June 8, 1997 in Features

A Man Of Action In Movies Like ‘Con Air,’ Nicolas Cage Sheds Image Of The Offbeat Head Case For Blockbuster Hero Roles

Ruthe Stein San Francisco Chronicle
 

It’s surprising to think Nicolas Cage is only 33. By Hollywood’s clock, Cage, who has been making movies for almost 15 years, is an old-timer.

Although he’s remembered for playing eccentrics and psychopaths (“Raising Arizona,” “Kiss of Death” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” for which he won an Oscar), Cage started out in youth films (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Valley Girl” and “Rumble Fish,” directed by his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola) and has proved adept at romantic comedy (“Moonstruck,” “Honeymoon in Vegas”). In last year’s “The Rock” and the upcoming “Con Air” and “Face/Off,” Cage reinvents himself as an action hero.

This range contributes to a perception he’s been around a while.

Then there’s his hairline, which is receding before its time. To his credit, Cage doesn’t try to cover it up - no patches of transplanted hair sprout from his scalp, and he swears he’ll wear a toupee only if a role calls for it. “It’s part of an actor’s ability to create, like when Lon Chaney used different prostheses.” Otherwise, what you see is what you get.

“In ‘Leaving Las Vegas,’ there I am with all my hairline glory in front of God and everybody,” he says. “I’m fine with it. I don’t really think it’s an issue.”

But neither is it a laughing matter. Told about a caricature of himself as a balding Superman in last week’s Entertainment Weekly (the magazine reports he’s signed on to play the Man of Steel, though it isn’t a done deal), he asks to see it, then stares stone-faced at the likeness.

Cage has become very serious, which also makes him seem older. Sitting stiffly on a hotel couch, wearing a formal-looking black sport coat, he hardly ever smiles. He’s proud of what he sees as a newfound maturity after years of being something of a hell-raiser.

“I’ve grown up. I think I’m more responsible,” he says.

But listening to his earnest - at times almost robotic - replies, it’s hard not to think he was more fun back when he was swallowing live cockroaches and getting a tattoo of a large lizard in a top hat burned onto his shoulder blade.

“My friends tell me I should relax,” Cage says. However, with “Con Air” opening Friday, this is not a relaxing time. John Cusack and John Malkovich co-star in this shrill thriller about despicable convicts who hijack a plane, but Cage is the big name.

Along with star billing came $7 million.

“I’m not going to be one of those actors who says the money is unimportant. It isn’t. It’s great to have it,” says Cage, who lives lavishly.

He and his wife, Patricia Arquette, have five homes. Cage also owns five cars, among them a silver Ferrari and a $500,000 Lamborghini that once belonged to the shah of Iran.

Driving these cars is one way Cage deals with the pressure he’s under. For years, he never thought he’d be cast in an action picture, let alone have to carry one.

“It seemed to me that Hollywood had me pegged to be more the oddball, the avant-garde actor,” he said.

It took producer Jerry Bruckheimer to recognize what he calls “Nic’s very physical presence” and put him in “The Rock,” which made more than $330 million worldwide, and “Con Air,” both for Disney.

“We don’t know if he can open a picture by himself in foreign markets because ‘The Rock’ had Sean Connery. So this will tell the story,” Bruckheimer says.

“Do I feel the pressure? Sure,” Cage says, his blue eyes - his most movie-star-like feature - burning with intensity. “Because you know people spent a lot of money on ‘Con Air’ (reportedly more than $70 million). There’s a sense that I need to really make this movie perform well. But at the end of the day I’m an actor, and what I’m mostly responsible for is whether or not my acting comes through.”

Cage had extraordinary input in developing his character, Cameron Poe, the one good guy on a hijacked plane, an ex-con who has just been paroled after doing time for defending his wife’s honor. That he killed a man in the process gets skipped over in the process of making Poe a hero. When people talk about a star’s power over a film project, this is what they mean.

It was Cage who decided Cameron would speak with a deep Southern accent, wear his hair long and be buff.

“It was weird. At one point Disney was worried I was getting too big and I was looking kind of scary. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s a new one - too many muscles for an action movie,”’ says Cage, who, during filming, came up with numerous reasons for Cameron to take his shirt off.

When Cage thought the federal guard on the plane should be a woman, actress Rachel Ticotin was cast in what had been envisioned as a male role.

He wrote many of his own lines. One comes when Cameron, taking exception to a bad guy’s manhandling of a stuffed animal he is bringing to his daughter, tells him to “put the bunny back in the box.”

“Nic would be up all night thinking up new lines,” says director Simon West. “He would come in in the morning, and we’d go over them. It wasn’t a question of turning them down; it was a question of working them in.”

Nor did screenwriter Scott Rosenberg object to Cage’s fiddling with the script. “Look, this isn’t ‘The Scott Rosenberg Story’ - it’s a big summer movie,” he says. In Hollywood, he adds, “you have to know what to fight for. You don’t fight when it’s just another movie.”

Cage had Cameron worry about his daughter’s safety; this comes directly from Cage’s own life. He has a son - 6-year-old Weston, who looks just like him - from a past relationship with actress Kristina Fulton. (This was during his wild period, when the two of them would make bets with each other and the loser would pay by doing “something humiliating,” Fulton once said.)

By all accounts, including his own, Cage is a devoted father.

“I tend to be at times more sensitive than a lot of fathers. I worry a lot. I’m always concerned that Weston is OK - phoning to make sure he’s come home, that sort of Jewish parent-Italian parent stuff,” says Cage, a third-generation Italian American.

His concern about Weston became grist for the tabloids, which recently ran a story claiming that Cage had moved back in with Fulton.

“All I can say about that is some people want to take a good thing and turn it into a bad thing,” Cage says angrily. “Sometimes I’m working late, and Weston has to go to bed, so it’s easier for me to just go over there and have dinner and say, ‘Hi, how was your day?’ than to keep him up all night and bring him over to my house.”

After he and Fulton broke up, he says, “we felt it was important to maintain a friendly relationship” for Weston’s sake. Arquette also is on good terms with the father of her son, Enzo.

“Patricia and I understand there are other people in each of our children’s lives,” Cage says. They’ve talked about having a child together, “but not right now because we’re both very busy - we have our hands full.”

He and Arquette, who appears mostly in quirky independent films like the recent “Lost Highway,” met at a neighborhood deli in Los Angeles 10 years ago. They had three intense weeks of dating (“We were kissing and kissing and kissing,” Arquette once said about their first date) before breaking up. After they ran into each other again in 1995, they were married two weeks later.

“We’re really happy,” says Cage, who has described the two of them as being from “the same tribe.”

“We support each other. We’re a sounding board for each other’s frustrations. She’ll suggest ideas to me or I’ll suggest ideas to her for how to play a character. It’s wonderful.”

He and his two brothers did not grow up with a shining example of a happy marriage. Cage’s parents divorced when he was 12.

His father, August Coppola, is a writer and former professor who was dean of the creative arts department at San Francisco State University in the ‘80s. (He’s Francis Coppola’s brother; Cage changed his last name when he started in films because, he has explained, he didn’t want to trade on his uncle’s connections.)

His mother, Joy Vogelsang, a onetime dancer, suffered from chronic depression and was hospitalized when Cage was 6 years old. He says this wasn’t as horrifying for him as one would think.

“As a child I was able to look at things very objectively, and that somehow kept me from getting too caught up in what was happening to her,” he says. “I used my imagination to create a scenario that she would be OK.”

Vogelsang has in fact been fine for many years. She lives not far from her famous son, who seems devoted to her. He brought her to the Oscars and the Golden Globe Awards last year when he won both best-actor statuettes for “Leaving Las Vegas.”

Cage is less close to his father. They reportedly had stopped talking over a remark Coppola made about his son’s decision to play an alcoholic in “Leaving Las Vegas.” He said he thought it would be Cage’s “epitaph.” Father and son now seem to communicate mostly through answering machines.

His mother’s experience with depression taught Cage an important lesson: to be passionate about life. “One of the first signs of being depressed is that you lose interest in things. That’s why I think it is important to stay passionate,” he says.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CAGE FILMOGRAPHY “Rumble Fish” (1983) “Valley Girl” (1983) “Fast Times at Ridgement High” “Birdy” (1984) “The Cotton Club” (1984) “Racing With the Moon” (1984) “Boy in Blue” (1986) “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) “Moonstruck” (1987) “Raising Arizona” (1987) “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988) “Time to Kill” (1989) “Fire Birds” (1990) “Wild at Heart” (1990) “Zandalee” (1991) “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992) “Amos and Andrew” (1993) “Deadfall” (1993) “Red Rock West” (1993) “Guarding Tess” (1994) “It Could Happen To You” (1994) “Kiss of Death” (1994) “Trapped in Paradise” (1994) “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) “The Rock” (1996) “Con Air” (1997) “Face/Off” (1997)

This sidebar appeared with the story: CAGE FILMOGRAPHY “Rumble Fish” (1983) “Valley Girl” (1983) “Fast Times at Ridgement High” “Birdy” (1984) “The Cotton Club” (1984) “Racing With the Moon” (1984) “Boy in Blue” (1986) “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) “Moonstruck” (1987) “Raising Arizona” (1987) “Vampire’s Kiss” (1988) “Time to Kill” (1989) “Fire Birds” (1990) “Wild at Heart” (1990) “Zandalee” (1991) “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992) “Amos and Andrew” (1993) “Deadfall” (1993) “Red Rock West” (1993) “Guarding Tess” (1994) “It Could Happen To You” (1994) “Kiss of Death” (1994) “Trapped in Paradise” (1994) “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) “The Rock” (1996) “Con Air” (1997) “Face/Off” (1997)


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