Sonny - Q&A with Nicolas Cage

Feature and interview by Carlo Cavagna


USA, 2002. Rated R. 110 minutes.

Cast: James Franco, Mena Suvari, Brenda Blethyn, Harry Dean Stanton, Scott Caan, Brenda Vaccaro, Seymour Cassel, Josie Davis, Nicolas Cage
Writer: John Carlen
Director: Nicolas Cage


• Carlo's review of Sonny
• Related materials and links

Nicolas Cage has always eluded typecasting. Whenever people think they have him pigeonholed, he does something different. For the first ten years of his career, he specialized in weirdos and oddball romantic leads in films like Valley Girl, Raising Arizona, and even the Academy-beloved Moonstruck. Then, after David Lynch's Wild at Heart he began to branch out, playing more straightforward characters in traditional comedies like It Could Happen to You and Guarding Tess. He also started making edgy neo-noirs, sometimes playing the good guy (Red Rock West) and sometimes the bad guy (Kiss of Death).

Yet, after winning Best Actor for Leaving Las Vegas for a profound if somewhat over-the-top performance as a dying alcoholic, he suddenly decided he was an action star, with John Woo's Face/Off and Bruckheimer-produced craptaculars Con Air and Gone in Sixty Seconds. At the same time, Cage found time to continue carrying the mantle of romantic lead in City of Angels and The Family Man and of noir hero in 8MM.

Now, Nicolas Cage, né Nicolas Coppola, is a director, like his uncle Francis Ford. For his directorial debut, Cage has chosen a script by made-for-television specialist John Carlen--a script Cage had considered starring in fifteen years ago. But today the thirty-eight-year-old Cage is too long in the tooth to play a young hustler named Sonny, so he recruited James Franco, who first came to national attention in Showtime's James Dean, earning him high profile supporting roles in Spider-Man and City by the Sea. Mena Suvari, Brenda Blethyn, and Harry Dean Stanton complete the principal cast.

In December 2002, Cage chatted with reporters in Beverly Hills about his new film, Sonny.

Question: What did you like about directing, and what did you hate about it?

Cage: I don't think I hated anything about it, to be honest with you. I was very adrenalized by the experience. I was excited to be surrounded by so many creative people in all walks of the filmmaking process. There is just so much talent in art direction, and camerawork, and certainly the actors, that I liked the idea of being re-ignited myself as an actor by being able to work with such great performers, and being re-stimulated. Also I liked the editing process very much--being in the room and trying to work this puzzle, and get it down to a time that seemed to be the exact correct time for the film, which is a long process. It was different for me. I've never seen a movie so many times in my life.
"At the time I decided to do action films, people were telling me, 'You're not that type. It's not going to work.' And so obviously that made me think, 'Well, that's not comfortable.'

Question: You changed your name not to be related to Francis Ford Coppola, from Coppola to Cage. And now you are directing like your uncle. Do you relate in some way? When you started did you want to become like him?

Cage: No. I always wanted to be an actor. That was my first love and still is. It's the core of my life in film. Even the movie I made is kind of driven by performance and acting. But, my name still is Nicolas Coppola. I never changed my name legally. [Cage] is my acting name, or my surrealistic name… No, when I made this movie, I just decided to go do it. No one in the family knew about it.

Question: Do you feel the same rewards doing the big action movies as the small avant-garde work?

Cage: I think that they're both different. My direction as a person working in film has been to never get comfortable with anything I was doing. At the time that I decided to do action films, people were telling me, "Well, you can't do it. You're not that type. It's not going to work." And so obviously that made me think, "Well, that's not comfortable. Maybe I should try it. What can I do with it?" So I did that, and I'm glad I did it. I'll probably do it again, and I did other kinds of things that seemed like challenges for me, because I like being on the high wire. I like being at that place where you can either fall or stand. That's where I think you really have a shot at doing something truthful.

Question: Is it true that you tried to get Sonny made for ten years?

Cage: No, it's not. What happened was I read the script over fifteen years ago to star in it, and I couldn't find a director to commit to it, and then it was shelved. I literally forgot about it for over fifteen years, until I decided I wanted to direct a movie, and for some reason a bell rang, and I thought, "Oh yeah, I remember that script, that might be interesting." I optioned it, and I re-read it, and I had the same experience as I had when I first read it. It was emotional for me, and I responded to it instinctively, and wanted to try my hand at it. So, that's what happened. I don't think the movie would ever have been made [otherwise]. It would have stayed there in limbo.

Question: What were the difficulties with casting the movie before you finally got your group together?

Cage: Well, first of all, I really believe that the cast that winds up in the movie is the cast that is meant to be. I got very lucky with getting Brenda Blethyn, and--everybody, James Franco, Mena [Suvari], and Harry Dean [Stanton], I think they're all the people that were meant to be in the film. But, without mentioning names, we looked at other possibilities, other actors and actresses, and one thing led to another, and maybe because I was a first-time director, it didn't seem like a safe bet or something, but I'm happy it worked out the way it did. I can't see anyone else playing these parts.

Question: Can you talk about Brenda Blethyn? She had to get to a point where she's almost hysterical, very edgy, and yet had to have a certain grounding in reality to make us care for her. You took her to an extreme. Can you talk about that? Because that's something you do in your own work, you take your characters out to that edge, but if they're not real, we're out of the film.

Cage: I don't know why it is, but I do like dancing in the extreme situations. I like that noise, I like that intensity. For some reason, it's what I respond to in terms of my taste and of my instincts. Brenda is an actress with an enormous range, and an ability to be in some cases larger than life. She had a daredevil sensibility about her that I wanted to access, and guide her to, because that was what I had always been a fan of in her work, that she wasn't afraid to go to those places. She wasn't afraid of the extreme situation or the extreme behavior. That's why I cast her.

Question: What qualities did you see in James Franco when you auditioned him?

Cage: I saw enthusiasm; I saw passion; I saw a dynamic, highly powered intensity. I saw somebody that could be vulnerable, that I could care about, with a face that I could read a story on, and somebody who could be unpredictable and dangerous.
"I don't know why it is, but I do like dancing in the extreme situations. I like that noise, I like that intensity."

Question: How do you make your actors comfortable when they have to do long scenes in the nude?

Cage: I think a lot of it is coming from a place of respect, and knowing that I also am an actor, and knowing how vulnerable it is to bare your soul. I wanted them to feel safe, and let them know that I wanted the set to have quiet so they could concentrate and go to whatever place they needed to in their instrument. I trusted their instincts, and I trusted them to bring to the scene whatever it was that they instinctively felt. Afterwards, we would experiment together, and try different things, sculpt a little bit. We wanted this movie to be as truthful as we could, and not really pull any punches. I think that was important too, in terms of the nudity, that this is a way of making the film more real, and more intimate, rather than trying to hide away from it.

Question: The larger issue besides what happens to Sonny is what happens to all of us when we get trapped into a way of being--how it seems to us our only life, our only choice. How did you work to portray that?

Cage: I can't stress enough how much of it came down to instinct, and what felt right… The scene in the bathroom when he's saying, "I'm better than you," what he's really saying is, "I'm not." I guess I connected with that sense of loneliness. That feeling of being outside and not belonging is something I think we all can relate to. We've all had feelings like that, of wanting to belong somewhere and being unable to do it. But it's hard to talk about because I don't want to rob anybody of their own interpretation.

Question: How do you feel having Sonny in movie theaters at the same time as Adaptation?

Cage: Well, I think because in one I'm an actor and in the other I'm a director, it actually is kind of exciting to have different points of expression come out at the same time. I'm not really worried about that.

Question: In Adaptation, how was it to act with yourself?

Cage: It was… challenging.

Question: How weird was it to watch the movie?

Cage: When I watched the movie, I was able to separate myself from it enough that I could get lost in the movie, which is unusual. I didn't really see me up there, I kind of saw these other people that were brothers.

Question: How do you respond when your personal life becomes news?

Cage: I'd rather not talk about it.

Question: Has your acting changed since directing?

Cage: Yeah, I think it has. I don't know exactly how, but I was so taken with watching Harry Dean Stanton and the simplicity of his reality. It made me… as I said, re-stimulated, or re-ignited. I look at wanting to dig a little deeper with my own work, and getting inspired again, and more passionate. I think directing definitely helped my acting.

Question: Will you change your approach with other directors now?

Cage: I don't think so. I certainly would never overstep my bounds and make suggestions to a director. As an actor I'm trying to fit to the best of my abilities within the director's vision, and trying to find some happy rapport where we can both bring something to it that's fresh. Usually I've been lucky in working with directors who have trusted my instincts. I had a great experience working with Ridley Scott recently [on the upcoming Matchstick Men]. He was very encouraging to go find something, and I did. But no, when I'm acting, I'm strictly going to be acting.

Interview © January 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Samuel Goldwyn Films. All Rights Reserved.


Related Materials:  

  Talk about Sonny on the boards
  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page