Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - Nicolas Cage interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
NICOLAS Cage talks about some of his elaborate preparation for playing the Ghost Rider, as well as Johnny Blaze, in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, including wearing face paint on the set, and getting carried away at the Christmas party!
He also reflects on his own career, what attracts him to the roles he takes on, one of the more bizarre injuries he received on set and why caffeine makes him feel relaxed. He was speaking at a London press conference.
Q. You play both Johnny Blaze and the Ghost Rider this time around. Was that one of the major appeals to you?
Nicolas Cage: Yeah, that was an opportunity to experiment with movement and with my state of mind to really believe I was this character. It was actually Brian Taylor who had the idea for me to do that. He was an enormous advocate of it. And the first thing I said was… we were in New Orleans, so I said: “Can I wear a mask so as not to feel totally ridiculous as I would walk on the set and play this part?” But there was a writer named Brian Bates who wrote a book called The Way of Wyrd, and also The Way of the Actor, and in that book he put forward the notion that all actors, whether they know it or not, come from a long, distant past of medicine men and Shamans, pre-Christian in these villages and what the Shaman would go and do is he would go into an altered state of consciousness to try and find answers and solutions to give to the village people that were there.
In this day and age that person would be considered psychotic but when you think about it, it was a way of channelling the imagination to either talk with spirits to give answers to the village. So, they would wear masks, or they would gather objects that had some magical relevance, and so I thought, well because I’m dealing with this supernatural character why don’t I try a little bit of that and see what happens? So, I would paint my face with black and white make-up, so it looked like a skull, like some sort of Afro-Caribbean voodoo icon, or a New Orlean-ian voodoo icon by the name of Baron Samedi, or Baron Saturday, who looks like a skeleton but he’s very finely dressed. He’s the spirit of death. He’s also a spirit that loves children and he’s a very lusty kind of voodoo icon.
So, I would paint my face and I would put black contact lenses in my eyes to look more like a skull, so you couldn’t see any pupils or any white in the eyes, and I would sew some ancient Egyptian artefacts into my costume, get some rocks that had alleged frequencies to who knows if it works or not… but the point is it stimulated my imagination to think I really was this character. And then I would walk on the set projecting this kind of aura of horror and I would see in the eyes of my co-stars [looks amazed]… they would go like this and light up. The fear was there and it was just like oxygen to a fire. And that led me to believe that maybe I really was this spirit of vengeance. The problem is if you have a Christmas party in Romania and you’re shooting until 2am and you’re invited to go to the Christmas party and some Schnapps is involved, and you’re still in character, all hell can break loose and it did. I’m lucky I’m not in a Romanian prison [laughs]!
Q. What about your body language?
Nicolas Cage: I remembered Cobra snakes because at one point in my neighbourhood I had a couple of them, but then the neighbours didn’t like it so I gave them to a zoo. But I would study these Cobras and what they would do is move back and forth in a rhythmic motion and on the back of the snake was the pattern of an eye, like an occult eye, and it would be trying to hypnotise me and then as soon as it felt it had hypnotised me it would strike. And so I thought why doesn’t Ghost Rider move like that with that sort of hypnotic rhythmic motion.
And then there was another thing that I’d seen in a Trent Reznor video, where he revolving and levitating in circles and I thought ‘let’s have Ghost Rider levitate and revolve in circles’. We called it the compass and then he would find his next victim and then attack. So, a lot of thought went into it and then a bit of imagination and improvisation. Sometimes I would start talking in what I thought was a Wodenic/Norse dialogue, or some sort of enochian Angel speak, or something… who knows what was coming out of me but it was a fun experiment. What you see is really in camera.
Q. From what you’ve told us of your preparation, it doesn’t suggest you could have been in a good state of mind for driving something as dangerous as a motorcycle? Did your nearest and dearest have a word with you about taking extra caution on the bike?
Nicolas Cage: [Laughs] Right but no… she loved it, she thought it looked great. She thought it was a very sexy motorcycle and wanted to have a ride on it. The truth is I was blessed to work with a Yamaha V-Max. I’m not a sponsor for Yamaha, I don’t have a contract with Yamaha, but I have had my experiences on several different motorcycles and they’re the best because if you think something that you want the bike to do, it’ll happen. So, I could go impossibly fast on that motorcycle and tell it to stop safely and it will. I totally trusted that motorcycle. I never got hurt. Now, my insurance today tells me that I’m not allowed to ride motorcycles in my own life, so I have to do it when I’m working. I’m legally unable to ride motorcycles. It’s a contract that I have with my life insurance, so whenever I get a chance to do a movie and ride a bike I go for it.
Q. Is it possible to say when compared with the great range of characters you’ve played over the years just how much these two characters mean to you? Are they your favourites? And does the passion for them grow the more you play them?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I feel I have more to say with it. You know, Ghost Rider was a character that had an enormous influence on my childhood. I was eight when I discovered Ghost Rider and, in fact, I had the very first comic and I would stare at that picture of that cover and I couldn’t get my head around how something so terrifying to look at, who was in fact using forces of evil, could also be considered good. How is this a superhero? So, it was like my first philosophical awakening. You know, here is a character that’s literally inspired by Goethe… this is a Faustian contract. But of course it’s really all just a metaphor.
This movie isn’t sanctimonious at all. It’s about pop art, it’s about having fun, it’s about going along for the ride. But in my opinion the deal with the devil happens every day. Everyone sells their soul every day. How many times does it happen – and it’s usually for love – when you meet a lady, or a gentleman, and you think they love you but then you find out it’s for a green card, or for money, or it’s because they make you pay for whatever their parents did to them and they take it out on you. Well, that’s a deal with the devil. So, for me, that character is really a metaphor for life and if you want to compete in this day and age with other comic book films, and every other movie is one, you have to provide an alternative and Ghost Rider does that.
Q. Can you tell us some of your other favourite comic book characters and why?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I’ve always liked the monsters. I like The Hulk. I feel bad for him, or I did as a child. I want to make it clear, though, there might be a little bit of a mis-perception about me, blowing out of proportion my love of comics. Yes, I’m loyal to them… like Rosebud in Citizen Kane I love the influences of my childhood but I’m not up at 4am with a stack of Spider-Man comics and a tray of lemon cookies! And now you have graphic novels for adults. But Dr Strange, Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, Hulk and Batman… the ones that were a little bit scary to look at and also had some edge.
Q. So, you’ve very much a Marvel guy, Batman aside?
Nicolas Cage: I would say that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had the biggest effect on my childhood, yes.
Q. You seem drawn to playing anti-hero characters. What attracts you to them? And what do you think others see in you that makes you right for them?
Nicolas Cage: Well, the anti-hero, and probably largely because of Ghost Rider and that influence in my filmography, you’re right to point out that I’m attracted to characters that have some obstacle to overcome, whether it’s inside of them or outside of them because, to me, that’s drama and that’s the human experience. We all have that. But within that I’m attracted to characters that allow me to realise my more surrealistic and abstract dreams for film acting. I believe in art-synthesis. I believe that acting be no different than painting or music… that if you can get very outside the box, or as critics like to call ‘over the top’ in a Francis Bacon painting, why can’t you do it in a movie?
But in order to do that as an actor who is only a collaborative effect in a movie, he’s not the director, you have to find characters that provide an engine that have that behaviour make sense within the context of the movie. So, I’m attracted to characters like Terence in Bad Lieutenant. He’s high on cocaine, so I can make those sounds and those moves and do crazy things with old ladies and handguns. Or I can, in Ghost Rider, because you see that my face is morphing into a skull and there’s pain in that, I can then do things like ‘scraping at the door, scraping at the door’ and make those notes come to life. So, I have to look for characters that allow me to realise my abstract dreams in cinema.
Q. You and Idris Elba had a good chemistry. How long did you have to work on that?
Nicolas Cage: Thank you. We just hit it off. Idris is someone I consider to be a friend. I like him as a person. We had some good conversations. I admire his film presence. He’s got a larger than life presence which is something that’s interesting to me. So, thank you for noticing… we had a good connection.
Q. There’s a lot of genre faces in this… were you involved in the casting?
Nicolas Cage: No, Mark and Brian did all of that. They have a great appreciation for all things cinema and they really know their movies. So, they’re the ones that did all the casting, from Christopher Lambert to Ciaran Hinds – you know, how brilliant to cast those two and Ciaran in the Rome series… so to think of him as the devil, to me is very inspired. I was lucky to work with Violante [Placido]… and also Johnny Whitworth is… what can I say? He’s Johnny Whitworth! He’s full of surprises!
Q. Brian and Mark tried to get you for Crank. How far did they get with that?
Nicolas Cage: I never even heard about it. But I can’t imagine that movie without [Jason] Statham in it. That’s his part and he should be the only one to do that.
Q. There’s a very gonzo vibe to those guys. Was that something that attracted you? Did you recognise something of yourself in their approach?
Nicolas Cage: Yeah, absolutely. They’re daredevils. They’re literally risking their lives to entertain you. You have Neveldine with a camera in one hand, a motorcycle in the other on roller blades being pulled at 60mph to get a shot! Any moment he could break his neck! Or flying off a cliff with a wire on him and a camera where he could collide into Idris’s stunt-man. I mean, these things… they’re the only guys that are doing it and there’s a lot of poetic young filmmakers but only Mark and Brian are poetic and the ones risking their lives. It’s like daredevil, extreme sports filmmaking and you have to give them credit for that.
Q. Is there a particular real-life person you’d like to play with a bit of the devil in him?
Nicolas Cage: You know, generally my instinct is to not do biographical movies. I want to build characters and not be locked into playing a part in history. Not that I wouldn’t but for me what’s interesting is creating somebody and introducing you to that person. I don’t want to play other people that you know, per se.
Q. Given the depth and incredible variety of the roles you’ve tackled over the years, have you looked back on things and feel a tinge of regret that you never got to play Superman as was once suggested?
Nicolas Cage: No, the only regret I have is not having the chance to work with Tim Burton. I hope someday we will work together. I know it would be special. But as far as that particular character goes, I have no regrets. I think that Ghost Rider is a far better match for me.
Q. You mention your early influences and this movie will scare the be-jesus of younger viewers. This character scared you back then but what scares you now, if anything?
Nicolas Cage: I think that I’m always fearful of something happening to people I love. That doesn’t go away. And then what scared me as a child was Lon Chaney as Phantom of the Opera. I would see promotions for it on television as a boy and then the mask would come off and I would see his face and it just really freaked me out. I remember running away from the television and trying to avoid that. Of course, now I love him for it, so what does that say about my psychology? But I love Lon Chaney for scaring me like that.
Q. Do you think you’ve made your own pact with the devil at any point?
Nicolas Cage: Oh yeah, I’ve done it probably more than once! And I mean it metaphorically, which is the only way the devil really exists in my opinion… is in interactions with people who don’t walk the walk and talk the talk; people who act one way, or talk one way and then do another. Those are the deals with the devil. I don’t see the devil as somebody who is a horned, goateed guy with a fork in his hand that’s there to continuously stab me and send my soul to hell. I don’t see it that way at all.
Q. You’ve created a comic book with your son, Weston, called Voodoo Child. Have you had any interested in pursuing that further? And would you be interested in playing any other comic book characters?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I don’t want to play any other comic book characters. Voodoo Child would be great to see either as a TV series or a movie. I’ve tried and tried to get that to happen and talked to different directors who seem interested and then suddenly aren’t interested. So, I don’t know where that’s going to end.
Q. Has having spent time here over the years opened your eyes to any British influences?
Nicolas Cage: I came here largely because of my interest in British history and mythology/ Even though I know I’m far from home and I know I’m a visitor in your beautiful country being an American, I can’t help but feel some connection to the land because of my appreciation for it and also because the way England happened, with different elements coming into the area and forming the language… the Romans and the Saxons and all of it as a white American, you can’t help but feel a pull to that.
Q. You’re obviously not afraid of doing your own stunts but is there anything in your career that you shied away from?
Nicolas Cage: I feel that I have to jump in when I’m doing a movie that has a high level of risk. The odd thing for me, which you might notice with all the caffeine here [three cans of Red Bull] on the table is that it calms me down. Caffeine makes me go the other way. It relaxed me. I can meet all of you and feel very comfortable with you because I drank a Red Bull. If someone puts a bit of fire on me or asks me to drive extremely fast in a car chase everything slows down and it gets my mind off of everything else… emotional, or whatever baggage may be happening. It all goes away and I relax. So, I like doing stunts.
This movie, though, I knew with Mark and Brian that it would be a whole other level of extremity with the stunts because their motto is ‘if you break a bone, then that shot is going in the movie’. So, I was like ‘this is different’, but my way of handling it was to say ‘give me more’. With everything… if I’m working with a director who likes to do a lot of takes, I’ll say ‘give me more’. I’m not happy with 20 takes, let’s do 40! It’s my way of psychologically reversing that.
Q. Have you ever been injured before on a set?
Nicolas Cage: I won’t mention the names of the movies but I’ve had two concussions. It’s funny because in American Football they say things like if you get two concussions in six months you’re out of the game. And I did have two concussions in six months working stunts on two movies with the same company, but I won’t mention who it was. Thankfully, I’m OK. But one of them was ridiculous and should never have happened. My head… the actor was really just in his moment and he grabbed my head and he smashed it on the marble floor and then I just couldn’t speak right for a couple of days and things were very dizzy for me. But I’m OK. It was just an unfortunate accident and it wasn’t even a stunt or meant to be a stunt.
Q. This Ghost Rider is closest to the comic books. Can you explain the movements of the Ghost Rider and how you came to find them?
Nicolas Cage: Well look, the key is to be enigmatic. My favourite movie is 2001 because it doesn’t answer all the questions and it keeps you guessing. That’s what gives movies, or a performance, a greater shelf life. So, I don’t want to answer specifically what those gestures mean. But I will tell you that the director wanted… both the directors saw Ghost Rider like a Pharaoh, like an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh of sorts. But even that I shouldn’t have said. I shouldn’t have said anything about the Cobras! It’s totally labelled now and it’s lost it’s mystery and it’s not interesting anymore [laughs]!
Q. So, you won’t be doing a DVD commentary?
Nicolas Cage: I try to avoid those at all times.
Q. There’s a moment where you mention the bee sting on a child’s face. Was that a reference to The Wicker Man?
Nicolas Cage: See now I never thought of it that way [laughs]. But I do have fantasies of doing another Wicker Man and having another go at it. But this time I want to take it to Japan. Get your head around that one!
Q. Weren’t you slightly burnt at the end?
Nicolas Cage: Yes! I’m going to have to re-think of all of it. But in Japan, they make great ghost stories, so we could make a great ghost story out of The Wicker Man.
Q. You talked about Romania… what was it like working there?
Nicolas Cage: There were a lot of wild… not wild but stray dogs everywhere, running around and I just didn’t know where they came from or where they were going to go. I would hear them at night and then it was impossible not to think of Bram Stoker and the children of the night howling at the moon as the dogs were barking. And so Romania was kind of a spooky, cool place to make a movie. And the fact that the castle, the alleged Vlad Tepes’ Castle was there, just added to the charm of that. And to ride my motorcycle out there and to be around all those kind of scary energies, but beautiful in some way, just stimulated me for this kind of a movie.
Q. You’ve worked with many great directors over the year, so who had the greatest influence on you as an actor?
Nicolas Cage: I think that they all had enormous affects on me. But because I started acting at such a young age… I began as a 15-year-old, which makes me a child actor of sorts, I’ve been doing it for 33 years, which is hard to believe at this point, but so be it. But because I started so young I think some of the filmmakers that I worked with at a young age had a bigger effect on me because my mind was still learning and it was still impressionable. So, I would say [David] Lynch, [Martha] Coolidge on Valley Girl… they had enormous effects on me. Yeah, so those two come to mind.
Q. As a key figure in modern action, what kind of challenges are you facing now as an actor with revitalised 3D?
Nicolas Cage: I see 3D as a tool to be used when it suits the character or the storyline. I think it’s not something that you should use all the time, it’s just another paintbrush to work with. Ghost Rider is a character that I think matches well with 3D because the chain can go near the audience, and the fire and the motorcycles and all that I wanted to see with Spirit of Vengeance.
Q. Idris Elba has said your funny and gracious and down to earth and generally a good guy. Brian Taylor says you seem like a lunatic when you’re in a movie. Is this a by-product of the characters you play or another facet of your personality?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I think Brian also said ‘but there’s a method to his madness’ in that particular quote. ‘Seems like a lunatic’! [Laughs] Well, first of all thank you Idris. The thing is that I play characters, largely because of what I said earlier about finding characters where I can realise my surreal dreams in film acting… so, I’m not insane, Damon Macready from Kick-Ass is insane. He’s the one who is 48-years-old and dresses up like Batman and goes out and tries to seek vengeance. He’s the one that probably watched a lot of Adam West and tried to talk like him. Not me! That’s a character [smiles]. I don’t do that in my life! So, that’s the idea… I’m attracted to characters who are different, who are flawed and I love them for it. That’s what I find interesting as a movie-goer.
Q. It looked like you had a lot of fun making the film. Is that what you look for in anything you do?
Nicolas Cage: I think you have to have fun and that’s going back to what David Lynch told me as one of my influences. It’s very important to have fun while making a movie because if you’re not, then the audience won’t. With something like Ghost Rider, which is in no way meant to be a sanctimonious thing that everything’s going to forget about, it’s got to be fun, it’s got to make you have fun with it. So, the only way to do that is if you’re having fun. I mean, it sounds trite and I’ve probably said too much again but it is essential.
Q. There’s a lot crazy action sequences in Ghost Rider 2. Was there anything that was too crazy to do?
Nicolas Cage: Well no but there were moments, for example, Mark Neveldine… the inevitable dinner conversation where he’d say: “Well, Nic we can’t have you doing that stunt because we need to finish the movie!” I know you’ll do it if I ask you, so please don’t. So, we’re going to have Rick English…”, who I do want to give a lot of credit t. He’s one of your countrymen and he’s a mystic on a motorcycle, an acrobat. I don’t know how he does what he does, but he does the stunt whether you get the whole bike on the front or the back and he can spin it with a child on the bike and nobody gets hurt. He’s a poet on two wheels.
Q. There are strong religious elements in this film and Season of the Witch. Is this a coincidence or are you reaching a time of life where you’re beginning to question faith and religion and wonder what you might believe in?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I believe that everybody has the right to believe what they want to believe and to knock somebody’s faith and religion is foolish, whatever it may be – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism…. As for myself, I’m a seeker. I’m very much a believer in science. But I do think there are times when science and mysticism intersect and that’s the best way I can answer it.
- Read our review
- Nicolas Cage interview
- Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance Photo Gallery
- Watch the trailer