Nicolas Cage has seen almost all of the memes inspired by his over four-decade-long career as one of Hollywood’s most distinct on-screen presences. He hasn’t always loved having to coexist with larger-than-life Nic Cage™ dwelling in people’s minds. But at 60, the actor has made a certain kind of peace with his status as a cinematic living legend.
That peace, and Cage’s willingness to lean into his memeification, is what’s ultimately led to his recent metatextual turn in films like Lionsgate’s action satire The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and A24’s new black comedy Dream Scenario from director Kristoffer Borgli. Though Dream Scenario transforms Cage into a simpering shadow of himself physically, the film’s story about an ordinary man who becomes a global sensation when he starts appearing in people’s dreams plays like a rumination on Cage’s own relationship with stardom.
When I spoke with Cage recently, he said that while his goal is always to tap into some essential truth about the characters he portrays, with Dream Scenario, he saw an opportunity to give viewers more insight into his headspace in all of its nuanced complexity.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
It might be bad form, but I have to ask you: what have you been dreaming about lately?
Lately, not so much, thankfully. I haven’t had many dreams. But prior to that experience of not dreaming, some of my dreams were a bit violent, which I didn’t like, so I’m glad I’m not having them right now.
Fair enough. Watching Dream Scenario, there’s this really fascinating focus on how people get swept up in the phenomenon rather than reflecting on the actual substance or root causes of their dreams. And in a lot of ways, it felt like a pointed bit of commentary about the current state of popular film discourse. What did you want people walking away from Dream Scenario reflecting on?
I wanted Dream Scenario to provide a performance experience where people felt that they were in on a secret with me — something personal. My own personal life experience was channeled through the vessel of Paul Matthews. His appearance… you know, he looks very different than myself, and his voice sounds very different from my own, and the way he moves is so distinct. But nonetheless, I was trying to build a personal connection with this character that was informed by my own frustrations, stimulations, and confusions with what happened to me as a film actor who had become memeified, which is not what I signed up for when I became a screen actor.
It came with the advent of viral mashups and things like that, but there was no reference point for this stuff back when I was first starting. So, I would like to think that when they see this apology video where I really mean it—
Paul’s apology in the film, you mean?
Yeah. In that moment, I’m thinking about what my own reaction to something like “Nic Cage Losing His Shit” might be, and my hope is that the audience will come away from the picture feeling like they’ve experienced a deeply personal performance.
There’s a knowing kind of self-awareness about the Nic Cage brand to Dream Scenario and some of your other recent films that makes them feel like they’re in direct conversation with your memeification. Has inhabiting characters like Paul been cathartic for you?
If it wasn’t for the memes, I may not have stayed in the conversation. Something struck a nerve, and that’s energy, and there’s a way to work with that energy. Dream Scenario, specifically, was cathartic because I was able to channel my response to becoming a meme through Paul Matthews and what he was going through with his dreamification. I would not have been able to play Paul Matthews as authentically as I think I have if I had not gone through that experience, I don’t think.
You’ve been so candid lately about your relationship to fame and the difficulty of having to coexist with the Nicolas Cage who lives in people’s minds. Do you ever worry about that earnestness backfiring?
I don’t think about it in terms of backfiring. I just think about it as life, and this is honest, you know? I’m not seeing any of this as a complaint. This just is. It’s as simple as that. It’s something that I adjusted to, and now it’s something that I’ve made friends with.
But there’s another side of the conversation about my memeification, which is that it kept me in the conversation. The zeitgeist, if you will. It led to things like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Pig. I think that my frustration with it all was that in the beginning, people weren’t getting Act One and Act Two. They were consuming the moment of crisis, and that’s what started going viral. It was meant for laughs, or what have you, which is fine. But there’s still a reason why the character got there.
What do you think makes people gravitate toward these decontextualized snippets?
If I had to really break it down, I think that what they’re picking up on is that I have chosen to explore the fringes of film performance and what can be done with film performance as an art. I’ve chosen not to just get stuck in the 1970s naturalism style that has become the arbiter of good acting, and the sort of object of obsession people have in mind when they say, “This is what good acting looks like.”
That’s not always the case, though.
No, there’s more to acting. Silent film acting techniques can still be applied, the gestures and the facial expressions. You can find ways to make that work within modern filmmaking, which I think I have, or even Golden Age acting like [James] Cagney with “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” — I’m channeling that as Castor Troy in the Face/Off prison scene.
We all want to behave and be good members of society, but we also all have that id, and we all have that want to scream or just shout and chant the alphabet sometimes. I think that people can get off on these scenes vicariously by cherrypicking meltdowns. The one distinction I do want to make is that there’s a difference between ham acting — which in my view, is mugging for the camera to steal a scene selfishly — and exploring a style to try to move what can be done with film performance in different directions and genres. There’s a difference. With my performances, these were all very thought-out, choreographed, planned expressions.
I read Isaac Butler’s piece in The New Yorker today — well, maximalism isn’t all I do. I mean, if you look very carefully at the filmography, there’s minimalism in Pig and Joe and Birdy and The Weather Man. But it’s just that it seems as if the maximalist performances are the ones that really struck a nerve with internet culture. Those are the ones that people kind of got something out of. But that’s not all I can do. Maximalism is that which is loud, okay?
That’s one part of it, yeah.
When I first heard a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, it sounded like a wall of noise. But then I got hooked, and I went and listened to it again and again. I discovered all the nuance within that noise. There’s just as much nuance in a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo as there is in a Chopin nocturne. Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean it has more nuance, you know? But you have to be willing to listen to what is also loud to appreciate that.
What is it that you think makes people so disinclined to do that kind of close reading with your body of work?
I don’t really know, except it — that thing, that way of engaging with my work — exists. I’m not talking about everybody, obviously. There are many people in film commentary that respond well to the minimalist performances. But the internet has a propensity to reduce performances and movies to a kind of punchline, and that’s relatively new. That’s the other thing that came out of the Butler article, which he wasn’t wrong about.
And again, this isn’t me complaining. It’s all something that I’ve had to adjust to. I just think that the more operatic, baroque performance styles that I’ve played with speak to people more, and in a sense, may have eclipsed the quietude of some of the roles that I’ve done like Pig or Joe.
You’ve spoken about wanting to keep a healthy distance from the public, both for your own sanity and for the sake of that old Hollywood magic that came by way of stars really guarding their privacy. I think people get that stance coming from Nicolas Cage, the actor and filmmaker. But you’re also a passionate film lover and consumer, and I wanted to ask what kind of relationship you think the public should be trying to have with, I suppose, capital-C Celebrity?
I don’t think I’m trying to stay away from the public. That’s not what it really is. I’m happy to take every picture and sign every autograph. As a romantic, I have a respect and appreciation of the charm of the old-world movie stars from the Golden Age before the advent of tweets and social media. The reason why I’m staying off all that is because I think, in some small way, that’s as close as I can get to keeping that enigmatic mystery that those old stars all have. That’s not to say I’m not going to go on a talk show or do an interview with you. I am. But it is to say that there’s a limit to how much I want to do with these new developments in social media.
You were talking earlier about how your memeification strips out the first and second acts that contextualize and inform the moments that everybody ends up fixating on. They’re different things, obviously, but has your experience with that kind of decontextualization from your work shaped your stance on things like artificial intelligence in films?
I haven’t thought about it yet in quite those terms. But that sure could happen. Someone could AI your likeness and create their own memes not even cherrypicked from a movie. They could create a meme out of the raw appropriation of your likeness. That’s terrifying. Whoever is going to be in charge of my estate when I leave — hopefully in a long time — is going to make sure that there are controls put in place that they can’t do that.
But this is here. It’s staying, and we have to find ways to work with it and evolve with it. I’m sure there’s some version of it that we can coexist with if we’re invited to collaborate on what they want to do with a character.
Let’s say you design a character and then they put it in a computer and they run with it. I scratched the surface of that with Dead by Daylight. I was drawn and animated, but it was me — that was my voice, and I think that’s important. The thing that I’m most concerned about is I don’t know where the heart goes.
I think there is an aura and a soul to a performance, whether it’s acting or singing, and it’s in the eyes and you can feel it. I don’t know if they can get there with AI, and that to me would be very compressed and sterile. But if they want to animate me, use my voice, put it in the computer, and then I have some say in what the scenes might be like, then maybe there’s a conversation there.
Right in this current moment, given how open you’ve been about your feelings about fame and social media and your stance on AI, how accurate a read on Nic Cage do you think the public has?
You said “backfire” before, and again, I don’t think about it in those terms. But let’s say it did. I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I’m going to be 60 next month, and I’ve pretty much said what I’ve had to say with cinema. I’ve done a lot of movies, and I’ve tried every different genre except for maybe a musical.
But I’m okay with saying adios. I think I’ve done enough and made my contribution, and I wish I could say adios on Dream Scenario because I love this movie so much, and I want to go out with a bang. I can’t just yet, but I’m okay changing formats. I don’t have to keep making movies. I can try Broadway. I can try television.