The always-working American actor and former "selfish anarchist" makes a welcome return to indie cinema with Joe, playing an ex-con with a wild streak.
6 Aug 2014 - 3:42 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:29 AM

Nic Cage has lately been trying to mix it up in his roles. While he says he leant his voice to a hulking caveman in the DreamWorks animation blockbuster The Croods to please his young son, there was some unfinished business as he had turned down the voice of Shrek. And although he still enjoys making action movies, recently his heart has been in independent movies.
Werner Herzog can probably lay claim to Cage’s comeback, when casting him in 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, a superb crime drama that went straight to DVD here. In part to pay off his well-publicised debts, Cage, following the success of National Treasure (2004), had been immersing himself in one too many action and fantasy thrillers, even if Alex Proyas’ sci-fi disaster film Knowing (2009), which was shot at Melbourne’s Docklands Studios, was one of the better ones.

"It’s no secret that I like all aspects of zoology"

In Joe, Cage now conjures images of Burt Reynolds in Deliverance and attempts to recapture some of the magic of his grungy Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. The film’s director, David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow), has returned to the indie realm as well after a stint in Hollyood making Pineapple Express and The Sitter.  With Joe, he elicits one of Cage’s strongest dramatic performances as an ex-con who becomes a father figure to a struggling 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan).
HB: What attracted you to play Joe?

NC: I’d taken a year off because I really wanted to be careful with the selection process. I'd done a lot of work where I was exploring what I would call more operatic baroque film presentation, still emotionally connected but a break from the style of naturalism, which some may call over the top. I wanted to find a script that I felt I wouldn’t have to act in. I know that sounds extreme but I felt I really understood Joe as a character. I've had a lot of life experiences and felt I could put in a truthful performance. I felt that Joe was very similar to me.
Were you fed up with your career at that point?
I wasn't fed up and I wasn't tired. I was looking for something else. I wanted to re-evaluate everything at that point. It was time to take stock in everything I had done. I also wanted to spend more time at home with my wife and kid and sort of recharge.
Were you working too much?
I believe in working; I’m a working dog. The film industry is one of the only industries where you’re actually criticised for working a lot. I don’t understand it.
It looks like you put on weight to play Joe.
Probably. I wanted Joe to have that look. I wanted him to be one of the guys and not always be in gym. He’s a bear of a man who’s strong but he's drinking a lot and to have the truth I needed a little bit of a belly.
Have you maintained your practice of no longer drinking for a role?
When acting I don't drink. It’s important to maintain 100 percent focus. At my age – I’m 50 now – I need at least 48 hours to have wine out of my body. At the time, I was eating a lot of steak because I wanted Joe to be a bit of a carnivore.
What does 50 mean to you?
It means one half of a century. It’s been a very exciting ride. I've had some great memories and I've had some not so great memories, but I'm happy that I've had all of it. They’ve all been guides for me in terms of my performances and my creative expression.
You played probably the most memorable drunk ever in Leaving Las Vegas. You drank while acting then, didn’t you?
ln Leaving Las Vegas there’d be some scenes where I’d try it to see the affect, because I’d heard stories. I like painting and Sir Francis Bacon drank when he painted, so that was interesting. I even had a drinking coach. I hired a poet, Tony Dingman, who was at the time a drunk and a friend of the family up in San Francisco. I asked him to give me the right amount for each scene but I had to stay focused. He'd bring me all these marvellous notes and give me advice. “Now in this scene you're really going to go nuts, so I think you should switch to Sambuco with some coffee.” But it was always well under control unless there were times when I felt I had to really let go. I was happy with those results, but after Bad Lieutenant I've come to the conclusion that I would rather just always do things dry. If I have a weekend to get a little surreal I’ll drink some red wine, nothing stronger, just to get some inspiration.
You’ve changed over the years.
I think I went from being a selfish anarchist into someone who actually cared about other people and I became a member of the community. I stopped smoking and started buckling my seat belt and didn’t take my characters home and traumatise my kids. Though, I've always approached every role with the same commitment and the same work ethic.
Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Tree of Life) is a stunning new talent.
I said to him, “Do you know James Dean?” He said, “No”. I told him I wanted him to watch Dean and Marlon Brando (Cage’s heroes who made him want to act at age 15). So I got him to watch Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. East of Eden was my favourite. That iconic energy James Dean had with his father, Raymond Massey, was incredible. It was a much more elegant relationship than Joe has with Gary but still I think that Tye could be a lightning rod for modern youth.   
Are there interesting roles for 50-year-old actors?
Yeah, I think it’s a good time in filmmaking. It’s interesting that there are so many movies about fathers and sons and I think it’s because there’s a need for it. These things happen almost in the zeitgeist. In my own country there’s an epidemic of the broken family, and not to sound too bombastic, but I've always believed that world peace begins at home. If a father sticks around and is there to guide his child, maybe kids won't take drugs or join a gang. Maybe these movies can be a kind of medicine to help repair that.
There’s a snake in Joe, too.
Yes, well, the snake. It’s no secret that I like all aspects of zoology, but the snake is very interesting. It’s herbivorous and it’s at the beginning of a lot of great stories in many cultures. In Africa it’s considered a holy animal; in Christianity it’s considered a satanic animal. If you look at an ambulance you see the two snakes—it’s toxic, but it’s also healing.
So the snake in Joe was a real [venomous] cottonmouth snake. Somehow I get more relaxed when I do stunts for real. I knew it was a big scene with Tye and I was drinking a lot of coffee and the adrenaline was giving me a lift in the wrong direction. I asked David if I could use the real snake even if it’s poisonous and I could die and he said, “Well, if you die, then I'm a jackass”. So I promised him I wouldn't die. It was about surfing the adrenalin and getting to the moment where I actually handheld it and the beautiful animal had its mouth open and it was hissing. David loved those fangs. The challenge was to turn the neck a little but so the toxic poison wouldn't spray in Tye’s face, because that would have been a disaster. To do the whole scene with the actual snake was a very exulting moment for both of us, but also because of the love Joe had for this snake. He was like, “Don't worry, it’s a friend of mine”. What I really loved was the kismet of the scene at the end when Joe goes for the gun and you see the snake tattoo. It came full circle, which is a happy accident. The snake is a symbol of the universe.
Was the snake scene done in only one take?
I think we did it twice.
Do you raise animals?
I have dogs. I have some snakes. Nothing poisonous.
Can you explain your surname?
Legally my name is still Coppola but my performance name is Cage. It was necessary for me to be able to be free as an artist. I had to feel I was my own spirit otherwise it was hard for me to believe in myself.
Would you work with your cousins Roman and Sofia?
Sure, they can just call me.
Would you come to work in Australia again?
I had good luck in Australia with Knowing and the first Ghost Rider. Those are both movies I am proud of. But it’s hard to get people on the phone and it’s hard to travel there, though I’m sure one day I will go back to make a movie. When I made Knowing I went up to Darwin and I saw the giant saltwater crocodile, which was great.

Joe screens at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival. Read our review here; watch the trailer below: