A decade-and-a-half removed from his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage was an actor on a treadmill of ever decreasing returns.
Years and years of cut-rate sci-fi ( Knowing), bargain-basement action ( Bangkok Dangerous, Stolen) and lesser comic book fare ( Ghost Rider I & II) had done a number on his reputation in Hollywood, and among film fans. And the ongoing tabloid attention and tax problems didn’t help.
So on the cusp of turning 50, Cage took a year off.
“He’d done a ton of movies, and was finally stopping for a while to think about that,” director David Gordon Green says.
“I knew I was going to be very selective about what I would do next,” Cage says.
He was. Cage’s comeback — which he won’t call a “comeback” — would be a movie with Green, who is famous for Pineapple Express, but whose career was built on indie films ( All the Real Girls) and whose passion is Southern Gothic cinema ( Undertow). And unlike some in Hollywood, Green is still a fan.
“He’s fascinating to me,” Green says of Cage. “He’s gone off in so many different directions, switched gears so many times in so many different genres, that I loved the idea of creating this role that was unlike anything he’d ever done.”
Green wrote Cage “a sweet-talking letter” with this screenplay adaptation that Green’s college professor had written based on a hard-boiled, Southern-fried Larry Brown novel. Joe, if Cage took the part, would be “unlike anybody I’ve ever played before. In some ways he’s an amalgamation of different sorts of roles I’ve taken on in the past,” Cage says.
A quiet working-class train wreck in rural Texas with a taste for alcohol and a violent streak that shows itself, despite his fervent efforts at restraint, Joe would mash up Cage’s tragic Leaving Las Vegas drunk and his vengeful Drive Angry avenger and put the actor through the ringer.
“He has this Robert Mitchum quality,” says Arkansas-born Green, who spent several years living in North Texas. “That’s who I was thinking of as I read the novel. Something kind of creepy about Joe, something kind of scary. You want that dude to be your friend, because if he was on your bad side, you’d be scared.
“Cage is the only actor I can think of who won an Oscar for drama, has been a leading man in lots of successful comedies and who has really manhandled action scenarios. He has that dramatic quality that heroic leading men have. He’s the only living actor who can say that.”
Cage says he felt an instant connection to the character. What he doesn’t say is that working with Green on an indie film could be a way of hitting his career’s reset button. Green has made a few Hollywood hits ( The Sitter). But his indie credibility is built on such movies as the recent Prince Avalanche or Snow Angels.
“No one can really tell how a movie will come out,” Cage says. “But this, to me, seemed like the best chance to be something special. You look at David’s previous work, his talents and his vision of this South that we never see on the screen, and you figure this is a pretty good bet to make.”
Joe lives in a dump of a house in a corner of East Texas where “dump” is redundant — a place filled with hard country folk battered by hard lives and who are prone to skinning a deer that they “just got” in their ruin of a kitchen, where guns and bourbon and knives are the essentials of life. Joe runs a work crew for a timber company, a pick-up labor force of people who are positioned even lower on the economic ladder than he is. And he drinks.
“I’ve never thought of him as an alcoholic,” Green says. “But I guess he does have a beverage in hand in pretty much every scene.”
A new beginning
It’s hard not to see Cage in this guy — a man with demons, a substance-abusing past, but a man with a strong work ethic and “a code,” kindhearted enough to take a homeless kid onto his crew because the boy needs a break. Joe is a man in search of redemption.
The movie, in limited release and playing the Modern in Fort Worth May 23, and the role are causing critics such as David Rooney ( The Hollywood Reporter) to see Cage’s portrayal as “bone-deep,” with Eric Kohn (Indiewire) suggesting that the film “marks a new beginning for some of its characters … and [its] star.”
“I always want to take negatives and turn them into positives,” Cage says. “Being blessed with this career and this life in the arts has enabled me to channel my dreams and my frustrations, my problems and my bad times, into something positive, I hope, on the screen.”
To him, Joe is “a man who is trying to succeed, and live a life of restraint. But life won’t let him. Life takes its toll. Yeah, something about that resonates with me.”
Cage wanted a part “where I didn’t have to act as much.” Green says Cage told him that Joe was “the character closest to the real him,” and he believes that. Cage’s sense of kindness and the “code” were just like Joe’s.
Cage “knows everybody’s name on the set. We filled the cast with mostly untrained actors, and he was patient and kind and treated them like everybody else — professionals.
“He’s always looking at you, to see himself through your eyes. That’s part of who Joe is, too. This guy is looking, even in the darkest scenes, into your eyes to see if there’s a friend in there.”