Interview: Nicolas Cage Talks Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Olreans

Nicolas Cage hasn't had a good month. Besides the financial troubles, his father passed away. The press day for The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, directed by legend Werner Herzog, came about a week after that tragedy, and Cage shuffled in looking rather zombie-like. My own father, a Vietnam vet, would've called it the "thousand-yard stare." In other words, Cage should not have been there; his heart was so clearly somewhere else, and it hurt watching him do his best to promote a movie he believed in. His publicists were adamant no questions about his personal life were to be asked, but he did speak at length -- and in Nic Cage fashion -- eccentrically about Bad Lieutenant (a loose sequel to the 1992 Abel Ferrara cult classic that Harvey Keitel starred in) and his professional life as an actor. Behold the awesome craziness that is Nic Cage...

Cole Haddon: So how would you describe your character, Terence McDonagh (a detective in the New Orleans police department, with a crooked back, several drug addictions, and a hooker-girlfriend)? He's definitely ... well, interesting is an understatement, right?

Nicolas Cage: He just is. I don't judge him, or think of him as bad or good. It's more existential. Not a part of any religious program, which is what I think separates [this] mostly from the other [Bad Lieutenant]. It just is.

CH: Can you talk about how you developed the character? He's probably your wildest creation in some time.

NC: I was in Australia when I got the script. The strangest thing is that, in Australia, they still use cocaine to clear your sinuses, and I had a massive sinus infection. I was trying to understand how to recall something from 100 years in my past, and I couldn't get it, and then they sent me to the doctor, and he put this cocaine solution in my nose. Then I came out, and just started taking notes, and I noticed that my mouth was getting really dry, and I was feeling very invincible. Then I started doing the scenes, and improvising the scenes, and coming up with ideas, and swallowing a lot. Then I was graphing it in the script, finding scenes where he was doing coke, and figured out how to behave, to start swallowing a lot, or do a lot of lip smacking. Or scenes where he'd be doing heroin, and I figured he'd be very itchy, and there's going to be nodding, and he's going be much slower. The problem is, I didn't know when Werner was going to cut the scene with me taking the heroin, or the scene with me taking the coke, so we'd have to regraph the whole direction of the performance.

CH: You've described the role of McDonagh as being Impressionistic, while you described your Leaving Las Vegas role as being photorealistic. Can you talk about this approach to acting?

NC: A lot of people like to say things like "over-the-top," but you can't say that about other art forms, such as a Picasso, or a Van Gogh. Why can't it be the same with acting? In Leaving Las Vegas, I had a couple of drinks. I wanted to. I had prescribed scenes where I decided I would get drunk, and anything goes. And I'm glad I did it. But with Bad Lieutenant, I say that this is Impressionistic because I was totally sober, and I was looking at a landscape from over 20 years ago, and I wasn't sure I could do it. It was a challenge. But I believed that the filter of my instrument would give you something more exciting because it was Impressionistic.

CH: You're one of the few leading men who moves freely between indie and big-budget Hollywood movies. Are there any differences to your approach between the two?

Nic Cage in Bad LieutenantNC: I've been blessed to be able to be eclectic, and I am thankful for that. As I got older, with my work, I became aware of the responsibility of film, and I feel one of the best ways I can apply myself as an actor is to go beyond movie stardom and celebrity. These movies, these so-called "popcorn movies," or "family movies," actually provide something quite beautiful and something quite necessary -- which is a family bonding experience. So God bless the popcorn film. Especially movies where you can take the kids, because I remember looking forward to seeing these movies with my parents, and if I can give that back, I'm going to do it. I don't care if people have criticism for it or not, I think it's a good thing. And I still have interest in the midnight audience. I want to make movies for my roots, the people who like to go see Bad Lieutenant at midnight, or Vampire's Kiss, or Bringing Out The Dead, or Wild At Heart, so I'm going to keep doing a little bit of everything.

CH: You were instrumental in placing this Bad Lieutenant in New Orleans. What is it about the Big Easy that led you to press Werner Herzog to shoot there?

NC: I felt that I had to go through a catharsis, that I had to face my fears. New Orleans is a very potent city in my life for various reasons. It's a combination of different energies -- African, French, English, Spanish, and there's a lot of magic there, and I've had a lot of experiences there, and I wanted to go back there and confront it. I knew that I would channel that energy, and it could either be a disaster, or be something beautiful. So I was up for the challenge.

CH: That energy definitely showed up in your performance. Did you enjoy letting loose like you did?

NC: I just felt I was in the zone, and came prepared, and did what I had to do. I thank Werner for letting me go. I didn't need to be pushed, I didn't need to be pulled, I just came in, and did what I needed to do, and I thank Werner for having the guts to let me do it.

CH: At this point in your career, I imagine you have the freedom to just do what you want to do. What do you look for in roles these days, and are you satisfied with continuing to play dark characters?

NC: I do have a personal code that I try to apply. I may be alone in this, but I do sense the power of film in that movies have the ability to literally change people's minds. That's pretty powerful stuff when you consider that. So I try to be responsible with what I want to project, in terms of who's going to go see it, particularly when it pertains to children, which is a priority of mine. So I am trying to go way from too much killing, and gratuitous violence, and things like that. And if I do play a character like that, I have to understand why he's like that, how he got there, to be that way. And then it's just the matter of figuring out whether there's some truth in it. Is there any way I can play the part truthfully? Can I give you something new, or unusual that has a bit of truth?

CH: And what validates the work for you these days?

NC: I don't need anybody to tell me anything, really. I just feel it. It's a zone thing. It's hard to describe these things, because they're pretty abstract. If you can imagine like there's a solid piece of wax in the center of your heart, and there's a little needle that's pressing through the wax, and it gets out to the other side. Then you know you've hit it. That's what it feels like.

[No, I have no idea what that last answer means. Then again, I'm not an actor. If you do, please offer up some guesses].