Nicolas Cage. Is there an actor in Hollywood whose career has been more unpredictable, whose choices have been more esoteric and spread all over the map? I submit no: There has never been another actor who has embraced the energy of a true chaotic neutral throughout their career quite like Cage, culminating in his upcoming release The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. When other actors would have zigged, Cage has zagged, making choices that have been met more often with an eyebrow raise than an understanding nod. That penchant for the unexpected, however, has been a double-edged sword for the actor.
In the past, where that unpredictable quality has served him well, it’s hampered his career for the past decade. His well-documented financial troubles have meant he’s had to take any project that comes his way, many of which haven’t exactly been Oscar bait or even wide release-worthy projects. As a result, his star has dimmed somewhat over the last decade, the former Oscar winner often taking roles in movies closer to the realm of direct-to-DVD. His, shall we call it, distinct screen presence was then described not in the language reserved for an eccentric auteur, but as an actor not taken particularly seriously.
But the above arguments miss two important, immutable facts about Cage: One, that it’s precisely those questionable movies that illustrate what a phenomenal actor he is, and two, that it’s not simply his prolific debt that prompts him to take the roles he does. And, more importantly, it’s that second part that drives the first.
It was a personal encounter with Cage that suddenly hit me with this epiphany, changing my whole outlook on his career.
A year or two ago, I was at brunch with a friend when she nudged me and subtly motioned to the table beside us: Sitting there, less than a foot away, was Nic Cage. It being LA, celebrity sightings aren’t uncommon, so we quickly got back to our own business. Still, with our tables so close together, it was impossible not to overhear the conversation happening at Cage’s table. Which is how we overheard Nicolas Cage, Academy Award winner and two-time nominee, launch into an impassioned defense of Adam Sandler’s The Water Boy and espouse his philosophy of lowbrow humor and how much he loves it, how he loves a movie that has the audacity to not take itself at all seriously.
That right there sums up the ethos of Nicolas Cage: He absolutely revels in the absurd. It’s not that he revels only in the absurd, simply that he’s not afraid of it. There’s a certain sort of magic in that. While other actors are obsessed with natural realism in their acting, or immersive method acting, Cage always seems to approach his roles with one question: “How can I be as interestingly weird as possible?” Weird is Cage’s natural state and it’s where he excels, something few other actors in Hollywood do. Actors, they love to act the hell out of a scene, but that acting often falls within a specific accepted spectrum. Allowing themselves to emotionally let go is channeled either into anger or grief, their emotional depths honestly mined and impressively expressive – still, you can almost always feel that desired Oscar nomination swirling in the background of the performance. But weirdness for weirdness’s sake? Unheard of.
Except for Cage. “People think I’m not in on the joke,” he once said. Know that he is. And that he likes it that way. Cage, it could be argued, is the most fearless actor of our generation, as perfectly at ease with going completely over the top as with more restrained, serious performances. He approaches the set and his job seriously without taking himself seriously, and it means he’s often the most interesting person on screen giving the most watchable performance. A great script will often expose a bad actor’s flaws but a great actor will elevate a bad script (or editing) and Cage does this time and time again. He is never not mesmerizing when he’s on the screen and often seems to be the only person to understand the movie being made, a reportedly gracious actor who nonetheless steals every scene he’s in thanks to his natural charisma and energy. There is no greater crime than a movie being boring and plenty of great actors and great filmmakers have made boring movies. You can’t say that about Cage. No movie with Cage will ever be boring simply by the sheer force of his on-screen presence. Few actors living or dead have that talent. Very few.
Simply put, Cage is often on a different level than the other actors around him, talented as they may be. Consider what Ethan Hawke, an actor respected throughout Hollywood, had to say about Cage in a 2013 Reddit AMA: “I’m kind of obsessed with Nic Cage,” he said then. “He’s the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours.”
That appreciation for Cage hasn’t waned for Hawke in the years since, even in the wake of some of Cage’s more questionable projects. As he explained to Newsweek in 2018
“I mean, he’s a true original—one of the greatest actors ever. His confidence and madness and dedication—you take his top 10 performances and I’d put ‘em up against anybody. And they’re revelatory! You know, [Konstantin] Stanislavski came up with this idea of naturalism and pursuing life as it is, moving away from a more performance-oriented Shakespearean style of singing roles. Brando and Lee Strasberg and the Group Theatre and all these people push it forward. Gene Hackman and De Niro and Meryl Streep—we’ve all been dutifully falling in line. Except for Nic Cage. He’s doing something else!“
Hawke gets what Cage is doing on a level most others don’t, including Sean Penn, who once said of Cage, “He’s not an actor, he’s a performer.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but Cage was unfazed by the dig, nodding, “In a way, I agree with him,” before saying something that may as well have summarized his entire acting philosophy: “I would rather be a performer than an actor. Acting to me implies lying. ‘He’s the greatest actor in the world’ is like saying, ‘He’s the greatest liar in the world.’ To perform, in my opinion, is more about emotion.”
That fearlessness in exploring the entire emotional spectrum and human personality is the beauty of Cage. Restrained or excessive, he’s never afraid to be wholly unbound and exposed in a role, fully aware when one of his performances may invite ridicule. He doesn’t care. As long as his own internal compass tells him he’s pointing at his own personal true north, he stands by a performance.
It appears, however, that Hollywood is finally catching up to the underappreciated genius of Cage. For the longest time, it seemed as though Cage were a square peg in a round hole. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him or how best to utilize his on-screen energy that so often seemed to be the acting equivalent of a person in a crowd going one way where everyone else was going in the opposite direction.
But now, we’re in an age of weirdness. Genre rules the day and genre projects that lean into their weirdness are now seen as, if not critically-acclaimed prestige work, then at the very least audience hits. Consider the genre-mashing weirdness and poignancy of Watchmen being nominated for an astounding 26 Primetime Emmys and winning 11. Consider the over-the-top, nonstop f-bomb of The Boys being Amazon’s most successful original series ever. Consider the explosion of inventive horror and the rapidly growing respect for the genre from even the snobbiest cinephiles. Rather than shunning weird genre work because no one in the industry understands it or knows how to market it, Hollywood is finally coming around to its potential. Embracing it, even.
And so Nic Cage is on the comeback trail. In a way, the comeback has already started, with Cage finding critical success in a genre he’s no stranger to: horror. Forty years into his career, Cage has recalibrated his aim and found a new creative outlet in the horror genre, making an impact in the last few years by taking roles that allow him to be as extreme as he wants: Mandy, Mom and Dad, Between Worlds and the trippy, Lovecraft-inspired Color Out of Space, in which the long-derided “Nic Cage freakout” was lauded by critics for perfectly suiting the increasingly unhinged tone of the movie.
Soon, he’ll be seen in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The extremely meta project co-starring Pedro Pascal is loosely based on Cage’s own career, with him starring as an actor in massive debt who agrees to do a meet-and-greet at a billionaire fan’s mansion only to become an informant for the FBI when he learns that billionaire fan is a criminal cartel leader. Currently, it’s getting rave reviews and has all the makings of a cult hit or even one that can revitalize his career and get the entertainment industry thinking about him as a legitimate leading man again after his phenomenal performance in last year’s Pig.
So count Cage out if you want. Don’t take him or his work seriously. Write him off as a bad actor and deny his talent if you must. It would be a shame if you did, though – not for him, but for you. Because dismissing him means you’ll miss out on the rise and fall and rise again of one of the most fascinating actors to ever shake up Hollywood.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is in theaters on Friday, April 22.