The Academy Award winning actor on why he had to break free from his family to start a career, wanting to break the mold, and playing with poisonous snakes.
Mr. Cage, why did you change your name?
I had to reinvent myself. I am still legally Nicolas Coppola, but I am Nicolas Cage. I love my family and all of their accomplishments, but as a young actor going into casting offices I couldn't get that off of me. I had to focus on the character and the audition and there was pressure because of my name. As soon as I went into the casting office under a new name and they didn't know that there was a connection and I got the part, I was like, "I can really do this." I felt liberated. It gave me the freedom to become what I wanted to be in my dreams.
It's funny that you talk about liberation when the name you chose is Cage.
It is ironic, I hadn't thought of it that way. I was looking for a name that was unique but simple. I wanted people to remember an exotic name that was short and sweet and Cage to me seemed right. Tom Cruise changed his name, we came up together, and I also liked the avant-garde composer John Cage. I thought it was interesting you had both sides, you know, you have the popcorn side and the more thoughtful side.
That's been true of your career, actually. You've received acclaim for your acting, even winning an Academy Award for Best Actor, but you do a lot of "popcorn" films too. Is that by design?
Yes, it was by design. I wanted to break the mold a little bit. I was reading books by Stanislavsky, you know An Actor Prepares, and I was interested in the idea of opening doors for performance in film so you don't have to get stuck in one style: naturalism, photorealism. I like to mix it up a little bit in terms of my presentation. I can be quiet and cinéma vérité and get more into the minutia of a performance, but I can also do an operatic, larger than life, jazz-acting sort of thing.
Roger Ebert once called you a fearless actor who doesn't care if the audience thinks you are going over the top. Is that true?
You can design a performance in terms of the size of it, go outside the box, be operatic, but if there is emotional content in it - if you still have the feeling - you can commit to whatever you want. I'm not the first one to do it. In the '30s it happened quite a bit. Look at Cagney, was he real? No. Was he truthful? Yes.
How do you get to that place when you are on set?
In a movie I was on recently I had a four-page scene where they wanted a copperhead snake to be in the grass. They had a snake that had no poison and I said, "You know what, I think we really need to take a chance here and use a real snake and pick it up and use it in the scene." And they were like, "Why?" I said, "It's a big scene and I think it will relax me."
Relax you? Really?
I'm one of those people that when I do stunts or drink a lot of coffee it calms me down. And I like what it can offer in terms of creativity - you could feel the focus on set. You don't have to act. If you can avoid acting and get to the truth of it and be in the moment, something magical will happen.
What do you say to the people who criticize your style and call it overacting?
It hasn't always been met with appreciation, but that is the beauty of the challenge: you have to stick to your beliefs. I think that if someone does something really unique and original, chances are that it's going to get criticized. A lot of my heroes in the past were heavily criticized for being different, like Edvard Munch and Stravinsky. These are people that broke the mold.
Read more of The Talks with Nicolas Cage.