The fearless Nicolas Cage

Nicolas Cage is an actor known for holding nothing back. He shares some secrets of the trade with Lee Cowan in our Sunday Profile:

"I will promise you that if I can give you two good scenes -- which is what I always try to do in every movie -- then I feel like I'm doing my job," said Nicolas Cage.

Fans have come to expect a certain style from Cage. He's like a simmering pot: you wait long enough, and that slow-paced Cage cadence of his will more often than not boil over.

"Put the bunny back in the box."

"I don't believe in the term 'over the top,'" Cage told Cowan. "I believe in the term 'outside of the box.' Let's take chances, let's keep trying new things, and that's how you reinvent yourself. And that's how you stay fresh."

Nobody does "outside of the box" quite like Nicolas Cage. Over the last 35 years it's become his trademark.

Once, in "Vampire's Kiss," he even turned the alphabet into a disturbing psychotic tirade:

"How could somebody MIS-file something? What could be easier? It's all alphabetical! You just PUT it IN the RIGHT FILE, according to alphabetical order. You know, ABCDEFG, HIJKLMNOP, QRSTUVWXYZ. Huh?!? That's ALL YOU HAVE TO DO!"

"It might be the best recitation of the alphabet, ever," said Cowan.

"Thank you. I'm pretty proud of that!"

"Where does that sort of explosive part come in you? I mean, so many people say you're calm, calm, calm, and then bam! You just go off."

"Right," he smiled. "Now they're called a 'Cage-ism,'" which is funny in itself. But it is music. You know, I think all of it, if you listen to different kinds of music, you have moments that are explosive, and you have quieter moments."

His latest movie, out this week, is called "Joe," and it's full of those quieter moments. He plays Joe Ransom, a Southern ex-con -- both brooding yet funny -- at war with himself, who befriends a luckless boy in search of a father figure.

"I wanted to see how minimal I can be, and get to the truth of the performance, truth of the character, with emotion and with feeling," Cage said.

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in "Joe." Roadside Attractions
He calls it experimenting, and he's fond of it.

He's prolific as an actor, with dozens of films across almost every genre.

He'll try anything, such as the Coen Brothers' farce, "Raising Arizona."

"What is it about you that you're always working, whether it's big projects, small projects, good ones, sometimes maybe not-so-good ones?" asked Cowan.

"It's what I believe in," said Cage. "I believe in work. I'm a working dog. I'm at my best when I'm working."

It seemed work that he was born to do. His real last name is Coppola -- storied director Francis Ford Coppola is Nick's uncle.

Growing up in Long Beach, though, his family name meant little. A skinny kid, he was bullied by the boys on his school bus, until one day he found that acting just might save him.

"I put these cowboy boots on," he recalled, "I put these sunglasses on, I put chewing gum in my mouth and my older brother's leather jacket, and I went on the bus with all this attitude. And they said, 'You're Nicki Coppola.' And I'm like, 'No, I'm Roy Wilkinson. I'm his cousin. And I'm gonna kick your ass.'"

It worked. They stopped. "It was just the power of attitude," Cage said. "It was the power of committing to a character, and that was when I was, what, nine? I don't know, I was in the fourth grade."

His father, a comparative literature professor, was fond of movies, too, and took Nicolas to lots of art house films. Disney movies?

"No, I mean, I was watching 'Nosferatu' and 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' at like, five, six. They gave me nightmares, but now I love them."

But it was when he was in high school that he saw a movie that would change his life: "East of Eden," with James Dean.

"You see Dean go through this extraordinary nervous breakdown," Cage said. "And I was in the theater, I was, I was a wreck. Nothing affected me that deeply. I knew then the power of film performance, what you could achieve with film performance. And that's when I said, this is what I'm going to do."

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There's a bronze likeness of James Dean perched high above Hollywood now, where Cage brought us to visit. It's his touchstone in a way -- the face of the man who sent a young Cage to get his first job in a downtown movie theater.

"I sold movie theater tickets, popcorn and Milk Duds," Cage laughed. "And I would walk into the theater and sneak in and watch movies and try to figure out how I could go from the concession stand to the screen. I was just tryin' -- I gotta get there. I gotta get there."

Although he got a small part in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," he kept running into an obstacle: the Coppola name.

"It wasn't so much that it was tough being a Coppola as it was, I'm in an audition, trying to remember my lines for the audition, but all the casting agent wanted to talk about was the wonderful movies my uncle made," Cage recalled. "And by the time it was time for me to do the audition, I'd forgotten all my lines. I couldn't do the audition."

So he changed his screen-name from Coppola to Cage -- taken in part from the comic book character Luke Cage -- and won the next audition he went on, for "Valley Girl."

"That was very liberating," Cage said. "I said, 'You mean, I can do this because of me?' You know, I'm actually able to do this."

Francis Ford Coppola thought so, too, and eventually cast his nephew in "Peggy Sue Got Married."

But Nick had some conditions: "I said, 'Okay, well, if I do it, will you let me do whatever I want?' And he said, 'Yeah. What do you wanna do?' And I said, 'Well, I wanna go pretty far out!' And he goes, 'Well how far out do you wanna go?' I said, 'Well, I wanna talk like Pokey from the Gumby show!'"

And he did.

And it got him noticed.

"It's actually what Cher sort of clued in on," Cage said. "And I still don't understand why! It was amazing!"

Cher found that voice so unique she sought him out for a role in her Oscar-winning movie, "Moonstruck."

"I said, 'Why do you want me to do this movie?'" Cage recalled. "She said, 'Well, you know, I saw you in 'Peggy Sue Got Married' and it was like watching a two-hour train wreck! And I just think you'd be so right for Ronny Cammareri.' I was, 'Wow. Well, okay, I'll do it.'"

Nicolas Cage's "most disgusting horrible memory" from movies
Cage followed that up with "Vampire's Kiss," where he famously ate a live cockroach.

People told him not to do it -- just like they told him not to take the part of a suicidal alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas." But it was the role that gave him something that even his idol James Dean never got -- an Oscar.

"Everybody said the script was too dark to be made, in other places, in Hollywood, and I said, 'Well, I'm never gonna win an Oscar anyway, so let's do it. I don't care.'"

"You just figured you had nothing to lose?" Cowan asked.

"Yeah, so it's like, not wanting to go for an Academy Award is what made that happen, just not even thinking about that."

His personal life was getting attention, too. Cage married actress Patricia Arquette, and then -- briefly -- Lisa Maria Presley. That really got the tabloids talking.

By then he was commanding salaries well into the millions, and he knew how to spend it. His lavish -- some would say eccentric -- lifestyle left him owing the IRS millions in back taxes.

Cowan asked, "How bad of a financial situation did you get into?"

"Let's just say that it's behind me, and I'm in a very good place right now," Cage replied.

He just turned 50, is happily married to Alice Kim now, and has his first grandson on the way . . . along with his new movie (and a half-dozen others waiting in the wings).

The kid who grew up wanting to be in movies has now been in more of them than his fans can count. Some work, some don't, but for Nicolas Cage that's all just part of the ride.

"I am happy with the work that I've been able to do and the people that I've been able to work with, and being able to make some of my creative dreams come true," he said. "It's always about taking chances and staying on the edge. And you might find something really creative and really exciting."

For more info:

  • "Joe" (Official site); In theatres and on-demand beginning April 11
  • Follow "Joe" on Twitter and Facebook

To watch a trailer for "Joe" click on the video player below.