As Hollywood stars go, Nicolas Cage is seemingly indestructible. At 48, he has a career spanning three decades that stays afloat in spite of itself. Roughly every five years he makes a bona fide classic - from David Lynch's Wild at Heart to Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, for which he won an Oscar for playing an alcoholic, suicidal screenwriter, to Spike Jonze's Adaptation, which ushered him to a second Academy nomination.
As for the rest, Cage is the A-list king of the Bs. Pop-cult remakes such as The Wicker Man, Bad Lieutenant and Bangkok Dangerous are films that suggest Cage's quality control has long since malfunctioned. But he begs to differ, believing critics look down on genre movies.
"If I took the greatest bottle of wine in the world - a 1967 Romanée-Conti Burgundy - and relabelled it 'Bozo Dagger Wine', I promise you that any great connoisseur would drink it and think it was trash," he says, "just because they can't get past the label."
In the past, Cage commanded US$20 million (Dh73.5m) a movie, when a trio of action films, The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off hit big. Fifteen years on, he's still hanging on for dear life to that persona, as his latest, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, proves. A sequel to his 2007 film about the Marvel Comics character Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman who sells his soul and becomes a flame-riddled vigilante, here he battles Mephistopheles to save a young boy.
Never mind that he took his stage surname from Marvel's "Power Man" Luke Cage, the actor believes Ghost Rider was the ideal comic-book character for him to play.
"I think that it's a perfect match for me. Ghost Rider is so different than all the others. If you want to compete in the world of comic book movies, you have to provide an alternative, and Ghost Rider does that. There's really nothing quite like him. He's the only superhero I know that was inspired by Goethe. He sold his soul to the Devil; he made a Faustian contract."
We're sitting in a room at London's Corinthia Hotel, Cage dressed in dark trousers, white shirt and navy cardigan, with two gold, jewel-encrusted rings weighing his fingers down. By his side is a compact beige-coloured suitcase, suggesting he's ready to make a quick dash to the airport to fly back into the bosom of his family - third wife Alice Kim and their six-year-old son Kal-el (named after Superman). He's already caused an internet sensation on this trip, reciting the lyrics to LMFAO's song Sexy and I Know It ("I do the wiggle man, yeah") during one radio appearance.
Still, this has to be better than his press tour for Bad Lieutenant, when he revealed that he chooses what animals he eats according to the way they reproduce. "I think fish are very dignified with sex. So are birds." This, coming from a man who once ate a live cockroach for the film Vampire's Kiss, might sound a little strange. But then Cage is a man of extremes. In his early years, he had a volatile reputation, trashing his trailer during his uncle Francis Coppola's movie The Cotton Club and throwing a chair at the actress Julie Bovasso on the set of Moonstruck.
He may be better behaved now, but he's still prone to idiosyncrasies. To get into character on Ghost Rider, he painted his face black and white to look like the voodoo icon Baron Samedi, adding black contact lenses "so I looked more like a skull", and even sewed ancient Egyptian relics into his costume. "I would give myself over to these things and really try to believe them." It freaked the crew out. "I saw the fear in their eyes," he says, his own eyes closed as if he's summoning spirits.
Whatever his reputation, Cage believes he puts mind, body and soul on the line every time he goes on set. "I put just as much thought into Ghost Rider as I did into Leaving Las Vegas," he says, noting that the harrowing scenes in the latter were no more taxing than being a motorbike rider from hell. "It takes a lot of guts - any other actor would agree with me - to get in front of the camera and let it all hang out," he reasons. "You have to be naked psychologically to do that and have it be convincing."
You might think it has been a traumatic time for Cage of late. The IRS alleged that he failed to pay over $6.2m in federal income tax for the year 2007 - the same year it was said he purchased 22 automobiles (including nine Rolls Royces). More recently, his Bel Air home sold for a third of the original $35m he paid for it. Little wonder, in November last year, he reputedly auctioned off his beloved Action Comics#1 for a staggering $2.16m. "There is some talk that that was my book," he says, "but I will neither confirm nor deny that."
Raised in Los Angeles by literature professor August Coppola and dancer Joy Vogelsang, Cage's love of comic books stretches from his days at Beverly Hills High School, though he wants to straighten something out. "There's been a little bit of perception about it that is blown out of proportion. I'm not reading them at four in the morning, with a tray of lemon cookies!" Still, he's passed it on to his 21-year-old son Weston (from his former relationship to actress Christina Fulton); the pair devised the 2007 comic Voodoo Child together.
And whatever Cage says, there's something about him that's like a larger-than-life character from the pages of a comic book. Living like a Bruce Wayne-like multimillionaire, even his acting style can often seem colourful and exaggerated. It's not for nothing that the Coen Brothers cast him in their Looney Tunes-inspired kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona. "One of the things that's interesting to me," he notes, "is I find things like caffeine and stunts actually relax me." Go figure.
As ever, Cage has a host of movies on his slate - most interestingly, The Frozen Ground, a tale of the real-life serial killer Robert Hansen (played by Cage's old Con Air cohort John Cusack). But for him, he just has one maxim to go by: expect the unexpected. "I'm not providing certainty," he says. "I want to be full of surprises. I want to keep you guessing. I want to always find new ways of reinventing myself. I just don't ever want to get comfortable with anything I'm doing."
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, co-produced by Image Nation, a company owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National newspaper, opens in the UAE today.
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