Born: 7 January 1964
Where: Long Beach, California, USA
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 1 Golden Globe and 2 BAFTA
Height: 6′ 1"
Considering his early roles and his initial peer group, it’s hard to believe that Nicolas Cage has got this far. A peripheral member of the early Eighties’ Brat Pack, he should surely have gone the way of Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez and, lest we forget, Andrew McCarthy. Yet somehow he has become one of the most expressive and sought-after actors of his generation, an Oscar-winner and a major box-office draw.
Born Nicholas Kim Coppola in Long Beach, California on the 7th of January, 1964, young Nic had a heavyweight name to live up to. Both his parents were successes in themselves — his father, August, was a professor in comparative literature at Cal State, Long Beach (later the Dean of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University) and his mother, Joy Vogelsang was a renowned dancer and choreographer. Yet the family contained bigger names still. Nic’s aunt was Talia Shire, star of the Rocky movies and subject of Stallone’s final, triumphant bellow of "Adrian! Adrian!" while his uncle was no less than Francis Ford Coppola, deified director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Tough to top achievements like that.
Nic had not always aimed to be an actor, but he could always act. One early story sees him getting bullied on the school bus, having his Twinkies taken from him. Enraged, he went home, togged himself up in his brother’s jeans and cowboy boots and, slicking back his hair and slipping on shades, he approached his tormentor and, claiming to be Roy Wilkinson (his own older cousin), he threatened to batter the bully if he did not leave young Nic Coppola alone. It worked.Though he’d sometimes spend the summer in San Francisco with Uncle Francis, growing close to his cousins, Roman and Sofia Coppola, his influences were not simply filmic. His mother was a depressive, spending long periods in hospital, but her naturally surreal and wholly idiosyncratic worldview had a mighty impact on her son (he loves to improvise, often infuriating his fellow actors — later David Lynch would call him "a jazz musician of an actor. Completely unafraid", while Jim Carrey says he has "elephant balls"). Then there was August. He and Joy divorced when Nic was 12, and the boy moved with his father to San Francisco. Here August schooled the boy in a wide range of artistic pursuits, including film, literature and classical music.
Finally came Nic’s acting epiphany. Watching East Of Eden, he connected wholesale with James Dean’s rebellious attitude and churning desire to please his father. He decided that cinema was for him, and immediately enrolled in the Young Conservatory, part of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. He lasted only one summer, but never lost sight of his vocation. The family returned to Southern California, where he attended Beverly Hills High School. There he studied theatre but, valuing work experience over academic education, he began looking for acting roles immediately, appearing in the TV show Best Of Times while still at school. Passing a proficiency test, he left High School early to concentrate on acting full-time (no loss to him as, he later explained, he’d had to get the bus to school and, car-less, had felt like "a dork" in front of the girls).
At first, the famous name was helpful. As Nicolas Coppola, Nic got a part in Cameron Crowe’s debut movie, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, alongside a huge gang of other soon-to-be-famous wannabes like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stoltz and Forest Whitaker. Unfortunately, his part was cut drastically, such that you must be sharp-eyed to catch and recognise the face beneath the mortifying Eighties hairdo. Crushed, he took to selling popcorn at the Fairfax Theatre — but thankfully not for long. Next came his first lead role, in Valley Girl, a movie inspired by Frank Zappa’s hilarious track of the same name. But Nic had realised that, carrying the Coppola name, people tended to view him differently, they didn’t take him for what he was or might be. So, in homage to black comic-book hero Luke Cage (Nic has a massive comic-book collection and believes their stories and characters work as a modern-day mythology), he became Nicolas Cage.
Though the name was a pain, he was still close to his Uncle Francis. He agreed to help out by reading with actors auditioning for Coppola’s next project, Rumble Fish, a black and white adaptation of SE Hinton’s rites-of-passage drama. And, so impressive was he, he got a part in the movie. By now, Cage was into The Method, hurling himself into research, desperate to fell the part. No surprise then that his next film, Racing With The Moon — concerning two 1942 Marine inductees about to leave for war — should pair him with another actor of severe intensity, Sean Penn.For now, Cage stuck with both Coppola and The Method. For his role as a feverish young gangster in his uncle’s The Cotton Club, he famously destroyed a street-vendor’s remote-control car in order to build up an adequate head of steam. Then came another plum role, in Alan Parker’s Birdy, again concerning two soldier friends, but this time dealing with post-conflict trauma. Then it was back to Coppola with Peggy Sue Got Married (featuring early appearances from Joan Allen and Jim Carrey, now one of Cage’s best buddies) where Cage starred as Kathleen Turner’s boyfriend/husband. Here there were problems. Cage’s methods were becoming extreme — he didn’t simply want to act, he wanted to "change acting". Fuelled by his mother’s odd perspective and desperate to disappear into his role, he donned strange teeth and spoke in a bizarre voice, performing in a manner far too flamboyant for many. The studio executives hated it and Coppola felt the need to invite them round for a spaghetti dinner to calm their ire. But the critics could not be thus appeased, calling Cage "a wart on an otherwise beautiful film". And, though Coppola claimed he enjoyed Cage’s antics, it’s notable that the two have not worked together since.
No matter, because one person who DID like Cage’s performance was Cher, who requested that he play her young lover Ronny Cammareri in the upcoming Moonstruck. As a baker who’s lost his hand and consequently his fiancee due to an industrial accident, Cage was supposed to be bitter. But having just painfully split from actress Jenny Wright (star of Near Dark), he brought his own, very real sense of loss to the role and took the movie to another dimension, earning himself a Golden Globe nomination, with Cher actually picking up an Oscar.
Immediately before this, Cage made a movie that would seal his reputation as an outsider for years to come. In the Coen brothers magnificent Raising Arizona, he was fabulously wacky as H.I McDonnough, who kidnaps a baby to appease broody wife Holly Hunter then, though desperate to go straight, finds himself harbouring escaped convicts, then harassed, pursued, horribly beaten, and pursued some more. After Moonstruck came Vampire’s Kiss where, asked to consume a raw egg, Cage decided a live cockroach would be more effective. He did it too, only to hear director Robert Bierman call for another take. Doh! Then there was Time To Kill, about an Italian soldier bedevilled by his own capacity for rape and murder.
Having won over the underground with Raising Arizona, now Cage became an indie god as Elvis-obsessed renegade Sailor Ripley, alongside Laura Dern in David Lynch’s bizarro Wild At Heart (he’d appear with her in Lynch’s made-for-TV freak-dream Industrial Symphony Number 1 that same year). He took a stab at mainstream appeal with the silly action flick Wings Of The Apache, but then concentrated once more on lower budget and more serious-minded oddities. He was a sex-crazed weirdo in Zandalee, a put-upon drifter in Red Rock West, and a grifter in Deadfall, directed by his brother, Christopher Coppola (his other brother, Marc is a DJ on K-ROCK in New York). And slowly he honed his craft. He took the role of vicious heavy in a remake of Kiss Of Death, originally played by Richard Widmark. He was seriously cute opposite Bridget Fonda in the romantic lottery flick It Could Happen To You, and shone beside Shirley Maclaine in Guarding Tess.Then it all came together. Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas was hardly hit material. Based on a true story, it concerned an alcoholic writer who holes up in Sin City with a friendly whore and proceeds to purposefully drink himself to death. Cage, of course, went at it tooth and nail. First he researched the role by visiting Ireland, gaining experience of "the land of great writers and drinkers", then he filmed himself guzzling gin and studied his own slurred speech and clumsy movements. Drawing a sense of loss and hopelessness from his recent break-up with his fiancee, model Kristen Zang, he was shockingly good and, incredibly for the star of such a relentlessly miserable movie, took the Oscar for Best Actor.
Now the big offers came flooding in and Cage embraced them (albeit on his own terms). He played reluctant hero Dr Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock, out-schizoed John Travolta in John Woo’s Face/Off and created another reluctant hero in the absurdly explosive Con Air (Cage refuses to play a hero with no complexity). After this trio of action hits, he spread his wings once more. He descended into the porno underworld in Joel Schumacher’s seedy and riveting thriller 8mm, starred opposite Meg Ryan in the twee romance City Of Angels (an overly sentimental remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire), and then as the manic ambulance driver in Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead. These would build to an enormous pay-day when he received $20 million for his part in Gone In 60 Seconds. Concerning a team of expert car thieves carrying out the biggest appropriation of other people’s vehicles in history, it made Cage very rich but, favouring style over any substance whatsoever, made most viewers very unhappy indeed.
Bringing Out The Dead marked the first time Cage had worked with his wife, Patricia Arquette. He’d met her in the early Eighties and, in true Cage style, proposed to her within minutes. She’d thought he was joking and gave him a list of Herculean tasks to perform in order to win her. As he began to work his way through the list, she was spooked and avoided him for years. Cage moved on to Wright, and Uma Thurman, Zang and Doors actress Kristina Fulton who he dated for several years and with whom he had a son — Weston Coppola Cage — in 1992. Then he met Arquette once more and his second proposal was accepted. They married in 1995 and their relationship was famously tempestuous. Cage filed for divorce in February, 2000, only to withdraw his appeal two months later. By 2001, though, it was all over.Still Cage’s personal life kept the tabloids in a feeding-frenzy. As Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart, he’d been an Elvis fanatic and many believed this to mirror a real-life fascination with the King. What a furore, then, when in 2001 he began dating Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie. Had she, after a failed marriage to Michael Jackson, fallen for another of the world’s most loopy artists? Was he simply collecting the rarest and most precious item of Elvis memorabilia? No one was surprised when, having married in Hawaii in August 2002, Cage had filed for divorce by November. Many reasons were given. Some said that Presley could not tolerate the time Cage spent with old flame Kristina Fulton and son Weston. Others said Cage was raging against the loss of his bachelor life and piqued by Presley’s making him sell his comic collection (he made $1.5 million) and his classic cars. More likely it was pressure of work, with Presley attempting to launch a career as a pop star and Cage in the middle of an almighty run of work.
He’d begun the millennium by filming Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, an epic tale of love and betrayal in WW2 Greece, based on the hit novel by Louis de Bernieres. Here Cage played the leader of a squad of Italian soldiers sent to control a Greek island during WW2 but instead jollying it up on the beach. Slowly and sweetly, Cage wins the love of brainy villager Penelope Cruz, a situation complicated by the fact that she’s already seeing Christian Bale, off fighting in the Greek army, and the arrival of Nazi heavies.
Following this, Cage would return to John Woo with Windtalkers, another WW2 movie, but this time set in the Pacific. As a gung-ho marine, Cage is assigned to protect Navajo soldiers whose language is proving to be an unbreakable code. It was an interesting story but largely ignored as Woo went all-out to match the pyrotechnics of Saving Private Ryan, Cage providing the movie’s human heart by playing Sgt Joe Enders as a man driven almost to hallucination by the mayhem around him.
Then there was Sonny, Cage’s directorial debut, based on a tale by ex-jailbird John Carlen (and, as a later court case revealed, his mentor Robert Dellinger). Cage had been pushing the project for years and had intended to play the lead, but now considered himself too old. Instead James Franco would play the ex-gigolo pushed back into his old life by his mother Brenda Blethyn, a madam who’d like to rejuvenate her business using her son and teen whore Mena Suvari. Set in New Orleans in the early Eighties, it was depressing but moving stuff, and was nominated for the Grand Special Prize at Deauville. Cage briefly appeared himself as Acid Yellow, a coke-addled pimp who keeps trying to get Franco to service men, too.2002 also brought Adaptation, another Cage triumph. Just as his inspired lunacy was well suited to the smart weirdness of the Coen Brothers, so it was to director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, creators of the brilliant Being John Malkovich. Adaptation would see Cage, as in Face/Off, playing dual roles. Playing Kaufman himself, he was a writer suffering torment as he fails to adapt Susan Orlean’s unfilmable The Orchid Thief for the screen, then becomes fixated with the novelist (played by Meryl Streep) and stalks her. On top of this, he was Kaufman’s fictional brother Donald, another writer who sells a cynical potboiler for a million. So skilful had Cage now become that, despite no make-up being employed, you could tell the two characters apart before they said a word. Quite rightly, he was Oscar-nominated once more.
The next year, 2003, would bring another challenge when he played a lifelong grifter in Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, planning his biggest con yet. Being Cage he naturally couldn’t allow the character to be natty and street-smart, like Robert Redford in The Sting and a host of con-men since. Instead he was wildly neurotic and painfully phobic, driven into therapy and then further confused by the appearance of long lost daughter Alison Lohman (impressive in White Oleander), just a teenager but nevertheless keen to join in the big scam.
It becomes ever more unlikely that this immense fan of comic-books will fulfil his dream of playing Superman. Though he was cast by Tim Burton and even fitted for the costume, the project fell through. Rumours that he would play The Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man also proved false. However, it does seem likely that, on top of a proposed reunion with John Woo in Land Of Destiny, Cage will at last enjoy a comic thrill by playing Johnny Blaze, the biker who bonds with a demon in Ghost Rider. In many ways it’s a more than appropriate role for an actor who thrives on complexity and trouble. The man’s a marvel.