"[The original] movie was a result of Judeo-Christian programming. This one is much more existential."
So said Nicolas Cage in the fall of 2008, shortly after wrapping "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," the Werner Herzog-directed reworking of the 1992 original. Even now, we're not entirely sure what Cage meant, but we're willing to go with it because a) that sounds kind of amazing and b) it doesn't seem wise to nitpick the guy.
And honestly, "The Bad Lieutenant" is nothing if not wise and amazing. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a rogue cop with a cornucopia of drug addictions and a twisted sense of moral obligation that keeps him pursuing a murder investigation in post-Katrina New Orleans. Cage has gone dark and jittery on camera before, but never with such manic gusto. It's quite a sight to behold.
To mark the arrival of "Bad Lieutenant" on DVD (out April 6), Cage gave MTV News a call to talk about his history of playing demon-haunted characters, his working relationship with the notoriously loony Herzog, and the movie they tried but failed to make together.
MTV: You've had some dark roles in the past, from "Leaving Las Vegas" to "Face/Off" and beyond, but "Bad Lieutenant" seems like it's taking dark to a whole new level. How does this character compare to those past ones?
Nicolas Cage: Well, if we define the word dark as evil or in some way malicious, I don’t think Terence compares to Castor Troy, because Castor had no problem killing people, whereas Terence seems to have a problem killing people and is even trying to get vengeance for the death of these children at the beginning of this movie. So there is this kind of blurry moral line there, which I think adds to the story and the complexity of "The Bad Lieutenant," so there's that comparison. But in terms of "Leaving Las Vegas," it's interesting to note that they were two completely different approaches. One was an entirely sober approach in regards to "The Bad Lieutenant," and the other one I had a couple of drinks every now and then to stimulate different aspects of the character or get different ideas about the character. So one was more of a method approach and the other more of an impressionistic approach. I'm excited by "The Bad Lieutenant" because I hadn't touched anything or been involved with anything in terms of cocktails for, like, five years just because it's something I wanted to do and was challenged by the idea of how do you play a character that is this depraved and decadent with his substances and be completely sober. So I was excited by the results and hope that it encourages other folks down the road if they want to try something like that, they don't need to actually go there, so to speak.
MTV: If you indulged in drinks for "Vegas" and that worked so well, how do you go totally sober and still find a character who is totally wacked on substances?
Cage: That was the biggest challenge and it required a lot of concentration and imagination. I would use this little vial and fill it with something called inositol, which is like a saccharine crystalline substance. It's completely benign, but just the process of snorting it and then getting some imagination going made me believe that I was there. It actually freaked Werner out because he thought I was completely blasted, which I wasn't, and he would ask me, "What's in the vial?" And I found it frustrating, because it took me out of my preparation when he would do that, because I felt like I had to answer him and then, of course, in the answer you lose the belief that you're that guy. So that was probably my biggest challenge, was keeping Werner from asking too many questions and letting me do my thing. He was totally open to the performance when he would see it in action or he would see dailies. When I would present a concept to him, he might immediately want to shut it down, but when he saw it in action he was very encouraging.
MTV: It's interesting to hear there was that sort of give and take, because the film certainly has a loose, improvisatory feel. How much did you stick to script and how much were you able to bring your own ideas to the set?
Cage: See, Werner doesn’t really know a lot about jazz. He's incredibly knowledgeable about classical music and we had good conversations about that. But being that we were in New Orleans, which is the birthplace of jazz, and being that my own particular approach, when it's at its best — and it's not always achievable — is jazz in terms of the style of acting. And when I say jazz, I mean you know your lines so well that you go off your lines and you improvise and then the people you work with improvise with you and you pick it up and then you rephrase and you form. If you look at the Miles Davis story, it's a really interesting documentary and there are some really good passages about jazz and Herbie Hancock talks about it brilliantly and it's like we were all magicians picking up each other's phrases musically and then Miles would come in and put a lid on it and that's exactly what I was hoping to get to with "The Bad Lieutenant." So when you talk about this improvisational feel to it, you are one hundred percent right, and that to me is when things really start cooking, because nothing is forced and it's flowing and it feels real and electric.
MTV: Is there one example of that give and take on set, that jazz approach to acting?
Cage: Well, like the one scene in the hospital in the old folks home when I accost the two older ladies. I knew where I was going to go with it, but there were also a couple lines that came out like, "I should just kill you right now" and "You are the reason the country is going down the drain" that I don't know where that came from — it just came into the room. Werner loved it. They actually shot that scene twice, because they were afraid me pointing the gun at them was too much or quote-unquote over the top. But I was like, "Come on! Okay I'll do it without the gun, but I really believe that it's much more powerful with it and actually quite oddly funny because it's so extreme." So we shot it again without the gun and I said, "Well, you have tamed me," and Werner said, "No, I've castrated you."
MTV: So you butted heads a bit, but it does seem there's an affection there. Would you characterize your relationship in that way — a creative battle but at end of day a deep respect?
Cage: Yeah, Werner knows I love him as an artist, he knows that there's nothing but respect for him. Do we annoy each other sometimes? Sure. Inevitably, there are things that I'm sure I did that he found annoying and vice versa. But clearly we work well together and had a good experience and it went very smoothly, so I would love to work with him again. I think I'm trying to fit into his own kind of mythology in terms of, I think he likes to create stories about himself and so I try to do that with him, where I'll push it to the limits or try to be his new version of Klaus Kinski and try to generate some stories about us. But the truth is we really work very easily together.
MTV: Have you had any specific conversations about working together again?
Cage: We tried to do something. It didn’t work out. It was called "Fire and Rain," and they went with another filmmaker, who I think is probably more effects driven. But Werner would have been great because he has such an understanding of the cosmos, is what I call it, this kind of poetic universal comprehension of life. We didn’t get to make that picture together. It was a fire, adventure, action picture. I hope that we can find something. He is not like anybody else.