Like many comic fans, the character of ‘Ghost Rider’ has been a favourite of Nicolas Cage for years. It was vital to the actor that, if he were going to play Johnny Blaze, he needed to make a film that his 8-year-old self would’ve begged Ma and Pa to sneak him into.
Cage tells Moviehole that he believes this second “Ghost Rider” movie, “Ghost Rider : The Spirit of Vengeance” delivers on all levels.
We know you’re into comics. Any faves?
Well, I’ve always liked the monsters, I felt bad for The Hulk, or I did when I was a child, I want to make it clear though, to clear up any misperception about my love of comic books, yes I’m loyal to them, like Rosebud in Citizen Kane, I love the influences on my childhood, but I’m not up at four in the morning with a stack of Spider-Man comics and a Green Lantern lantern with milk and cookies [Laughs].
Now you have graphic novels for adults, but Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, The Hulk and Batman the ones that were a little bit scary to look at and had an edge.
So Batman aside you were very much a Marvel guy?
I would say that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had the biggest effect on my childhood, yes.
But you were attached, many years ago, to play the title character in Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives”. Is there any regret in not playing Superman?
No. The only regret that I have is to have not worked with Tim Burton, I hope some day we will work together cause I know it will be special. As for that particular character I have no regrets, I think Ghost Rider is a far better match for me.
Where does playing Ghost Rider rank in terms of your favourite characters to play?
I felt I had more to say with it, Ghost Rider was a character that had an enormous impact on my childhood, I was eight when I discovered the Ghost Rider, infect I had the very first comic and I would stare at that picture, that cover and I couldn’t get my head around how something so terrifying to look at, who was infect using forces of evil could also be considered good. How was this a superhero? So it was like my fist philosophical awakening, here’s a character that’s literally inspired by Girta, this is a Faustian contract. But of course it’s really all just a metaphor, this movie isn’t sanctimonious at all, it’s about pop art, it’s about having fun, it’s about going along for the ride, but in my opinion the ‘deal with the devil’ happens everyday, everyone sells their soul everyday, it’s usually for love, you meet a lady or a gentleman and you think they love you but then you find out that it’s for a green card or money or to make you pay for what their parents did to them, that’s a deal with the devil. So for me that character and the movie is just a metaphor for life, and if you want to compete in this day and age where every other movie is a comic book movie you have to provide an alternative, and Ghost Rider does that.
As opposed to the first flick, you play Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze this time. Was that important to you?
Yes, that was an opportunity to experiment with movement, and with my state of mind to really believe I was this character. It was actually Brian Taylor that had the idea for me to do that, he was a big advocate of that and we were in New Orleans at the time, first thing I said was ‘can I wear a mask?’ so I wouldn’t feel totally ridiculous as I went on set to play this part. But there was also a writer called Brian Bates, who wrote the book ‘The Way of Weird’ and also ‘The Way of the Actor’ in there, he put forth the notion that all actor whether they know it or not come from a long distant past of Medicine Men and Shaman, and what these Shaman would do is go into an altered state of consciousness to try to find answers and collations to give to the village people, and in this day and age these people would be considered as psychotic. When you think about it, it was a way of channeling the imagination to talk with spirits to get answers to the village, so they would wear masks, they would gather objects that had magical properties.
So I thought ‘I’m dealing with a supernatural character, so why don’t I try some of that?’ So I’s paint my face with black and white so it looked like a skull, so it looked like some Afro-caribbean voodoo icon or a New Orleanean voodoo icon by the name of Baron Samedi or Baron Saturday who looks like a skeleton but very finely dressed, he’s the spirit of death but he’s also the spirit that loves children, he’s a very lusty voodoo icon. And I would paint my face and put black contact lenses in my eyes so that it looked more like a skull, and you couldn’t see any pupils or whites of the eyes, I would sew Egyptian artefacts into my costume and got some rocks that had alleged frequencies, and who knows if it works or not, the point is it stimulated my imagination to think I really was this character. I would walk onto set projecting an aura of horror and I would see fear in my co-stars, it was like oxygen to a fire and that led me to believe that I really was this spirit of vengeance. The problem is, if you have a Christmas party in Romania and shooting until two in the morning and you’re invited to the 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 some Romanian prison.
What about your body language? How did you decide to move that way?
I remember Cobra snakes, cause at one point in my neighbourhood I had a couple of them, but my neighbours didn’t like it so I gave them to a Zoo, but I would study these Cobra’s and what they would do is move back and forth in a rhythmic motion and on the back of the snake was the pattern of an eye, like an occult eye, and it would try to hypnotise me and when it felt it had hypnotised me, it would strike. So I thought ‘why don’t the Ghost Rider move like that? With that sort of hypnotic, rhythmic motion?’ And then there was something else I saw in a Trent Reznor video, where he was levitating and revolving in circles, so I said ‘why don’t we have the Ghost Rider levitating and revolving in circles’ we called it “the compass” where he would find his next victim and then attack. So a lot of thought went into it and a lot of imagination and improvisation, sometimes I would talk in what I thought was a Wotanic, Norse dialog or some sort of Enochian angel speak or something, who knows what was coming out of me, but it was a fun experiment.
That wouldn’t have been possible on a mo-cap stage…
Yeah, exactly, what you see is really in camera.
And if getting about moving like that isn’t dangerous enough….did your partner warn you about taking care on that motorcycle!?
No, she loved it, she thought it looked great, she thought it was a very sexy motor cycle and wanted to have a ride on it. The truth is I was blessed to work with the Yamaha Gomez, I’m not a sponsor for Yamaha, I don’t have a contract but I have had my experience on several different motor cycles, and they’re the best because iIf you think of something that you want the bike to do it will happen, so I could go impossibly fast on the motor cycle and tell it to stop safely and it will. And I totally trusted that motor cycle and I never got hurt, now my insurance tells me I can’t ride a motor cycle in my own life, so I have to do it when I’m working. I’m legally unable to ride motor cycles.
Because it’s a contract I have with my life insurance, so whenever I do a movie and I have the opportunity to ride a bike, I go for it.
You said you got in touch with your characters spiritual side in preparation for the movie, did you experience anything inexplicable, anything supernatural while filming?
I’m of the opinion that everything supernatural is in the imagination, and I had wonderful flights of fancy in my imagination whilst playing the Ghost Rider. I can’t say that anything outside of the realm of the natural occurred while filming the movie, no.
What scares you?
I think I will always be fearful of something happening to those I love, I don’t think that ever goes away. As far as what scared me as a child, Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera, I would see promotions on television as a little boy and when he took the mask off, his face really freaked me out. I remember running away from the television to try to avoid that, and of course now I love him for it. What does that say about my psychology? I love Lon Chaney for scaring me like that.
You seem to be drawn to the anti-hero roles, what is it about them that draws you to them and what do you think is in you for people to think you’re right for the role?
Well the anti-hero and probably largely to do with Ghost Rider and that influence and you’re right to point out in my filmography that I’m drawn to characters with an obstacle to overcome, whether it’s inside of them or outside of them, to me that’s drama. That’s the human experience, we all have that, but within that I’m attracted to characters that allow me to realise my most surrealist and abstract dreams. I believe in art synthesis, I think that acting should be no different from painting or music, that 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 that in a movie? But in order to do that as an actor who is only a collaborative effect in a movie, he’s not the director, you have to find characters that provide an engine that makes their behaviour make sense within the context of the movie. I’m attracted to characters like Terence in Bad Lieutenant; he’s high on cocaine, so I can make those sounds and moves, so I can do those crazy things with old ladies and handguns. In Ghost Rider you see my face morph into a skull and there’s pain in that, I can then do things like scraping at the door, scraping at the door and make those notes come to life. I have to look for characters that allow me to realise my abstract dreams in cinema.
You and Idris Elba had a good chemistry on screen, did you get the chance to work with him beforehand or did you just fool around on set?
No, we just hit it off, Idris is someone I consider a friend, we had some good conversations, I admired his film presence, he’s got a larger than life presence that was interesting to me, thank you for noticing, we just had a good connection.
Did you have any say in casting?
No, Mark and Brian did all of that, they have a great appreciation for all things cinema and they really know their movies, they’re the ones who did all the casting, from Christopher Lambert to Ciarán Hinds how brilliant to cast those two. Ciarán in the Rome series to think of him as the devil is very inspired. I was lucky to work with Violante and Johnny Whitworth, and Johnny Whitworth what can I say? He’s Johnny Whitworth, he’s full of surprises.
Brian and Mark tried to get you for ”Crank”, didn’t they?
I never heard about it, but I couldn’t imagine it without Statham in it, that’s his part, and he’s the only one that should be allowed to do that.
There’s a gonzo vibe to those guys, Brian and Mark, was that something that attracted you? Did you see something of yourself in their approach?
Yeah, absolutely, they’re daredevils, they’re literally risking their lives to entertain you. You have Neveldine with a camera in one hand and a motor cycle in the other on roller blades being pulled a long at sixty miles an hour to get a shot and at any moment he could break his neck or jumping off a cliff with a wire and a camera to collide with Idris’ stunt man, they’re the only guys doing it. There are a lot of poetic filmmakers out there, but only Mark and Brian are poetic and risking their lives, it’s like daredevil extreme sports filmmaking, you have to give them credit for that.
A lot of your filmography is rooted in fantasy, and there’s a nice montage in the film of how the devil could have been present in figures throughout history, is there any one in particular that you’d like to play with a bit of the devil in him?
Generally my instinct is to not do biographical movies, I want to build characters and not get locked into a certain part in history, for me, not that I wouldn’t, but I for me what’s interesting is creating that person and introducing you to them, I don’t want to play people that we know per se.
Going back to where you said we all make deals with the devil, looking back at you life have you ever made any?
Yeah, I’ve probably done it more than once, and I mean it metaphorically, which is the only way the devil really exists in my opinion, is in interactions with people who don’t walk the walk and talk the talk, people who act or talk one way and do another, those are the deals with the devil. I don’t see the devil as a horned, goateed guy with a fork in one hand, there to continuously stab me and send my soul to hell, I don’t see it that way.
you obviously do your own stunts in the film. Anything you won’t do?
I feel that I have to jump in when I’m doing a movie with a high level of risk, the odd thing you might notice with all the caffeine here on the table is that it calms me down. Caffeine makes me go the other way, it relaxes me, I can meet all of you and feel comfortable with all of you because I drank a Red Bull. If someone puts a bit of fire on me or asks me to drive extremely fast in a car chase, everything slows down, it gets my mind off of everything else, emotional, whatever baggage and it all goes away. So I like doing stunts. This movie though I knew it would be a whole other level of extremity, their motto is ‘if you broke a bone, that shot is going in the movie’. So it was like ‘ok this is different’ and my way of handling that was ‘give me more!’ with a director who likes to do a lot of takes, I’ll say gimme more, I’m not happy with twenty takes, let’s do forty. It’s my way of physiologically reversing it.
So have you been hurt?
I won’t mention the names of the movies, I’ve had two concussions, and what’s funny is that in American Football they say ‘if you’ve had two concussions, in six months you’re out of the game’ and I did have two concussions in six months on two movies working stunts for the same company but I won’t say which one. Thankfully I’m OK but one of them was ridiculous and should never had happened, where my head where the actor was in his moment and he grabbed my head and he smashed my head into the marble floor, and then I couldn’t speak right for a couple of days, and it was a bit dizzy for me, but I’m OK, it was an unfortunate accident, it wasn’t even a stunt or meant to be a stunt.
There’s a nice reference in the film where you mention the possibility of a bee sting and a child’s face, nice “Wicker Man” reference!
Oh, now I never thought of it that way, but I do have fantasies of doing another Wicker Man, having another go at it, but this time take it to Japan. Get your head around that one! Japan do great ghost stories, so we could do a ghost story about The Wicker Man.
Speaking of spooky, how was it filming in Romania?
The were a lot of wild, not wild but stray dogs everywhere, just running around, and I didn’t know where they came from or where they would go and then I would near them at night and it was impossible not to think of Bram Stoker and The Children of the Night howling at the moon as the dogs were barking. So Romania was a spooky, cool place to make the movie, and the fact that the alleged Vlad Tepes castle was there just added to the charm of that. To ride my motor cycle out there and to be around all those scary energies but beautiful, just stimulated me when making this kind of a movie.
Mark and Brian were obviously fun guys to work with, but tell me which other directors you’ve enjoyed working with?
I think they all had enormous effects on me, but because I started acting at such a young age, I started at fifteen, which makes me a child actor of sorts, I’ve been doing it for thirty three years which is hard to believe at this point but so be it. But because I started so young, I think some of the directors that I worked with at a young age my mind was still impressionable, still learning. So I would say [David] Lynch, [Martha] Coolidge on Valley Girl, yeah those two come to mind.
Do you find 3D a challenge to work with? Are you a fan?
I see 3D as a tool to be used when it suits the character or the story line, it’s not something you should use all the time, it’s just another paint brush to work with, and Ghost Rider is a character that matches well with 3D because the chain can go into the audience, the fire, the motor cycle and I wanted to see that with Spirit of Vengeance.
Idris Elba says you’re a normal, gracious down-to-earth bloke. True? Or is there a little bit of the lunatic we see on screen in there, too?
The thing is, well first off thank you Idris, The thing is I play characters, largely because of what I said earlier about realising my surrealist dreams in film acting but I’m not insane, Damon Macready in Kick-Ass is insane; he’s the one whose forty eight years old and dresses like Batman and goes out to seek vengeance, he’s the one that probably watched a lot of Adam West and tried to talk like him, that’s the character, that isn’t me, I don’t do that in my life, so that’s the idea – I’m attracted to characters that are different, that are flawed and I love them for it, that’s what interests me as a movie goer.
And this one obviously interested you, but you also seemed to be having fun. Is it important to you to have fun?
I think you have to have fun, and that’s going ace to what David Lynch told me, as one of my influences, it’s very important to have fun while making a movie because if you’re not then the audience won’t.
With Ghost Rider, that isn’t meant to be a sanctimonious thing that everyone’s going to forget about, it’s got to be fun, it’s got to make you want to have fun with it. It sounds trite and I probably said too much again, but it is essential.
There seems to be a link in the religious elements between “Ghost Rider” and one of your other pics, “Season of the Witch”. Just a coincidence or are you at a point in your life where religion is something you’re looking into and believing?
I believe that everybody has the right to believe in what they want to believe in, I think to knock anyone’s faith or religion is foolish whatever it may be; Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, as for myself I’m a Seeker, I’m a big believer in science but I do think there is a time when reline and science intersect, and that’s the best way I can answer that.
You started a comic with your son Weston, “Voodoo Child”. Any more on the horizon? Maybe a film version of that one?
Well I don’t want to play any more comic book characters [myself] but Voodoo Child would be great to see as a television series or movie. I’ve tried and tried, and talked to different directors who seem interested and suddenly aren’t interested, so I don’t know where that one will land.