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Why Nicolas Cage was born to play Dracula

Following news the Oscar winner will play Dracula in upcoming film ‘Renfield’, Kevin E G Perry looks back at the Eighties vampire role that launched a thousand memes

Wednesday 05 January 2022 09:20 GMT
Fangs for the memories: Nicolas Cage switches on the Christmas lights in Milsom Street, Bath in 2009.
Fangs for the memories: Nicolas Cage switches on the Christmas lights in Milsom Street, Bath in 2009. (PA)
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Draw the curtains and hide your garlic: Nicolas Cage is going to play Dracula. While production has yet to begin on Renfield – a comic retelling of Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel centred on the Count’s long-suffering lackey RM Renfield – there’s plenty of pedigree around to suggest this is a film worth getting excited about. It’s based on a concept by The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman, the script’s been written by former Rick & Morty writer Ryan Ridley, and it’ll be brought to the screen by Chris McKay, who directed The Tomorrow War and The Lego Batman Movie. On screen, Shang-Chi’s Awkwafina will join a cast that also includes Nicholas Hoult in the titular role, fresh from proving just how outrageously funny he can be in the appropriately named period-comedy The Great.

Still, the most intriguing aspect of the whole project has to be trying to guess what Cage will do with the iconic vampire. In an interview with Variety this week, Cage confirmed that he’s an “enormous” fan of the character and revealed he’d been studying previous portrayals. “I looked at Bela Lugosi’s performance, and then I looked at Frank Langella’s performance,” Cage said of the 1931 and 1979 film adaptations. He also had high praise for Gary Oldman in Cage’s uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula. “I looked at Gary’s performance in my uncle’s movie, which I think it’s just so sumptuous. Every frame is a work of art.” He added that he hoped his interpretation of will “pop in a unique way from how we’ve seen it played.”

Frankly, it’s almost a surprise Cage hasn’t played Dracula before. This is, after all, an actor with such a fascination for all things gothic that he already has his own pyramid-shaped tomb waiting for him in New Orleans’ St Louis Cemetery No 1, near the final resting place of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. In recent years, Cage has built a superbly idiosyncratic body of independent film work, with both an acclaimed performance as a grief-stricken truffle forager in Pig and a turn as a bank robber with bombs strapped to his testicles in Prisoners of the Ghostland released in just the last 12 months. Early next year, he’ll be seen playing an amped-up version of himself in meta-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – quite literally the part he was born to play.

Universal’s Renfield will be Cage’s first major studio movie since 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and it’ll see him take on another role he’s been waiting a lifetime to play. As a child, Cage was obsessed with the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu, one of the earliest film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, and he incorporated that film’s exaggerated silent acting style into one of the strangest and most compelling films of his career: 1989 indie horror Vampire’s Kiss.

Even if you haven’t seen Vampire’s Kiss, you’re certain to recognise at least one scene from it. Cage’s over-the-top, expressionist performance in the film launched a thousand memes, most notably an image of his bug-eyed, condescending expression given the caption “You don’t say?” The film is about a womanising Manhattan literary agent who believes he’s been transformed into a vampire by a bite from one of his dates. Cage, directly influenced by his love of Nosferatu, played the role with a deliberately exaggerated acting style that now makes it perfect for memes – just as it was once perfect for silent movies.

The acting style Cage developed on Vampire’s Kiss continues to echo through his work to this day. Earlier this year, talking to IMDb about the roles that had changed his life, Cage explained that while making the film, he was “trying to marry my fascination with silent film with modern film performance”. It was an experiment, he said, adding: “That’s really what it is for me, having those experiments and then trying to apply them again, almost like a laboratory. Using independent cinema and then trying to see if you can apply it to a big blockbuster. A lot of the work I discovered in Vampire’s Kiss, I then put into Face/Off, so I would say Vampire’s Kiss and Face/Off are two of my favourite movies I’ve made.”

One of the most notorious scenes in Vampire’s Kiss sees Cage’s increasingly unhinged character Peter Loew eat a live cockroach, an effect the filmmakers pulled off through the old-fashioned means of just filming Cage eat a live cockroach. The moment was the actor’s own idea: the original script merely called for him to suck down a raw egg, but Cage suggested the change and dispatched the film’s prop department to a boiler room to catch a few live ones. According to The Ringer, when the filmmakers called a doctor to check whether Cage would get sick if he went through with his crazy idea, he told them: “No. But have him drink some whiskey right after.”

That was bad news for the cockroach, and it could be bad news for Nicolas Hoult, too. The character of RM Renfield has been presented in a variety of different ways over the years, but in Stoker’s original novel, he was an inmate at a lunatic asylum. The Count teased poor Renfield with the possibility of immortality while feeding him a diet of flies and bugs. Cage is sure to do something truly remarkable with the role of Dracula, but for Hoult’s sake let’s make sure he’s not supplying his own bugs.

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