Nicolas Cage is unmistakable. In any role he brings his entire self — every weird, strange, bizarre facet of his personality surfaces in nearly every character. But now he’s up for a new challenge… being himself.
In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Cage sat down to chat about his new film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a self-reflexive, fully ironic spy-action film where Cage is playing himself. Or, at least a version of himself. A heightened, just-off-centre version of Nicolas Cage. He brings all his infamy, all his over-the-top acting, and all the absurdity that we’ve come to know and love from his films. But — at least the trailer suggests as much; the film has its premiere at South by Southwest this weekend before opening wide in April — he also brings nuance. He brings a concerned understanding of his place in Hollywood, and the way that movies have intimately shaped his personality and the ways that people view him.
There’s something delightful about actors playing themselves. Being John Malkovich, featuring John Malkovich as an unintentional host body, took a body-swapping sci-fi film and created a satirical evisceration of how we, as a culture, view the bodily autonomy of celebrities. In a sense, we are allowed to own them, we are expected to connect with them, as if they’re our friends, as if they’re someone we know. Another example of an actor playing a sideways version of themselves can be found in Episodes, wherein Matt LeBlanc is shown as inexpertly navigating work in Hollywood post-Friends after being cast in an American remake of a hit British show. This series dives into how actors navigate the ordeals of being known, the way that fame can often create absurdity inherently, and the ways that the people who make media can often find themselves remaking themselves in their art over and over again.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent looks at these dramatic offerings and, much like its star, appears to take it to an unbelievable extreme. In the trailer we see Cage confronting a wax replica of himself holding the golden guns from Face/Off. He constantly references his movies — he is an overextended, out-of-sorts actor trying to hold onto his idea of normal.
In the THR interview, it’s clear that Cage, the actor, is much more reflective than the version we see on screen. He knows he’s being made fun of, but he’s in on the joke. Sometimes, he’s actually writing them — apparently, he was the one who came up with the most memorable line (“Not the bees!”) in The Wicker Man: “That wasn’t in the script. I was sending that up.”
This is a man who not only knows exactly what he’s doing, but is making it happen. He understands that his online persona, even his presence, is so far outside of his control that he can’t even bother trying. He’s been memed thousands of times, and he knows it. He’s in on every single joke made about him, because contrary to some people who might deride his performances as ludicrous, you don’t become a 40-year industry veteran without knowing a few tricks. Cage’s trick is convincing everyone that he has no idea how absurd he is, when in fact, the exact opposite is true.
Nicolas Cage is a Oscar-winning actor (for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas) who more recently won intense acclaim for Pig, who delivered a performance in Mandy that shocked critics, and who was the star of Bringing Out the Dead, acting under Martin Scorsese’s direction. He has the ability to bring measured intensity to any role; it’s how he chooses to use his talent that makes him brilliant. But there is a version of Cage that he has to contend with, the younger version of himself. No, not “Nicky,” an imaginary alter-ego who will pop up in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, but rather the emerging Nicolas Cage in 1990. Cage says, “Look at my appearance on the Wogan show in England when I was promoting Wild at Heart. That guy was an obnoxious, irreverent, arrogant madman. That’s the young version of me that I think that I would be confronting as the contemporary Nick Cage.”
Ultimately, the interview reveals a softer side to Cage than the personality that is often forced upon him courtesy of some of his action film roles, not to mention the assumptions of his ability based on his early work when he was still pushing the boundaries of what he could get away with. Here is an actor who is able to be objective without living in the past, who is able to see his impact and his imperfections, and has decided that the only thing to do is keep working, to keep changing how people think about him, making every audience sit on the edge of their seats as they try to figure out what Cage is going to do next. He’s not precious with his films. “I never had a career, I only have work,” he says.
The Massive Weight of Unbearable Talent is Nicolas Cage taking on Nicolas Cage. And while it might not be Face/Off 2, it sure looks like it will come close.