HOLLYWOOD — You're a hard-drinking, hard-living stunt motorcyclist who years ago made a deal with the devil, and ever since you've been riding around town catching demons on his behalf. You're Ghost Rider, a supernatural skeleton with a flaming skull for a head, an antihero borne of fire, and hate, and ultimate damnation. You're a rebel with a cause — a spirit of vengeance. And you listen to Karen Carpenter?
You do if you're played by Nic Cage, an actor who's made a career out of unusual and offbeat acting choices, a man who once wanted to play Superman with "giant, black samurai hair."
"It was important to me that [Johnny Blaze/ Ghost Rider] wasn't a badass, because to me that was a guy inviting the devil in. I thought that if the devil really was trying to get you, you would do everything you could to push him away," Cage said, rejecting previous incarnations of the character (see "Nic Cage, Eva Mendes, Fiery Skull Make 'Ghost Rider' The 'Coolest Marvel Movie' "). "I've got him drinking jelly beans out of a martini glass. He listens to Karen Carpenter because he's trying to relax. He likes chimpanzees."
Forget films like "Batman Begins" and "X-Men," which prized comic realism. Cage says the character shift is indicative of a change of tone that harkens back to "B monster movies with Vincent Price."
"One of my favorite tonalities is horror and comedy. I wanted to see if we could get that or aspire to some sense of that," Cage explained. "The character is absurd, it's an absurd situation. You can't take it too seriously, and that's why I wanted to make sure that we were playful."
The character's new playfulness was recently on display at a special screening of "Ghost Rider" footage at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where scenes showing Blaze's transformation were projected on the wall of a giant mausoleum.
"I was going for it — 'Oh, there's bugs on my face! I'm screaming, ahhh!' And I would look at playback on the monitor with [director] Mark Steven Johnson and be like, 'Yes! Monster movie, monster movie!' " Cage said, describing his motivation for the scene. "That's the movie I wanted to make, a movie that 8-year-olds can get excited about the way they used to about Vincent Price."
It's a style, Cage said, that suggests "operatic" extremes.
"I wanted to get back to wide-eyed excitement, ecstatic pain. I wanted there to be a moment or two where it seemed like he was enjoying it, like he was having more fun than anybody else in the world," Cage said. "[The transformation] is really scary and awful, but it feels really good because it's so powerful. I wanted that kind of energy."
"Ghost Rider" is Cage's first comic book film — which might surprise some, given that he's been attached to star as Superman, Constantine and the Green Goblin from "Spiderman."
"It was time for a character like this rather than Superman. I think this is more appropriate for me," Cage said. "It's not the standard superhero, it doesn't follow any of the traditional rules. I couldn't understand how something so terrible could also be good, and it appealed to me."
Also among the differences between "Ghost Rider" and heroes like Superman, of course, is that the former's comic books aren't as well-known, a fact that didn't escape Cage while he was reinventing the character.
"[Because] the character is not as well-known as Spiderman or Superman, it liberated me to bring a little of my own twist to it — to introduce the character outside of the hard-core fans," Cage asserted. "I wanted to open it up for mainstream audiences as well and give them something they could enjoy — something funny and scary."
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