TORONTO — Sure, Nicolas Cage was born into the Coppola clan, one of the preeminent families in American cinema; and yes, he’s got an Oscar and several iconic roles to his credit. But show business is hard stuff, and there was a time, say, 30 years ago, when even Cage wasn’t sure he was ever going to make it in Hollywood.
So, the young man had a backup plan.
“I gave myself a prescribed amount of time before I wasn’t going to try anymore, because an actor going into a casting office and being rejected is not a fun thing,” he revealed to BuzzFeed during an interview at the Toronto International Film Fest. “So that was happening and happening and happening, and I said to myself, I’m going to go on one more, and if it doesn’t happen, not that I could ever be Herman Melville or Conrad, but I admired them as writers and I thought, Yeah, I want to get on a boat.
“My friends in high school were going up to Alaska and fishing on boats and they were coming back with $25,000 in their pocket and a sports car, a Camaro, and I thought, That’s something I can do, and I’ll write about my experiences,” the actor said, calling the ocean his first love. “So I had a prescribed plan that I was going to get out on the ocean and write about my tales.”
Cage never ended up casting out to sea and writing the next Moby-Dick — the 1983 films Rumble Fish and Valley Girl ended his run of audition nightmares when he was 19 — but the actor did finally get his hands dirty with a bunch of blue-collar manual laborers, thanks to director David Gordon Green’s new film, Joe.
It’s hard to believe, given how prolific Cage has been over the last decade — he had five movies out in 2011, two in 2010, and four in 2009 — but Joe was his first project in a full calendar year. The break snapped what was becoming a dangerous cycle; this is a guy who won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and earned another nomination for Adaptation, but a lot of his more recent filmmaking choices had been called into question.
For every critical hit like Kick-Ass and The Bad Lieutenant, he made two clunkers, like Drive Angry or Trespass. Finally, he realized that it was time to take a breather.
“I wanted to spend time at home with my family and live a very simple life, and then I also wanted to be very selective about the next script and the next project. I had to reevaluate what I had been doing and wanted to try something different from that,” Cage admitted. “I didn’t want to have to act so much, I wanted to just be as emotionally naked as possible and just have faith that I understood Joe and I could take my own memories and life experience and fuel the dialogue with that.”
A southern gothic tale set in rural Texas, with enough grit and dirt to make an audience want to run for the shower immediately after the end credits, Joe finds Cage in the title role, an ex-con who struggles to restrain his rage at a world that so often spins against his own moral compass. Joe, who drowns his frustrations in the bottle, runs a crew of workers who take down trees in the dense back woods of a small, forgotten town, and he strikes up a bond with a teenager named Gary (Mud’s Tye Sheridan), who comes from a broken home.
“Without getting too specific, I’d been through experiences in my own life where I understood Joe,” Cage explained, being careful to not divulge any of those rocky, instructive moments. “I understood him needing to have restraint and him walking a fine line and his code of ethics in terms of what he thought was right and wrong, and the way he wanted to treat people.”
Reviews have called it his best work in years, and there’s no question that Cage found himself at home in this character’s troubled head.
Much of the cast, outside of Cage and Sheridan, is made up of non-actors, local Texans who work as day laborers and in other decidedly un-Hollywood trades. Cage went down to Austin a month before shooting began to get to know the workers who he’d been toiling with in the woods, while also aiming to develop a shorthand with Gordon Green, with whom he had never previously worked. A solid portion of the film — especially those scenes with the local workers — involves drawls and dialects so heavy that scripting the conversations would seem impossible. Indeed, there were times that Gordon Green just turned on the camera and let it roll, no prep work or pre-planning required.
Cage, on the other hand, was quite meticulous in preparing for his biggest scenes, including a few that included gun fights that didn’t go his way. It all goes back to those early days, even before the era of his Moby-Dick dreams.
“The actor’s greatest tool is his imagination, and that’s really our ultimate resource, that and our memories and our dreams. I have a very wild imagination, so much so that I can imagine the pain of the bullet or buck shot, and I’ve had that ever since I was a child. I got a lot done in my backyard — my father built me this wooden castle, and I’d go in the castle and I’d imagine I was these characters and feel these characters.”