Unchained Cage

Actor Nicolas Cage refuses to be locked into the expectations of his fans -- or his peers.


Nicolas Cage likes to keep his fans guessing.

Take Lord of War, the recently opened action film in which he plays the proudly amoral Yuri Orlov, a second-generation Ukrainian emigre who's decided the surest way to achieve the American dream of wealth and happiness is to sell guns to anyone, be he street thug or insane African dictator. Cage plays Orlov like an old-time snake-oil salesman, all smiles and good manners and warm pats on the back, totally dismissive of his customers' plans for his merchandise.

From the beginning, Cage knew playing Orlov would go against everyone's expectations. Even his own.

"When I first read the script, I passed," the 41-year-old actor says over the telephone from his Los Angeles home. "I just didn't want to be perceived as the guy who was doing that kind of thing. Then I said, 'That's not really what I'm about.' I thought, I'm more about doing things which are uncomfortable, because then, hopefully, something will come out of that tension.' From that point on, I was with it."

In a career that began when he was 17, Cage has worked hard to gain a reputation as an acting chameleon. He's played everything from a vampire (1989's Vampire's Kiss) to a lovestruck Greek soldier (2001's Captain Corelli's Mandolin), won an Oscar for playing a self-destructive drunk (1995's Leaving Las Vegas) and was nominated for playing twin brothers, one vacuously self-confident, the other chronically forlorn and self-effacing (2002's Adaptation).

Not playing it safe

That unwillingness to be buttonholed has included stepping back and forth between the divergent worlds of the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters and the more cost-conscious independent cinema -- a willingness to straddle fences that hasn't always sat well with critics. Even some of his fellow actors have taken him to task; Sean Penn once weighed in, dismissing his former co-star's relevance (they appeared together in 1984's Racing With the Moon) with the comment, "Nic Cage is no longer an actor. He's more like a performer."

But Cage, who borrowed his last name from a Marvel comic-book character (he was born a Coppola, nephew to director Francis Ford Coppola), can live with all that. It means he's doing his job, keeping people off-guard and not allowing himself to be pinned down.

"I'm not the sort of person that wants to play it safe," he says. "So the very thing that might upset fellow actors and what-not is the very thing that I'm trying to achieve. My identity is that I'm open to having several identities. That keeps it interesting.

"By some definition, if I were to do one thing and do it well, I would be maybe a bigger star, or maybe I would garner better reviews consistently. But that, to me, would be very boring. I need to step outside the box and to think differently and to go for things which I may or may not be able to achieve, but at least I will learn something in the process."

Negative emotions

Yet another side to Cage will be on display next month, when The Weather Man opens in theaters. In this dark comedy from director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Cage plays a sad-sack TV weatherman who can't measure up to his father's success (he's a prize-winning writer), can't keep his family together (his daughter is dour and overweight, his son is in reform school and his soon-to-be-ex-wife can't stand him) and can't even walk the streets of his native Chicago without people yelling at him derisively and throwing things (usually fast food) his way.

"That was very much Gore's emphasis with the film," Cage says, "the feeling of one's self-worth, and how do you measure up to your father, or even in your own work? How can you embrace who you are and be OK with that? My own track was, I was the man who's trying to put his family back together.

"When I shot Weather Man ... I was going through this divorce [from wife No. 2, Lisa Marie Presley], and I had a lot of emotional feeling in me, and that movie was the perfect place to take a negative and turn it into a positive."

While his fans wait to see where Cage will turn next, Lord of War may offer a hint. The film, with its loud-and-clear anti-gun message and its suggestion that the U.S. may be more responsible for the worldwide rise in violence than its leaders might be comfortable with admitting, is more overtly political than most of Cage's previous work.

"My goal here really is just to create a film which might compel people to go to a pub after the movie and have a beer and talk about these issues that we're dealing with in the world, and who's really responsible," he says.

"I'm not interested in being a hotheaded actor spouting pretentious political views. That's not where I'm at. I do think, if I want to do some good about a cause, I will participate in my own humble way. Which might mean making a movie about it."

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