The look on his face as he shakes his head at this escalating global agenda is that of grave bewilderment. A clean-shaven face. I can’t help but recall the same face, this one puffy and jowly, violently bulldozed throughout the near entirety of Pig. As the scenes tick on, though, its disfigurement is almost neutralized by the purity of its intent. As for the otherwise shaven and contusion-less faces of his interactions? They illustrate real pain. Our bodies just transient vessels.
With possible cadavers and morbid oddities scheduled after lunch, Cage muses that our photoshoot seems to have taken a sordid turn. Perhaps we’re floating in another kind of vessel, down the River Styx. That snaking tributary between earth and the Underworld. No assured destination. Only a longing inside for its object. Like the banana-shaped mirages out there on the grid. A wrestling match between the rising hot air and the feeble pushback from what coolness remains in the atmosphere.
“Speed, yeah. And again, the exponential nature of information now,” Cage remarks of a similar tension. Between humankind’s growth and ingenuity in combination with a hubris that’s failing the planet. “It grows so fast now. It’s like the guy who did Watchmen—Alan Moore—there was this documentary on him, and he is talking about information being deployed so quickly that soon we’re all gonna turn into steam. I thought that was quite the statement! And there’s a parallel with the heat—it’s all happening so fast now.”
I ask Cage how he met Kyoto-native Shibata. He shares it was through mutual friends in Japan in and around his filming of new Sion Sono high-octane freak-fest—Prisoners of the Ghostland. Sono has directed 50 plus films. The director’s “warped mind” is cited at the outset of the Ghostland trailer. In addition to Shibata, Sono shares a circle with a very hip and creative set in Tokyo, including Hirokazu Koreeda, whom Cage cites—director of Palme d’Or Winner, Shoplifters.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is indeed a radioactive battering ram. Cage’s survival, as a persecuted emissary of sorts, is pegged to explosive devices hemmed into the surrounds of his genitals. He calls the picture “the wildest film I’ve ever made” in the press a couple weeks prior. I suppose it took a symbolically serious threat to the family jewels to elicit such a statement after all we’ve seen Cage endeavor through.
We reflect on a couple of photo setups that needed slight reworking given their potential to connote a stereotype. That of the demure, submissive, and ornamental Asian female. “That’s not me and Riko,” Cage says resolutely, acknowledging the ubiquitous post-War bigotry in culture, “her getting me coffee, waiting on me, or some kind of servitude. And that’s not been my experience with other Asian women, abroad or here.” He shakes his head and continues, “And to think about Marlon Brando in that film [The Teahouse of the August Moon, (1956)] and his way of talking and...” Cage mimics a scene where Brando beckons for a back massage from a problematic “geisha” figure. In revisitation, this film is rather alarming.
I propose that, at the very least, it feels there is a heightened concern for dissection and eradication of these tired tropes in the arts and media alike. He agrees that truth in the media is a precious natural resource, one that warrants evolution while fighting for its preservation. As a youngster, he tells me, he adored Citizen Kane, and Charles Kane’s obsession with his newspaper seemed the most worthwhile crucible. “The layouts, the headlines... the positioning,” he says emphatically. He longed to orchestrate and captivate a small empire.
He shares that his father, August Coppola—an academic at the San Francisco State University and brother to famed director Francis Ford Coppola—was compulsively committed to classical music. Cage, wanting to impress him, determined he would do an article for his student newspaper: Classical versus Pop. The ways in which the latter corroded the brain and personality. He dialed in some local sources. After railroading his interviewees with questions about the toxicity of rock n’ roll, one particular subject told him, “Kid, slow down.”
Already moving at a breakneck pace, one that would never slow. Cage shakes his head with a smile, “I loved the idea of asking the hard questions and getting the scoop. And so, when the piece came out, it was something of a...” and he trails off, inferring that the final product was exactly that. An ephemeral trail off, a wonton teenage whimsy that wouldn’t, and needn’t, lodge itself into anything but the black hole of nostalgia and self-dismissal. “And shortly after this,” he concludes, “I discovered Meet the Beatles! and of course, all of that comparison went out the window.”
Cage and Shibata don’t walk through the MGM. They glide. And Cage knows no periphery. His gait, and that of his company, is of a coolly plucked arrow, piercing the pinging and whirring behemoth and its temptations, the glittery indelible cave. We’ve seen this glide in Vampire’s Kiss (1988). We’ve seen it in Con Air (1997), and of course we’ve seen it to the borderline caustic tinkle of “Lonely Teardrops” as Cage sachets down a grocery aisle dumping bottle after bottle of hooch into his shopping cart in Leaving Las Vegas.
Vegas invites gliding over its carpets. Infinite scrolls. Gobby rolls of plush and absorptive and vacuumed Americana, with crowns and shells and geometry and fleurs-de-lis. O’er these carpets, before noon, we’re not notably noticed. After lunch? Like a wide-berthing worm loyally tails beneath the carpet a few feet behind. Folks on the move stop and swivel, and stand, double chins loosened after a salty noontime fry up and poolside mai tais. It’s not just the Eiffel Tower. The Venetian canals. It’s moments like this. The augmented spectacle of Vegas—what writer Clara Irazabal called the sensational’s “hyperreality and kitsch”—that make the destination what it is. I mean, what other celebrity might you hope to spot snaking through the slot machines than Nicolas Cage? You’re done!
Plus, this is America, newly reopened. Tickled pink. Going about its spas and spending, its wiles. Thousands and thousands bound about, mask-less. More acquainted with the Delta flight that got them here than the coronavirus variant which will, only a couple weeks later, encourage more closures, a return to masks inside the casinos, lawsuits between schools and states, etcetera.
Service workers of every stratum flit around Vegas like a kind of futuristic honeycomb. I ask Cage how he relates to service culture. “Those guys are heroes,” he says with conviction. “My first gig was selling tickets and popcorn at a cinema called the Fairfax Movie Theater. That job required so much... being a waiter is a hard job, man. Like, ‘Sir, you have to put your cigarette out’, and he blows smoke in my face. But the beauty of that job was I got to see the big screen, I got to see all these fun movies and try to figure out how do I go from this guy to that guy, and I enjoyed that. I didn’t enjoy some of the interactions with the audience, which is why I think the service industry does require respect. It takes real patience to be in that line of work. You have to be a people person.”
Cage as your popcorn man couldn’t be a cooler thought. And it weirdly suits his inside/outside origins. He did have family connections in his uncle, but he apparently wasn’t taken seriously by him. Cage was decisively middle class, living in adjacent Beverly Hills and attending a school where certain kids drove Maseratis or Ferraris to class. The origins beg questions about his relationship to vocation? How to unnerve the molds in which we’re cast? “Sometimes I think about what my original plan was,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of film from a very young age. I grew up loving movies and loving Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, and Charles Bronson and Once Upon a Time in the West, James Dean in East of Eden. I loved what could be accomplished and what you could feel with a really powerful film performance. I thought it to be more powerful than anything else. More powerful than painting, or music, or books. So that was my first plan. Even at an abstract age, like six, I remember looking at the TV and going, ‘How do I get in that television set?’ Those people are so much more interesting than what’s happening in my living room. I want to be with them.’ That was a very kind of nebulous and vague, but motivating, moment in my life to go towards acting and film performance.”
I can imagine Cage taking tickets and portioning popcorn with total flair. So when was the breaking point? “I remember,” he recalls, “I was going on auditions and it just wasn’t happening, again and again, and the door kept closing. Then I got very sick and said to myself in the hospital, ‘You know, I am going to do one more, and if it doesn’t happen, then I am going to plan B. And plan B was... I mean, my first love was the ocean. So I wanted to go on a fishing boat, or be a merchant marine, or whatever. A lot of young people in Napa Valley, when I was going to school there, they were going up to Alaska, and they were fishing, and they were coming home with beautiful mint green Camaros and Corvettes, and I was like, ‘How are they doing that?’ Those are like 50 grand!”
In the parking lot of Bagans’, the asphalt belches with steam. This is the only place in Vegas we’ve observed patrons collectively masking. And with cause. The warren of twisted memorabilia is not only haunted—it’s claustrophobic. We burn through six to eight rooms in a flurry of historical and grotesque. It’s amazing. We pop into a mechanistic wall of loony puppets with faraway stares. “It was disturbing,” Cage recalls, “and that’s what they’re about. We knew that going in.”
The profile portrait Cage does next to a wooden Pinnochio in the puppet room? “Well, I mean Pinocchio is one of my favorite stories,” he says, “and what Disney did with that was a masterpiece. Zak Bagans’ interpretation and a room of puppets? It was definitely more on the sinister and disturbing side, but I kind of enjoyed that. I did think that the puppet room was fascinating, in a kind of sublimely creepy way.”
To consider Pinocchio, I suppose, is to consider lying. “I don’t even like the word acting anymore because it implies lying in some way,” Cage tells Variety in 2017. “I don’t act. I feel and I imagine and I channel.” He doesn’t want to act as much these days. He wants to be.
So, if I may, it’s not lying that compels him to Pinocchio.
It’s that the shackles of the puppet’s his involuntary dance. Subject instead to the calamities of his imperfections, his mistakes. Might we say the same thing about Cage?
I call Bagans a couple weeks later to chat about the puppet room. “When I was little in the early 80s,” he tells me, “I remember they had this little trailer visit the school, and inside were all these little puppets, and I’ll never forget the fear that I had for these marionettes. I mean some of these puppeteers, they are very interesting people. Their souls start to join these puppets, you know? These puppets are alive to them, and I think once these puppeteers die and move on, I think that a part of their soul stays with their puppets.”
We’re rounding a bustling corner of the MGM back in Vegas. Cage and I discover that we spent some years as neighbors in DLTA, separated by only a few glowering and greasy Old Bank District blocks. An appreciation for its dismally dystopian mix. The inarticulable personality combos. The coolly removed anonymity of the glass and concrete. “It’s like nowhere on earth,” he says emphatically.
“Full of zombies,” I’ve heard carelessly quipped of the graphic encampments that blanket Skid Row, side streets, underpasses. Of zombies, Haitian voodoo supposes a dual identity. One version, an ambulatory body without a living soul. The other, less popular, a soul wandering without a body. Maybe like Bagans’ puppets.
Cage himself is something of a puppet master... to himself. Is his soul acting on the body? Or the opposite? His is, of course, a chronically meta-disposition. Consider the promotional efforts behind Pig. When the intensely scored trailer was released online, Twitter went nuts. I fell for it too, explaining to a friend, having not seen the film, only the glowering face of Cage on its poster and the sensational trailer, “Well, Cage is this guy living in the woods, foraging truffles with his pet pig, which is stolen... and then Cage goes nuts...” Instead, Pig swaps gratuitous revenge cliches for unexpected tenderness.
In light of this, I don’t take the opportunity to question Cage about the “memeification” that blossoms about his persona online. About whether someone casting him in a film inherently invites Internet Nic Cage as well (which it seems Pig may have done, inadvertently or not). I don’t, because I feel something critical is missing in the quick to meme: his sincerity. That maybe the meme-ing of certain performances comes from discomfort amongst the collective. “I have gone out of my way not to be ironic—and with the risk of looking ridiculous—to be genuinely emotionally naked,” he told The New York Times in 2019, then citing a scene in Mandy where he channeled profound emotional agony, which saw certain people laugh and the internet contort.
Cage speaks about a particularly stark form of nudity due out next year: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. In the film, Cage plays Nicolas Cage. The actor is cash-strapped and agrees to make a paid appearance at a billionaire’s birthday party. There’s CIA and drug czars involved and we’ve truly no idea what to expect. “I won’t see it,” Cage tells me. “It’s not something I want to do.” The premise compels me to show him a photo of a pair of sequined pillows bearing his visage on a couch at Flaunt headquarters. “Those pillows feature in it actually. I filmed it, and now it’s done. It’s not something I feel the need to see. It’s a bit like Crazy Horse, how he wouldn’t be photographed because he felt it would steal your soul.”
Again, the soul and its separation. Cage is willing to enter the self-reflexive narrative cauldron for anything, but he needn’t always taste the soup. Nothing needs transpire except a performance in which fakery is diminished to zero. As if to demonstrate, he pops an edamame and tells me about an untitled/unannounced project he hopes to direct. A father/son dynamic where an estranged brother enters the picture. He plans to cast a real life father and son, and his own role will help frame the dynamic therein. “It’s like action/adventure without the action/adventure,” he says cheekily. I rest my point.
Nicolas Cage doesn’t gamble. He’s seen too many people ruined by the practice and the recourse, he explains. We talk about the psychology of gamblers. A chronic intent to manipulably ensnare. Perpetually test those around them. Feed on adrenaline.
For some, it’s perhaps a challenge to imagine a figure who has immersed in so many high-stakes narratives not indulge the endorphins gambling is known to stimulate. The same produced by exercise, stress, pain, orgasm, spicy food, chocolate... all of which, of course are not to imagine Stephen Paddock. Holed up in his 32nd floor room four years ago at the stone’s throw Mandalay Bay. Surrounded by faux silver platters and piles of ammunition he would eventually rain upon innocent concert attendees below, the worst mass-shooting in US history. “He was a high roller,” Cage remarks, punctuating the thesis of our conversation, and we leave it at that.
“These items were in the possession of people during some very tragic times,” Bagans tells me about the oddities and affects found throughout his museum. “During death, during murder... and that energy, I believe, fuses itself to a lot of these items. And the items witnessed those moments.”
We find ourselves in front of Jack Kevorkian’s death mobile. A steel-framed mini-bus that the famous euthanasia advocate dubbed the “mercitron’. “That I individuals who sought out or were discovered by Kevorkian were in extreme pain. While often true, it was also discovered that a majority of those who desired a hastened death reported feelings of meaninglessness, depression, and hopelessness. More were likely to have never married or divorced.
The word ‘euthanasia’ is derived from Greek: ‘eu’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘Thanatos’ meaning ‘death’: Good Death. Might we make a similar affiliation to violence for entertainment? Studies have shown that temporary “blinders” occur psychologically when we experience orchestrated scenes of violence. Does the same thing occur when acting? Presumably. And so I would suggest that Cage’s history with violence is not as preoccupied with gore as many of his contemporaries. More so with violence’s spectacle, its implicitness, its integral role in so many aspects of culture.
Because we are inextricable from violence. “The thing about the culinary world is they are brutal on each other,” he responds when I ask him about the symbolic violence in parts of Pig. “I read Marco Pierre White’s book, and he was reducing Gordon Ramsay to tears. And now Gordon is king of the world, Michelin star, four-time, three-time, success all around, but he certainly paid his dues to get there. It’s a culture that thrives on abuse. And then it keeps going: ‘Well, I was abused, so now you are going to be abused.’ It keeps going. ‘You’re either going to stand and endure it or you won’t. Let’s find out right now.”
I remark that it would seem a lot of this culture, in the culinary space, but also across other sectors, is perhaps being slowly and progressively dismantled. Would he agree? “I hope so,” he responds. “I hope that can be dismantled. I think it would be much more interesting if we used positive reinforcements—‘That was excellent, let’s try and do that again.”
After Bagans, we finish the shoot at a Circle K a distance off the strip. By this point, the heat has everyone in something of a toxic fever. Shibata is tired. Cage is tired. But somehow we’re here because the photo team pleaded for it. I’m shocked, to be honest. Anyone else would have said no. Cage sits at the foot of a gas pump, while a toothless woman in dungarees tries to take a photo from the sidewalk.
It’s here that the idea of Cage’s supply and demand construct truly comes full circle. We compel the stories. Our discomfort compelling the memes. We, with our violence, our addictions, our existentialism, our desire to live or die. The conditionality of a swelling planet. Our desire for thrills, or witchery, or heroism, or profundity, corn syrup celluloid. Cage isn’t choosing roles, so much as not faking a response.
Audience, of course, is changing. The stage, too, is transforming. “If a young person who was trying to get into this line of work asked me if I had any council for them,” Cage tells me, “I would say stay true to your imagination. Don’t listen to the criticism too much, because that can be the abusive father. The abusive father is the first thing that is going to shut you down—a verbally abusive father.”
We continue to divvy up and spice the pan-fried savory pancakes, as the lunch crowd grows around us. While Cage never once looks askant, I can’t help but notice the majority of the restaurant’s attendees as focused as he is... on their phones. “And now you have Instagram,” he adds, “now you have Facebook, Twitter. I’m not on any of that. I’m going on record saying I’m not on social media because I know that... I have seen the effects it has had on my close friends. They read something and it’s like, ‘Why would you read that Instagram post? Do you even know who wrote it? This is an upset person that wants to take it out on you.’ That’s the clickbait that gets someone to look at the story. I guess it’s human nature... ‘Did that really happen?’ Oh, I see, it’s not really fact, but it gets on the news, and that has happened a lot with the internet I think. That is what is different now. It wasn’t like this in 1982.”
To the tune of supply and demand, I remark that social media has become so integrally demanding on people’s lives. Even if they disregard its merit in their social day-to-day, its role in their work lives is increasingly critical. Would that influence Cage’s pursuit of acting, were he as young as most of the restaurant’s demo around us? Or would he have sooner been in a similarly high-risk occupation, his previously cited crabbing in Alaska? He humors the fantasy, “Yes! That’s what I was thinking. And then I can write, do the short stories on the boat, and just do that. The Conrad, the Melville...And then George Schlatter of all people, from Laugh-In fame, he was doing a show The Best of Times. And I somehow got on the pilot—it never got picked up—but I met my very good friend Crispin Glover on that stupid little pilot. Then I got onto Rumble Fish, which was a complete surprise. I didn’t know that was going to happen. Fred Roos [Producer] was the one that wanted me to do that. Maybe he had seen something. He said ‘Why don’t you just come in and read? Matt [Dillon] and all the other actors are there... we’re reading actors, but you’re not auditioning.’ And then I magically got it. So wow, ok. That stopped it—that stopped me from going on the fishing boat. But, having said that, there is something that has happened, without complaining, where technology has gotten to the point that everyone has a cellphone with a camera. Whatever you do, as a result of being a public persona, is now public record. We all make mistakes. That’s human nature to make mistakes. Sometimes it feels like, ‘Well, I didn’t know that was going to light up.’ And that is not a complaint. But had I known that, maybe the charm would have been more alluring to be on that fishing boat. But it’s been forty-two years... forty-two years and I don’t know how many movies, one hundred ten, one hundred sixteen? I don’t know. I’ve lost count. But in that time of honing and practicing—the hills and valleys—I’ve developed a little rhino skin. I can’t really get that upset if there is an atrocious review, nor can I get that ecstatic if there is a good review. That’s part of it, but that is not why I got in it.I got in it because I wanted to be James Dean and what he made me feel like.”
So, it won’t be Alaska. After lunch, though, Cage will visit a stable. He’s headed up to Montana in the next few days to shoot a new film, Butcher’s Crossing, a Western drama where he says, with a smirk and what can only be described as a devious sparkle, “I play a deranged gunslinger.” He’ll take Shibata with him. I suggest it will be nice for her, given her inability to work to date because of coronavirus and visa issues, which he expresses has been some cause for her restlessness. Not to mention the suffocation of DTLA in the summertime heat. Days later, I check the ARQ score and see that Western Montana is buried in the glut of forest fire smoke that pancakes the West. I hope it doesn’t spoil the shoot, and more, Shibata’s introduction to the American West.
It’s been a decade since Cage has ridden a horse and he acknowledges a touch of nervousness headed into his guided reacquaintance. “And I was of course friends with Christopher [Reeves],” he says, wistfully, and we shake our heads at the now two-decades-old tragedy. In my mind, I’m thinking: Nicolas Cage must have so many friends. Friends in complex places. Familial, financial, and fame. With any such network, the frequency of tragedies scales. “You talked about legacy,” he remarks, before we close out our conversation, “and legacy is a word that seems to me can have many meanings. The literal meaning of finances handed down in a family, or it can be the meaning of a body of work. To me, it always felt like the meaning of a body of work. To cherry pick from Eckhart Tolle—young people have the pressure of the future and older people the pressure of the past, and neither does a lot of good for you, so why not focus on the present? So, to that end, I don’t look at legacy often. I just think about what is in front of me now that I think
I can bring something to, whatever that may be. If it’s a larger movie, okay—if it’s in the script—or if it’s a smaller movie. More often than not it is a smaller movie. There is more air to play with and experiment and breathe. In terms of a gift, I do feel enormously thankful to be in a family of cinematic artists. People that are taking risks, and that are telling stories that are unique. It was a gift— it wasn’t a financial gift—but the gift of observing great art. Like, ‘Why don’t you look at this painting, Nicolas? ‘Why don’t you eat this meal and try that cake?’ Or ‘Why don’t you listen to Schubert’s 9th?’ My dad was making sure that he was pointing out these things to me. That was the gift and that was the legacy. If there is anything I was handed down, it was the ability to appreciate art in the Coppola dynamic—the Coppola mind.” Consider Cage’s mind, as he stands up and disappears out into the heat. A stare straight ahead. The arrow’s piercing. His closing remarks exemplifying this unflinching linearity of manner and movement. “Yeah, I don’t want to think about Nicolas Cage 1985, and I don’t want to think about Nicolas Cage 2035... and let’s hope I get there. And who knows? Maybe when it happens I’ll have the privilege of seeing Christopher again. We might wind up being on camera together in some weird universe.” And he smiles that magical Nic Cage smile— slow to spread, then emancipatory... like the irreplicable cracking of an egg. “There is no telling what will transpire from imagination.”
Photographed by Noah Dillon
Styled by Sophia Álvarez
Hair & Makeup: Pamela Warden