Returning to what he considers his independent roots, Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage moves to the opposite end of the spectrum from his usual roles in big-budgeted Blockbusters to star in a film he had been looking for for an entire year. In filmmaker David Gordon Green’s indie drama “Joe,” Cage stars as the title character, an ex-con who befriends a 15-year-old boy (Ty Sheridan) who is living with an abusive, alcoholic father.
During an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, I spoke to Cage and Green about their new film and asked Cage what it’s like to get back to a role that allows him to focus on the work itself. We also talked about both men’s most labor-intensive jobs they’ve ever had in their lives.
Nic, how liberating is it for you to be able to take on a role like this? I know you probably have your pick of the litter when it comes to movies every year. I mean, how liberating is it for you as an actor to be able to focus on the work itself and not have to worry about anything else like green screens or CGI?
Nicolas Cage: This was a very liberating experience. I waited a year to find this script and to be able to work with David. For me this was a character where I didn’t have to act so much. I could be more truthful – not put things on, but take things off and sort of be more naked as a film presence and recruit any of my memories and experiences I went through for the last couple of years. “Joe” was a script that allowed me to do that. When I got to meet with David and understand his process, it was a very encouraging one and one where you work on the character together. He would interview me and find little memories I might have and find bits of dialogue and maybe put that into the role. I would say it was a joyous experience making this movie.
David, was Nic someone who was at the top of your list from the start?
David Gordon Green: He was the first person I talked to about it. I sent a script to his agent with a letter and said, “Hey, you know, I’ve seen all your movies and would love for you to consider this project.” Sometimes you get caught up in that submission process and it can turn into a long development process. In this case, it was a matter of a few days and I got a call back and it was Nic and he said, “Hey, I read the script. Call me back.” I saved the voice mail for nostalgia. So, I called him back and he said, “Yeah, I read the script and the book a couple of times…” So, not only did he flip through the pages of the script and make a judgment call, which is what I would typically get from a submission like that, but he read the script and was curious enough to open the novel a couple of times. So, there was something really exciting about that. Then he came down to Austin and we drove around in the countryside and talked about the character. Larry Brown, who was the writer of the novel, we talked about his work and what it meant to us and what we could do with his character. It was really a perfect fit.
Nic, talk a bit about picking projects. I mean, if David had called you up and asked you to do this and then someone called you to finish up the “National Treasure” trilogy, how do you chose between those projects? How do you make that decision?
I think it has to do with what is the best opportunity at any given moment no matter the genre. It could be a science fiction movie. It could be a comedy. It just so happened that this project came to me when I was actively looking for a return to a more dramatic, independently spirited film – where my roots were and where I originated from. I had seen David’s work and I knew the level of talent. So, I came out to meet with him. Even when I got the part, I came out a month early just so I could soak up Austin and get in step with his process.
Nic, you started your career around the same age your fellow castmate Ty Sheridan started his, around 15 years old. Were you that good at 15?
(Laughs) Well, first of all, I think Ty is vastly superior. I mean, he’s a great actor in every sense of the word. He’s full of life and charisma. But I try not to compare myself to other actors. It’s just something I don’t do.
David, I’m always interested when directors choose to use “non-actors” in their films. Do you ever think of those actors after the film is over? I mean, it’s like the story of the kids from “Slumdog Millionaire.” These kids are cast in this movie and are on a high and then when the movie is over, they’re back to their normal lives again. Do you ever think about that?
Yeah, I think about it a lot. I think it has to be very challenging to walk into the experience of filmmaking, which can have a lot of people giving you attention and taking care of you. [These actor] walked into a wonderful team of people and a very positive working environment. I’m there to design that. That’s part of my process and is very important to me. Bringing in actors who aren’t necessarily theatrically trained or haven’t had the experiences of on-camera performances, it can be very different from their everyday life. So, I think about it a lot. I know what it’s like even for me – I go from production to production – but when I wrap up a production, I have to switch gears and get back into my normal life and that can be very difficult. So, for a lot of these guys, I think it was such a novelty of an experience. But I know the guy who plays Junior in the movie, the foreman, he owns Sam’s Barbecue up the road. I just finished another movie with him. It is kind of fun to be able to pull some of these guys back on the team. For all of us, I think we look at it as a breath of fresh air in our often-frustrating lives. It’s just a matter of hoping people can keep it in balance and not become too entitled or have too unrealistic expectations after the process.
The physical labor Joe and the rest of his crew do in the woods seems like backbreaking work. David, we also saw your characters doing some hard labor in your last film “Prince Avalanche.” What has been the most backbreaking work you both have ever done in your lives?
NC: I used to sell popcorn at the Fairfax Movie Theater in Los Angeles. That was my first job. I took the tickets as well. I was also the usher. I was trying to figure out how to get from selling the tickets to being on the screen. I would watch the movies. One day, a guy was smoking in the movie theater and my boss said, “You’ve got to tell him to put it out.” So, I went up to the guy and said, “I’m sorry sir, but you’re going to have to put your cigarette out.” He had some girl around him and he just took one big puff and he just blew all the smoke in my face. And I quit. That was the most backbreaking work I’ve ever done. My dad said, “Go back to the movie theater and get your job back.” So, I had to beg the boss to give me my job back.
DGG: I used to insulate attics. I was a little guy, so they always used to send me into the nooks and crannies to roll out the insulation. I’d be crawling around in small spaces and sweaty. This was in North Carolina, so it was pretty intense in the summertime. I also did a weird job where I worked at a doorknob factory. I only worked 20 hours a week, but I was paid really well. I would dunk doorknobs in acid. They would bronze these chrome doorknobs and if there were bumps in the chrome, they’d have to redo it. So, it was just me in this Hazmat suit dunking doorknobs into tubs all day. I really worked out my shoulder muscles.