Interview: Nicolas Cage uncaged

Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom
Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom
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If his new film Joe is anything to go by, then Nicolas Cage has made a stunning return to form, says Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

At a time when cinema is sliding into a morass dominated by comic-book capering and superheroes, it is refreshing that some of the screen’s best performers are heading back to that most overlooked artform, the novel.

Nicolas Cage is the latest actor to eschew high-concept trash for a rough-and-ready indie adaptation of an acclaimed piece of late 20th century American literature.

For in Joe, Cage plays the sort of flawed anti-hero that he could be found inhabiting at the dawn of his career. And with the double-whammy of late “grit lit” maestro Larry Brown and writer/director David Gordon Green he’s emerged triumphant.

Joe is based on Brown’s 1991 novel. The author, a former Mississippi firefighter who taught himself to write award-winning fiction, died in 2004. But the milieu in which he rooted himself is a perfect landscape for Cage: Deep South, blue collar, down and dirty, crime and punishment.

Director Green forms part of an unofficial Larry Brown fan club along with fellow filmmaker Jeff (Take Shelter) Nichols, an indie contemporary and someone whose own aesthetic is similar to Green’s.

It was Nichols who attracted Matthew McConaughey to star in Mud – the story of two boys’ friendship with a drifter and fugitive – alongside newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. And it is Sheridan who stars in Joe with Cage, the latest star to step back into genuinely gritty filmmaking.

Playing Joe Ransom, the streetwise brawler and no-nonsense Texas roughneck, meant dipping into areas of his psyche that his recent studio films didn’t require.

Ransom has been described as “an archetype of rugged masculinity”. Green recalls that physically Cage was perfect: perfect age, perfect look, perfect physical stature.

“This is probably the lowest budget film Nic has done in his whole career. But I felt if he was ready to roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty, that was exactly what I was looking for,” says Green.

The tipping point for Cage was the screenplay, which had been written by Green’s former film professor, Gary Hawkins. “I was hooked right away,” he confesses. “I knew the power of what he had written.” Cage also read and re-read Brown’s novel to the extent that he could quote whole tracts of the text. Combined with the script it offered him a wholly new experience – or at least something he had drifted away from.

What’s more, Green threw in opportunities for improvisation that this elemental actor revelled in.

“The novel opened up a whole new voice for me. When I read the book I felt it had almost a Hemingway or Conrad kind of grittiness to it,” recalls Cage, 50.

“David is really a master of knowing how to get humour out of dark situations. He also has a very unique approach with actors. He’s very tuned into performance and he always wants to go for subtext, for improvisation, which requires a great deal of trust from an actor. But David earns that trust.”

And in Joe Ransom Cage found himself exploring nuances of character – and, particularly, that crucial father/son dynamic that underlines the film – that had not been present in some of his recent movies.

“Joe is always in a state of trying to balance himself. He would even rather get arrested and go to jail than lose control of himself and maybe kill somebody,” remarks Cage, wallowing in the milieu. “But, inevitably, the steam inside him sometimes gets too strong and the pressure goes up and he does something that gets him into trouble. He’s a true outlaw and he’s completely politically correct. And yet, at the same time, he becomes an unlikely role model for Gary Jones.”

Returning to fare like Joe indicates that Cage has cleared some of the mammoth tax debt that saw him selling off property (such as a Bavarian castle) to pay back an estimate $14 million. That financial quagmire also accounts for some of his recent movie output.

For every Wild at Heart or Adaptation there was a Next or Wicker Man remake. Cage’s status took a severe beating. In Joe he’s acting again – for real.There are some reviewers who have likened Cage’s turn in Joe to Matthew McConaughey’s career turnaround, which reached its zenith in March when he won the Oscar for Best Actor in Dallas Buyers Club. He certainly won over cast and crew alike on Joe.

Perhaps the truest moment was also the most dangerous: Cage, as Joe, had to handle a deadly Cottonmouth snake. “I managed to get him in my hand and it was actually very calming. And kind of beautiful.”

Joe is on limited release.