LOS ANGELES — Nicolas Cage is in search of an image. Audiences haven't a clue what kind of character to expect when they walk into a theater showing one of his movies.
"For the past 15 years, I've played such a variety of parts," Cage says, "I haven't developed a type. I've been able to pick and choose really diverse characters. Another view is I'm minus a screen identity or trademark.
"Just look at the two movies I did in Las Vegas. 'Honeymoon in Vegas' was a madcap comedy where I was rushing into marriage. In 'Leaving Las Vegas' I was an alcoholic bent on drinking myself to death." He also lost 20 pounds for the role but "gained" six of them back when he took the Oscar statuette for Best Actor.
In his other recent movies, Cage also worked against type. In "It Could Happen to You," about a policeman and a waitress splitting a winning lottery ticket, he embodied the sweetness and honesty of Jimmy Stewart. On the set, the director would suggest, "Give me more Jimmy ... or give me less," according to Cage. For "Kiss of Death," he went into training, pumping iron so that he'd appear more physically menacing.
One thing audiences do know about Cage is that he's intense, dedicated, and offbeat. In his new movie, "The Rock" (reviewed in the June 7 Monitor), he plays an FBI biochemist who specializes in chemical warfare.
"Before I start a movie," he says, "I go into a work mode. For 'The Rock,' I flew to Washington and met several FBI specialists. When I found one similar to my part, my character began to take form. I saw in his eyes a kind of sadness; he's aware of things in the world today that are very alarming. Eight ounces of a poison so toxic, in a certain country in the wrong hands, could wipe out life on earth."
Cage's hero is no superman. In one scene you see his body shaking and perspiring from sheer terror. "The Rock," in which he co-stars with Sean Connery, is his first real action movie.
"The only superstar who can bounce from action hero to in-depth drama is Connery. I'm trying to model my career to emulate his."
Cage likes to tweak and change little things to make the role more honest. For instance, he explains: "Stanley [the character] makes a reference to Elton John and the Rocket Man." He felt that the remark came out of left field. The filmmaker agreed to add some earlier footage that established Stanley as a Beatle fanatic and showed he was into music and playing guitar.
Fortunately, producer Jerry Bruckheimer supports his stars' tweaking and changing. Cage has signed on for another movie with Bruckheimer called "Con-Air," which starts filming next week.
Again it's light-years away from "The Rock." As the actor explains, "I play a man, convicted of murdering his wife's abuser, who spends eight years in prison and is released on Christmas Eve.
" 'Con-Air,' " Cage repeats and adds, half to himself, "They've got to change that; it sounds like a hair dryer."
Besides looking for challenges in his work, Cage says his biggest acting influence is music. "When appearing with Kathleen Turner in 'Peggy Sue Got Married,' I liked that out-of-tune delivery of Lou Reed's [former lead singer for the Velvet Underground], and I played my character kind of out of tune. Some of the critics thought it too abrasive.
"Now, I'm getting creative input from the music of Miles Davis and the Beatles. For 'Con-Air,' " he says with a smile, "I'll probably be getting vibes from Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Another source of creativity for Cage is the apartment he rents in downtown Los Angeles - though he and his wife of one year, actress Patricia Arquette, have a Victorian-style home in the Hollywood Hills. "It's inexpensive," he laughs, "because no one wants to live there. I can go to the market and observe all the ethnic cultures. No one bothers me - if they think I look like someone they know, it's not an actor.
"The thing I really enjoy is my 'International Triptych Day.' I'll decide I'd like to go to Japan, so I jog to the Little Tokyo area and have sushi. Then I'll think, 'I'm in the mood to visit China,' so I walk over to Chinatown. Then, I want to hear some Mexican music, so I'll stroll down Olvera Street.
"This walking culture does a great deal for me as an actor. It provides environmentally different experiences. It's like being in three countries in a few hours and never getting on a jet."
Cage says that his Oscar win hasn't changed him. "I signed to do two movies before the Oscar. One is 'Con-Air'; the second is 'Face Off,' with John Travolta. The latter is a futuristic adventure in which Travolta and I literally change faces."
Definitely a non-identity role. "Yes, but maybe that's OK not to have a special image," Cage says.