MALIBU, CALIF. — Gravitas. We heard it often and with a certain reverence at the press event in honor of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin."
This is a favorite word of many in Hollywood, often applied to projects with nothing near the quality to merit it.
This time, the word fits.
Directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and based on a British best-seller, the film sets a love story between Nicolas Cage, who plays an Italian Army captain, and Penélope Cruz, a Greek island native, against tragedies that unfolded in the Greek Isles near the end of the World War II. (See review, page 15.)
"Nicolas Cage was an inspired choice for the role," says Mr. Madden. "There's a spiritual gravitas to this character. He has a natural sort of dignity and decency, even honor, which is old-fashioned. Nick has that quality, a sort of purity in his life and on film."
These words resonate with the star, who says that his sole professional and personal goal is "purity." Mr. Cage says he fights what he calls dishonesty in every area of his life. "We all have social masks," he says. "I want to know what the truth is without the mask. And I want to do it all the time."
He was attracted to the part of Captain Corelli for the purity of the love between Pelagia and the Italian. "What I liked was this sense of love surviving war and strife and remaining true love," says the actor, whose recent work has included a number of high-octane action projects.
He laughs with a rueful acknowledgement of the demands of the industry. "Those films gave me clout," he says simply. While he might prefer films with a more refined sensibility, he adds, "even independent film auteurs need actors with clout to get their films made."
At this point in his life, Cage says, "I don't feel that I'm trying to prove anything," although he says that writing is a challenge that attracts him. "I'd like to prove to myself that I can write a screenplay," he says. But in his acting career, "I still see myself as a student of acting. I only want to grow."
The role of an Italian musician provided very particular opportunities for growth. A self-professed non-musician, Cage learned to play the mandolin from scratch.
"He was relishing the commitment," says producer Kevin Loader. "He wanted the challenge, and everything he played in the film, he actually played."
Accents proved another challenge as well as opportunity, says British actor John Hurt. "There were certain rules," he says, pointing out that, with an international cast, everyone on the project had to adopt an accent different from their country of origin. Beyond that, "one is also trying to find a personal noise," Mr. Hurt says with a laugh. But in the end, he says, the accents were important. "I found that it could lend a gravity to the part."