As Nicolas Cage returns with a new comic book film, Graham Young discovers what keeps him hiding from reality.
Six of the last eight best actor Oscar awards have gone to stars playing real people.
The subjects include Wladyslaw Szpilman (The Pianist), Ray Charles (Ray), Truman Capote (Capote), Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland), Harvey Milk (Milk) and George VI (The King’s Speech).
Ever the maverick, the now 48-year-old actor Nicolas Cage isn’t interested in following the trend of worthiness.
Born Nicolas Kim Coppola on January 7, 1964, his new movie Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance is an explosive mixture of ‘fun’, ‘pop art’ and ‘extreme sport’.
A titan of safety-valve escapism for populations weighed down by successive economic maelstroms, Cage is more than happy to be a fully-grown adult creating fantasy worlds.
When he became the then fourth youngest best actor Oscar winner at the age of 32 for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996, his suicidal screenwriter character Ben Sanderson had been based on a book by author John O’Brien who killed himself weeks after signing off the film rights.
After that, who would blame Cage for shunning reality with movies like Spirit of Vengeance, especially as he had already long taken the surname of Marvel comic book superhero Luke Cage to distance himself from the family Coppola name – and ‘Godfather’ uncle Francis Ford Coppola in particular.
At its most basic, the stunt-filled Spirit of Vengeance fantasy action sequel is about a man trying to rid himself of a diabolical curse by saving a young boy from the Devil.
The film also humorously features a montage of notorious figures which cheekily culminates with the picture of a modern TV celebrity.
Surely this is a sign of a chink in his armour, that he’s itching to play a real person who had a bit of the Devil in him?
But no. This Cage has no plans to unlock history.
“Generally my instinct is not to do biographical movies,” he tells me in that instantly familiar drawl of his.
“I want to build characters and not be locked into playing a part in history.
“Not that I wouldn’t, but for me what’s interesting is creating somebody and introducing you to that person. I don’t want to play other people that we know per se.”
As we chat in an upmarket London hotel close to Whitehall, the father of two sons – one by 1980s’ girlfriend Christina Fulton and current third wife Alice Kim – is dressed all in black.
He traces his love of fantasy back to the age of eight when, appropriately enough, Ghost Rider was the first character he bought into.
“I had the very first comic and I would stare at that picture, at that cover and I couldn’t get my head around how something so terrifying to look at, who was in fact using forces of evil, could also be considered good.
“How is this a superhero? It was like my first philosophical awakening!
“I still love the influences of my childhood, but I’m not up at four in the morning with a stack of Spiderman comics and a tray of lemon cookies!”
Today, the former husband of actress Patricia Arquette and Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie can see the bigger picture of how Ghost Rider and other comics were metaphors for other things.
“Ghost Rider 2 isn’t sanctimonious at all,” he says proudly.
“It’s about pop art. It’s about having fun. It’s about going along for the ride with directors who are risking their lives with daredevil, extreme sport filmmaking and you have to give them credit for that.
“In my opinion, everyone sells their soul every day, usually for love or money.
“If you want to compete in this day and age with other comic book films – and every other movie is one – you have to provide an alternative.
“And Ghost Rider does that.”
As well as enjoying the drama of playing an anti-hero struggling to overcome an obstacle, Cage explains how he also likes to search deeper still.
“I’m attracted to characters that allow me to realise my more surrealistic and abstract dreams for film acting,” he says.
“I believe in art synthesis and that acting need be no different than painting or music.
“If you can get very outside the box, or as critics like to call ‘over the top’ in a Francis Bacon painting, why can’t you do it in a movie?
“But in order to do that, as an actor who’s only a collaborative effect in a movie – he’s not the director – you have to find characters that provide an engine that have had that behaviour which makes sense within the context.”
Cage’s examples include Terrence, the off-the-rails cop at the heart of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant (2009).
“He’s high on cocaine, so I can make those sounds and those movies and do crazy things with old ladies and handguns,” he laughs.
“In Ghost Rider, you see my face is morphing into a skull and there’s pain.
“I have to look for characters that allow me to realise my abstract dreams in cinema.”
Such is his love of Ghost Rider, Cage even says to have had the chance to become Superman, as was once mooted by others, would not have been his bag.
“The only regret I have is not having the chance to work with Tim Burton,” says Cage. “I hope, someday, we will work together. I know it would be special.
“But as far as THAT particular character (Superman) goes, I have no regrets. The Ghost Rider is a far better match for me.”
Fearful only of ‘something happening to people I love’, Cage reveals a bizarre range of techniques he tried in order to challenge his fellow Ghost Rider actors.
“I would paint my face with black and white make-up so it would look like a skull, like some sort of Afro-Caribbean voodoo icon or a New Orleanian voodoo icon,” he says, suddenly becoming animated.
“I’d also put black contact lenses in my eyes so it would look more like a skull, and you couldn’t see any pupils or any white in the eyes.
“I would sew some ancient Egyptian artefacts into my costume and get some rocks that had alleged frequencies too.
“Who knows if it works or not, the point is it stimulated my imagination to think I really was this character and I would see fear in the eyes of my co-stars.
“And that lead me to believe I really was this spirit of vengeance.
“The problem is if you have a Christmas party in Romania and you’re shooting until 2am and you’re invited to a Christmas party and some schnapps is involved and you’re still in character, all hell can break loose.
“And it did. I’m lucky I’m not in a Romanian prison.”
The son of the late literature professor August Coppola and choreographer Joy Vogelsang, Cage is part of one of America’s great dynasties.
Not only is he also the cousin of directors Sofia Coppola and Roman Coppola, film producer Gian-Carlo Coppola and actors Robert Carmine and Jason Schwartzman, but his two brothers are director Christopher Coppola and New York radio star Marc “The Cope” Coppola.
Cage’s own career has hit the highest popular spots with everything from Con Air to Kick-Ass, The Rock and National Treasure.
But, like many other stars, there have been significant lows from the general disappointment of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to last year’s Trespass and, from 2006, the bizarre decision to star in a remake of the cult British film, The Wicker Man.
Not a man to give up on his flights of fantasy, Cage reveals how he might be able to have another at reviving the vanity from the bonfire.
“I do have fantasies of doing another Wicker Man,” laughs the man who is arguably the bravest of Hollywood’s A-listers.
“This time I want to take it to Japan... get your head round that one. I’m going to have to rethink all of it (because of the fire).
“In Japan they make great ghost stories so we could do a ghost story out of The Wicker Man!”