Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Nic Cage's Method: Nouveau Shamanic Explained

(For anyone ever confused by Nic Cage, looking for explanations. 
For anyone obsessed with Nic Cage wanting to know more about his method. 
For anyone who can read in English or use Google Translate). 

Nouveau Shamanic : Nicolas Cage’s Method Evolution

Nicolas Cage, a once prestigious actor whose name today is generally followed by a sigh. More often than not, Cage has been considered a bad actor with his portrayals of characters garnering a cold calculated criticism and movies that quickly find their way to DVD. In 2007, he was nominated for a Razzie for three separate movies (he lost). His most recent film Drive Angry 3D (2011), featured Cage as a man who has escaped from the gates of hell intent on rescuing his dead daughter’s child from the clutches of a sinister minister of darkness while driving a 1969 Charger. His career has suffered greatly, and recently his personal life has followed suit. He was arrested for domestic abuse and disturbing the peace as well as being under suspicion for child abuse. Cage has also faced many financial problems, he owes the IRS over 14 million dollars. His reputation has been severely damaged again after it took many years to overcome the assumed nepotism because he was Francis Coppola’s nephew.
Cage was once said, “If it wasn’t for acting I probably wouldn’t have been able to channel it [my temper]. I would probably be in jail” (Blue 6). The quote holds true; his acting has slipped so too has his personal life. In times like these, it is easy to forget that Cage has been nominated for an Oscar twice and won in 1996 for his portrayal of an alcoholic who decides to drink himself to death.
In February 2011, Cage admitted to have been working under his own acting Method in an interview with the time I got around to Vampire’s Kiss and then Bad Lieutenant and now this movie, Drive Angry and then also Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, I had realized that I’d developed my own style and process and school of acting which is called Nouveau Shamanic. That’s the new style of acting and at some point I’ll have to write a book.” With Cage it is often hard to tell, but shamanic mostly likely refers to shamans, who go in to trance like states for their spiritual work and deal with supernatural elements. Their work however, lacks scientific evidence to support it. Cage has roughly done the same with his career, the method he has does not always produced real results, but sometimes Cage’s school of acting can surprise a viewer with its depth and detail. Like many great acting teachers, such as Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis, this particular method may not be teachable or in this case used by anyone but its originator. By tracing Cage’s career, the main elements of Noveau Shamanic can parsed out and how his career has fluctuated, as has his method of performance.
            Nicolas Kim Coppola was born on January 7th, 1964 and grew up near Long Beach, California. His father, August, was a professor at Cal State Long Beach University, while his mother Joy, was a ballet dancer, who suffered from severe bouts of depression. It is largely his relationship with his parents that affected his theories of acting and his internal life, however his mother deserves most of the credit. Joy Coppola would claim to Nic’s father that Robert Mitchum was the boy’s biological father, which his father vehemently held against him. His mother underwent electro-shock treatments for her condition and in Cage’s opinion her erratic behavior allowed him to gain insight into emotion as an actor that he may not have had without it. Cage’s development as an actor took place inside a surreal environment, which he thanked his mother for because she was “just naturally kind of surreal” (Thompson 28).  As a child, when his mother and father were fighting Cage would slip into his alternate reality of comic books and assume the identity of these characters. Later he would totally assume a character’s identity when he changed his name to match his hero’s Lucas Cage. Cage’s roles throughout the years have almost always involved surreal elements, whether it is his conscious choice to overact or the offbeat roles he plays, there is always a sense of unreality that complicates his acting. It is here, that the method of Noveau Shamanic has its humble origins.
Cage developed the hunger to be an actor from an early age. A childhood experience cemented in Cage’s mind that he wanted to be an actor when he was being repeatedly bullied. In order to combat this growing problem, he concocted a plan to disguise himself and pretend as if he were his older cousin to threaten the bully. To Cage’s own surprise it worked. He learned a lesson that would influence the rest of his life: he could play a believable character and the mystical powers that actors had at their fingertips.
As he started on his career path to becoming an actor it was obvious that he had lots of emotion and creativity at his disposal, but would he give it a structure? At Beverly Hills High School, Cage took drama classes and study briefly at the Lee Strasburg School of Acting, however this lasted less than a year from 1979-80. That summer he took a course at the American Conservatory Theater in character development and then was off to Hollywood winning the role of a surfer on The Best of Times followed up with a bit role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). The lack of structuring his acting Method by missing out on the detailed work at Strasberg’s studio, later reveals itself to be a problem for the actor and one of the major problems of his Noveau Shamanic.
Nevertheless, his career began to take off when Uncle Francis called him to audition for The Outsiders (1983). To prepare for the audition Cage locked himself in a room for 14 days to simply drink beer and stare at a picture of Charles Bronson. He felt it would put him in a mindset to play a juvenile delinquent. This is Cage’s first noted strange preparation for a film character. Instead of simply playing, something by all accounts that he already was, Cage complicates the process. He does not observe actual delinquents, but instead puts his faith in an ideal image of toughness from the period. The image he is basing his character on is in fact another character, which another actor created. Cage would constantly go back to modeling character off of other actors, which appears to be a consistent mode in Noveau Shamanic. He would play his character in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990) as Elvis and his character in Kick-Ass (2010) as Adam West’s version of Batman, and using Jimmy Stewart as a model for It Could Happen to You (1994).
Cage explained his imitation of Elvis, “At that time it was taboo to use imitation. In the book An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski, it says that the worst thing an actor can do is to copy another performer… I would take the icon of Elvis the way Warhol would and try to put something on top of it and filter it in some way.” It is one of the clear ways in which Cage distinguishes himself from the Method of others. It also harkens back to the surreal quality of Cage’s performances because not only is he basing characters on pop culture icons, but he also twists them in his own way to fit the film.
 Despite his conjuring of Charles Bronson, Cage was not cast in The Outsiders, but he managed to secure a role in Coppola’s similar film about youth angst Rumble Fish (1983). It was around this time that Nic changed his last name to Cage to dispel the persistence rumors of nepotism landing him his roles and to honor his favorite superhero Luke Cage. On changing his name: “As Nic Cage the first audition I did was the best audition I’d ever had.” The idea of becoming someone else had always held a place in Nic’s heart and now he finally was someone else, an actor. The evisceration of self also permeates Noveau Shamanic. Cage always tries to create a character in which he becomes someone else unlike such actors like Denzel Washington who essentially always play Denzel Washington. He took advice from Elia Kazan on the subject who told him to keep the public guessing and Cage loved the idea of “creating someone new and living with them for awhile” (Robb 83). Within this, Cage throughout his career has continually changed his voice because he never felt his voice had any weight. He attempts to eliminate his sensibilities from the character. Strangely, in 2011, he has been self-destructing in his personal life, which has pushed his Method into uncharted territory.
            In his newfound name, Cage’s tendencies for eccentric performances increased tenfold. In Valley Girl  (1983), he played Randy, a goofball with a certain amount of charm. In an offbeat move that soon became synonymous with his preparations, Cage shaved his chest hair into a V to look like Superman. At the time, he was in awe of method actors like De Niro, but his preparation in his early days of acting was based on elaborate back-stories he created for his characters rather than the script’s formation. Cage notes that he was trying to create a “mythology” around himself just as his heroes had in their creations. This aligns with the idea of the creation of an image of Nic Cage the actor, which at times in his life he seems to be just another role he is playing. In this period, he desired the iconic status and the cult of personality with his preparations. Later on he reflected on his crazy preparations for roles, “That’s the problem young actors have. I’m too old for that. That way lies…madness” (Robb 77). But those words are from a more mature and older Nicolas Cage, after his role in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) as Charlie Bodel, that truly established his zany antics in preparation.
            A rumor surrounds Coppola’s film that Cage again locked himself in a room and stared at a picture of Edvard Munch’s Scream for hours on end to prepare for the role. Cage denies this, but the rumor does illuminate a certain point that people believed that Cage might have been preparing this way for the role. Perhaps this choice would have made more sense for a darker role, but not a light comedy set in the 1960s that was described as a female version of Back to the Future (1985). The choices that Cage definitively made are off kilter as well. He modeled his character’s voice on Pokey from Gumby, to show how his adolescent character’s voice had not morphed into adulthood and a Jerry Lewis-esque Professor Kelp over the top quality in his general demeanor. He added oversized buckteeth and a pompadour as well. His co-star Kathleen Turner did not welcome the characterization and demanded that Cage be fired from the film. It also strained his relationship with Uncle Francis who would no not offer him a role in The Godfather Part III (1990).  
 Jim Carrey, who had a minor role in the film and later became a good friend of Cage’s, said, “Everybody in my life has whispered in my ear at one point, “He has a lot of talent, but what the fuck is he doing?” (Thompson 73). And so went the reviews of the performance, the critique Cage remembers most was “a wart on an otherwise beautiful film” (Thompson 76). Cage did not mind the reviews, as a 22 year-old he believed: “I thought I could change acting, which isn’t really a goal anymore. But at the time I was headstrong” (Thompson 72). Cage had displayed his ability quite well in the melodramatic Vietnam film Birdy (1984), which he had teeth removed so he could experience the pain of his character. Yet, he showed a relatively normal and controlled performance for him. The zaniness he had unveiled in Peggy Sue had to be contained and structured, which had not happened in his acting education. It was up to two brothers as offbeat as Cage to attempt to set boundaries for him in Raising Arizona (1987).
            While Uncle Francis indulged Cage during Peggy Sue, the Coen Brothers had a much tighter hold around Cage and knew the exact type of character they wanted for   H.I. McDunnough. Cage hung his character on another cartoon character, this time it was Woody Woodpecker. This choice finally made sense since the Coens fashioned their movie after cartoons in their cinematography and depiction of violence. Cage had many other ideas for improvisation and character development, but most of th times the Coens strongly rejected his notions. Not surprisingly, the young Cage was slightly miffed at the Brothers, “I learned how difficult it is for them to accept another artists’ vision.  They have an autocratic nature” (Thompson 87). Yet the leash they held paid off, and the film led to some of the best reviews of Cage’s burgeoning career and limited the damage from the undying criticism from Peggy Sue.
The structure that the Coens provided their star had been absent in his acting. He had spent a year in the structured system of Strasberg, but left. Then with Uncle Francis, known for his own indulgences, was allowed to run wild. The Jim Carrey quote held true, the talent was there it just had to be focused and this focusing would lead to his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas (1995). Yet before this role, Cage returned to his old habits of leaving nothing in the form of subtly.
            The film Vampire’s Kiss (1988) was fresh off of Cage’s first blockbuster film Moonstruck (1987) and it appeared that Cage was about to become a leading man in Hollywood. However, Cage does not like the public or anyone for that matter to know what he will do next, which is only one of the reasons Cage chose the film. The determining factor has to do with Cage’s relationship with the supernatural. Before signing on for the film, Cage received a letter addressed to the former owner of his home named Peter Laslow. Nic thought the name was eerily similar to the character he would be playing Peter Loew in the film. As he said, “That’s another one of those little tears in the envelope of space and time that I don’t know how to deal with, and I am not going to address too much” (Robb 70). Strange occurrences and actions are what guide Cage’s method to acting, his lofty ideas for brilliance often land in shambles around him.
In the case of Vampire’s Kiss results in perhaps the strangest onscreen example of Cage’s Noveau Shamanic. Cage’s character is a “blood-sucking” literary agent who is bitten by a woman and then believes he is turning into a vampire. Cage once again changed his voice, this time to sound like Katherine Hepburn and based his movements on Max Shreck’s Nosferatu. Within the film where his creative ideas were not confined in the least by his director, he created the most infamous scene in his career: eating a cockroach.
Originally in the script, he was supposed to eat raw eggs, but Cage felt this did not represent a deep enough transformation from his character into a vampire, instead he chose to eat a night crawler. If the decision seems strange it only gets stranger because Nic Cage is terrified of bugs, “It was psychologically murder. I didn’t eat anything for three days. I had difficulty sleeping. I rinsed my mouth out with 100% proof vodka before and after. I was a nightmare” (Robb 72). Cage completely disregarded his own sensibilities for a moment that was not even in the script. The Noveau Shamanic Method relies on killing parts of yourself for the role, Cage disregarded his own fears, not just his voice, for the good of the character. And the choice paid off again, the infamous New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote: “He does some of the way-out stuff that you love actors in silent movies for doing and he makes it work with sound. This daring kid starts over the top and just keeps going” (Thompson 109). Cage again received good reviews, but this time for his unadulterated creativity.
The eating of the cockroach may also divulge another secret of Noveau Shamanic. Cage wants to create a visceral reaction in most of his roles or his actions. It is moments like these in his films that take the viewer outside the film and simply see a man eating a cockroach and be disgusted by it. Cage’s over the top quality also plays into this because it reminds the audience in a self-reflexive way that they are watching an actor on film and not the real thing. It speaks to performance. Yes Cage is really eating a bug, but he’s doing it in a completely fake set of circumstances, but the act of munching on a cockroach is so “real” that it produces a visceral reaction in the viewer. The lines of reality are always blurred in a Cage performance. This surreal quality is very similar to the way a shaman speaks from the material world to a spiritual world just as Cage speaks between the spaces of film and reality.
Cage was completely devoted to his Method in Vampire’s Kiss, however after he had a child he began to change his mind. In Kiss of Death (1995), Nicolas Cage devoted himself to becoming a violent, menacing sociopath by enduring intense physical training to star opposite David Caruso. He later began to worry about the affect it was having on him and his newly born son Weston. According to Cage, “I just thought, I don’t want to go there any more. I didn’t want to go to that shitty little corner of my mind where I could actually see myself contemplating this behavior” (Thompson 36). However, as his relationship with Kristen Zang spiraled out of his control, he threw himself back into his Method in a deeper emotional way than in previous films, which foreshadows his present descent.
            Leaving Las Vegas was a pet project for Nicolas Cage, it was on a shoestring budget and his agent advised him to pass. Cage plays a man who decides to drink himself to death and in the process meets the love of his life. Cage’s preparation was in direct line with his character, he filmed himself getting drunk so that he could understand the process and how he sounded when he became intoxicated. However, his usual odd interpretations were still present.
In one scene, Cage was seated in the apartment when Elizabeth Shue’s character walked in and Cage improvised, “I feel like the kling-klang king of the rom-ram room.” Director Peter Figgis yelled to Cage, “Good luck with the improvisation” to which Nic responded, “Oh, OK, I’ll do a real straight one for ya, then.” Figgis realized that Cage remained sensitive to the fact that people thought he was wacky. Yet as Figgis noted, “his performance isn’t that. It was all hard work. Nothing in it was arbitrary” (Thompson 146).  Cage also improvised a song during the sex scene, which Figgis believed made the sex scene great. It was also of note that he was extremely detailed arguing with Figgis that Ben would drive a BMW and what he would wear. He also lost all of the muscle bulk for Kiss of Death by eating cheeseburgers. For his performance, Cage won the Academy Award for Best Actor and in his speech he mentioned that he was shocked for once his tastes matched those of the Hollywood and the critics. This was the height of Cage’s critical praise and since it has been difficult for him to corral even a descent review.
            Cage’s career was on the upswing, he landed roles in the blockbusters The Rock (1996), Face-Off (1997), and Con Air (1997). However, Cage has always had a hard time not spending his money feeling that he never wants to be comfortable that he wants to be a starving artist to keep his motivation in tact. His career began to take a dive not only critically, but also with the success of his films. His projects have become stranger as his life has begun to spiral out of control, but without roles to truly excavate for character like Drive Angry 3D, Cage has become more obsessed with his method of acting. In his interview with, he creates an elaborate back-story for a character that otherwise is relatively flat like the movie. One of the final scenes in the film, involves Cage drinking out of a man’s skull, who he has just killed:
 Believe it or not, I was reading a lot of Walt Whitman at the time — our poet laureate, Leaves of Grass — and somewhere in Leaves of Grass Whitman just says in a stanza ‘drinking mead from a skull.’ I thought to myself, ‘I like that. I would like to find a way to drink beer from a skull in this movie.’ And the reason being partly because I wanted Milton to have this kind of Celtic and Wotanic kind of modern primitive style about him. And also I wanted to see if there could be any way in my presentation of the skull; I put a lot of thought into that, even did a few takes of it almost like a beer commercial to find a way to make the beer slosh out of the eye in such a way that my cup runneth over and have it look really inviting and appetizing and make people in the audience go, ‘Wow, I know it sounds crazy, but I’d really kind of like to drink beer from someone’s skull right now.

The rambling of the actor highlight his dedication to the role, but also a crazier version of the Nicolas Cage that played the characters that shocked audiences almost 30 years earlier. It appears to be a degeneration exceeding that of Brando, especially when he describes why he took the role in Drive Angry 3D. In the film of the same year Season of the Witch (2011), the producers would not allow his character to get shot through the eye with a bow and arrow. Drive Angry 3D allowed not only for Cage to lose the eye, but also regenerate it through supernatural means. Cage’s method, which involves the elaborate back story has allowed him to give characters depth that would not have them otherwise, however the critics have been unconvinced of his success. However, instead of focusing on emotional depth as he did in Leaving Las Vegas, he has dwelled into a philosophical depth that only seems to make sense to him.
            Cage’s success with Noveau Shamanic has been at once brilliant and highly unsuccessful. Cage has his own method because he does not truly fit into others; his preparation is as strange as his characters, however most of the time the exercises he goes through only distantly relate to his portrayals. Cage’s method has only been revealed recently, perhaps because the actor has been going through the toughest time of his career and is trying to understand his life. And yet despite all of his craziness, Cage remains a creative force, a misunderstood artist, who perhaps understands himself least of all.

1 comment:

  1. Entertaining and informative article! The last sentence was perfect close to it