After years of 'wacko Method masochism', Nicolas Cage is being tipped for an Oscar. David Thomson talked to him
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The Independent Culture
LEAVING LAS VEGAS is an uncommonly dangerous film. It is almost as if, in the deepening jungle of Internets and information highways, someone had told us: just think, just feel, that is enough. For the movie was shot in five weeks, on location, on Super 16mm, with no money up front for the actors, on a working budget of $3.5m. Yet the result is so bleak, so pitiless and so beautiful that it must leave us wondering why we, the audience, tolerate the folly of most other American movies. But since that folly is big money for the people who run Hollywood, you have to think they're wondering about Leaving Las Vegas the way the computer business would worry if schools started to believe in reading.

There's another way in which it is subversive. It's a story in which a drunk and a whore disdain notions that they ought to stop what they're doing. This isn't a movie that endorses 12-step therapy programmes, or drunks drying out. This is about our freedom to destroy ourselves. And in Hollywood, where there are many 12-step evangelists, the people in power are happy to preach personal healing while they get on with the profitable destruction of the culture.

But in Leaving Las Vegas, Ben, the failed screenwriter, husband and father, goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death - he wants to be sure, for once, of being on target. As writer-director Mike Figgis puts it: "It's very hard when you're casting, both in England and America, because the leading-man pack is very limited. We don't have Depardieus or Klaus Maria Brandauers who are overweight or prepared to be real, unattractive, ugly. There's such a focus on physical perfection and youth, and such a temptation to do a part like this with false heroics. I didn't want that. But there were very few actors who could have done it. And Nicolas Cage was very high on my list."

Well, no wonder, went the cynical talk of the town - Nicolas Cage always acts like a drunk anyway! Not that anyone believed he was in fact an alcoholic. No need for that when he was such a crazy kid. After all, there were all the Cage stories - and the actor himself concedes that there was a time in his life when he was thoroughly immersed in "wacko Method masochism". When he did Racing With the Moon, he shocked the director Richard Benjamin. "I was really into breaking the fourth wall," says Cage. "I was looking for hyper-realism, that kind of visceral aura. And I took out a pocket knife and basically cut my arm open. I wanted the blood to flow on film. And Richard said, 'Wrong movie, Nic, let's cool it.' He didn't like the idea at all."

There were other stories - how, at Hallowe'en, 1984, when he was 20, and because his girlfriend had left him, Cage had got a lizard tattoo on his back - on his back so he didn't have to see it. As he prepared to do The Cotton Club - for his uncle, Francis Coppola - Cage had gone out on the streets of the city and tried to behave like the psychotic gangster he had to play. There was a man selling remote-control toy cars, and Nic had started chasing the cars and stomping on them. Later, he'd paid the vendor for the damage, but he'd terrified the crowd and nearly caused a riot - this tall, gangling, sad-eyed guy who seemed to have escaped from somewhere.

Then there was the cockroach. In 1989, he'd done a movie, Vampire's Kiss, that was a huge flop and a cult favourite. Movieline magazine listed it in the 10 best performances by actors under 30 and called Cage our "designated madman. Indeed, he is the madness in whatever is left of the Method these days." The character in Vampire's Kiss is a repulsive literary agent who believes he has slept with, and been bitten by, a vampire. He has a head-start in such things, but he starts to disintegrate. Hence the cockroach.

"Definitely the real thing," groans Cage, still haunted by what he did. "Originally they wanted me to eat raw eggs. That didn't do anything for me. I wanted to tie in the Renfield thing - the assistant to Dracula who eats bugs. It was a slow progression for my character: first he's eating pistachio nuts, then he's eating a cockroach, then he eats the dove, and ultimately bites a girl's neck and drinks her blood. So I said I wanted to try to eat a cockroach. And everyone went, 'You've got to be crazy.' And I said, 'Yes, I know what you mean.' And they wrangled up these New York cockroaches. And the day arrived when I had to do it and I saw the bug when I walked on the set, and its legs were kicking and it looked huge! I was going to say, 'Guys, I can't do it.' But I thought that would be a cop-out because I'd set it up. I put the cockroach close to me and every muscle in my body said, 'Don't do it!' But I did it and I couldn't sleep for three nights. It was soft, not crunchy - just a nightmare!"

The cockroach isn't even the spookiest thing in Vampire's Kiss. For that you'd have to go to the way Cage stares, howls, reacts and moves. What lifts the picture clear of its forlorn script are the ways in which, physically and psychically, Cage conveys the threat of being possessed. He is not a handsome man - he never was a good-looking kid. If you think of the boys he was teamed up with on, say, Rumble Fish - Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Vincent Spano, Chris Penn - you'd never have picked Cage as the one likely to become a real actor.

That he managed it can be put down to several things: his genes, his determination, for sure, but also a kind of lyrical recklessness unique to him, and a rare mix of comedy, dignity and melancholy. Cage has a deep romantic streak, yet little ordinary grace. When he runs on screen, it's desperate, splay-limbed, but passionate. Notably, Cage is an admirer of how silent-screen actors moved.

HE IS 32 now. His voice is naturally hoarse and breathy. He has a Nixonian beard that could need shaving between takes. His eyes are more sunken than ever; his lower lip droops, and as it sags so his hairline begins to recede. But he is very hard-working, and just as he's done offbeat, cult movies - Red Rock West, Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart - where he's gone as far out as any young actor, so he's made commercial films in which he specialises in being a sweet, rather dumb or mournful guy trying to do his best for others: Moonstruck, Honeymoon in Vegas, It Could Happen to You.

He is also at this moment the holder of the award for best actor in 1995 from the American National Society of Film Critics, the New York Critics Circle, and the same groups from Los Angeles and Boston - all for Leaving Las Vegas. He has had a Golden Globe nomination. It seems certain that he will get at least an Oscar nomination.

And yet? "Honestly, as I talk to you today," says Cage from his house, north of Hollywood Boulevard, late in December, "I haven't had an offer yet on the strength of Leaving Las Vegas. Even now, there's some anxiety about it. And there was a lot before making the movie. People told me, 'This is not a good idea. Why do you want to do a drunk role? This will not be considered by the critics, by the Academy, because it's too dark for their liking.' But there's a day coming, I think, with a feeling for the old noir movies. Leaving Las Vegas would never have gone over in the Eighties. When I was starting to get into the idea of being a film actor, I was impressed by pictures like Midnight Cowboy. Wow, if I could do something like that."

Nicholas Coppola was born in Long Beach, California, in January 1964, the son of August, or Augie, Coppola, the older brother of the man who was about to become a movie director. And thereby hangs a tale that helps explain the tragic look in Cage's eyes.

As the Coppola kids grew up - there was Augie, Francis and their sister, the actress Talia Shire - Augie was the genius. He was a very handsome young man, brilliant at school, full of promise and ideas, very attractive to women, and always generous to his sickly, rather nerdy-looking kid brother. Which is not how things turned out. Francis is the kid brother who rose to greatness, wealth, Oscars and horizon-wide opportunities for self-destruction. Whereas Augie faltered and became overshadowed. He is the unknown Coppola now, a furious romantic, a wanderer, someone who has failed to find his place. There are profound feelings left from this reversal - remember how in the The Godfather Part II the kid brother, Michael, has his older brother, Fredo, executed for several kinds of family failure.

"I remember once," says Cage, "my father took me to see Godfather II. I was 10. And he said to me, 'Don't tell your uncle we went to see the movie.' There was a tension that went both ways. My uncle was always talking about my father's good looks and how outstanding he was at school, and how he was being groomed for something at the UN. There was always competitive pressure, and it goes back to Naples, I guess. My childhood was - objectively - very difficult."

Augie elected to live in the Los Angeles area, while Francis was building his empire in San Francisco and the Napa Valley. By the time Nicholas was 10, Francis was at his peak, but Augie was making do as a teacher and trying to cope with a wife disabled by depression.

"My mother couldn't function as normal or average. She was away a lot of the time because of her condition. It left me to create an imaginary world in my playing. I was always creating roles. I was alone a lot, but I enjoyed playing. My father was very frustrated with the school system. And he was determined to put me in Beverly Hills High School. We moved to get into that system and I found myself dealing with the class system and I didn't like it. I had a hard time trying to date girls - taking them out on a bus when they were used to a BMW. So I left in junior grade when I was only 17. I guess my father was OK with it. But I broke away."

Without training, but as the beneficiary of his father's eclectic sense of the arts, Nicholas Coppola just threw himself into movie acting - the only kind that ever interested him. The family name got him into auditions: he did some television and had a start in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But he became weary of casting calls where everyone wanted to talk about his uncle's movies. Francis cast him in Rumble Fish, but the other actors needled him about nepotism. So he decided to change his name. He had always loved a comic-book hero, "Luke Cage, Power Man", and at the same time he was listening to music by John Cage - so Nicholas Coppola became Nicolas Cage.

MIKE FIGGIS was uncertain at first whether he would ever be able to make Leaving Las Vegas. He had no backing. But he did a script from John O'Brien's autobiographical novel. And he got Elisabeth Shue for Sera, the hooker. "She was a very early choice. I saw a potential untapped. And I had read her six or seven years before for Hot Spot, a movie I was then supposed to direct." He sent the script to Ed Limato, Cage's agent, admitting that there could be no money.

Limato read the script and he sent it to Cage with the note, "The answer to all your prayers." The actor accepted within a few days: "I was taken by the material and challenged by it. And I stayed on Mike to make sure it all came together." In fact, Figgis got funding at the Cannes Film Festival, and it was French money, from Lumiere.

For Cage, "it was an opportunity to get back to a more sensitive style of acting, to fulfil some of my dramatic dreams. The kind of work I wasn't allowed to do in other genres. But I wasn't certain I could do it. I didn't have a relationship with alcohol myself. I read about the effects on the body. I tried to find film of people with the DTs. I went to AA meetings. But I needed help."

At that point, Cage thought of Tony Dingman, a long-time worker for the Coppola family, a San Francisco character, a poet and - "I'm not an alcoholic," says Dingman, chuckling in an unnerving way, "I'm a drunk." As a Coppola soldier, Dingman had known Cage since his childhood. They started talking booze at the Tosca, Jeannette Etheredge's bar in San Francisco.

Dingman recalls, "And Nic said, 'I'm going to do this movie - it's beyond Lost Weekend.' He sent me the script. We talked. I made some notes. He said, 'Maybe you should come down to Vegas.' It ended up a nice five-week gig. He didn't really need me, but I was support. And he's a very willing listener ... He likes a martini every now and then. But he was not a drunk. So I gave him things to read: Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, stuff by Charles Bukowski, and William Holden's life."

Cage adds: "I just watched Tony. He would go on a bender and pass out, curled up in my trailer in a foetal position. And he would go into these amazing diatribes - and I would put that in the movie. I wanted to give Ben a sort of crumbling elegance. He always takes on a British accent when he's most drunk. And I loved that clue to his flaw - because I love flawed characters."

Dingman gets a "thank you" at the end of the credits - an unusual tribute for such services. And being with Dingman has helped work a rare magic on Cage. Not only is this the most plausible, scary screen-drunk we have ever seen. The experience of the movie has also helped draw Cage away from the headlong Method-like involvement. He wasn't drunk when he did the movie - apart from one scene where he has to smash a blackjack table. That was his only concession to experiment, a night-shoot fuelled by sambucca. Apart from that, Cage stayed sober - in part to protect the film's tough schedule, but also because he was learning the fascination of pretending.

Cage is recently married, to actress Patricia Arquette. He is being hailed for this astonishing performance. It would only be just if he and Elisabeth Shue took the two acting Oscars - their work is not just compelling in its own right, but a revelation of how often the two of them have been wasted in the past. But there is a Hollywood and an American public that may honour darkness and give praise for it, and then turn its back on those who carried the message. Nicolas Cage has proved himself, and redeemed his own history of recklessness. But his very triumph may have made him harder to cast. As I said, Leaving Las Vegas is a dangerously provocative movie.

! 'Leaving Las Vegas' (18) opens nationwide on Friday.