Interview: Nicolas Cage digs deep about ‘Pig,’ his favorite and most underrated of his own movies, and the role he’d love to play
For over forty years, Nicolas Cage has given us one of the most diverse filmographies of all time. While being one of cinemas greatest action heroes with hits like The Rock, Gone in 60 Seconds, Con Air and Face Off, Cage also excels in prestige dramas about complex, emotionally rich characters in films like Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won the Oscar), Matchstick Men, Adaptation, and Joe. He can make you fall in love with him in films like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, while discovering and protecting historical American secrets. Basically, the man can do anything and knock it out of the park, thus makes him one of, if not, the best actor of his generation.
But with his latest film, Pig, Cage takes his range and dramatic work to a whole new level as Rob, a reclusive chef who must confront his past after his beloved truffle hunting pig is kidnapped. Written and directed by Michael Sarnoski, and co-starring Alex Wolff and Adam Arkin, Cage is stunning in this film. When I reviewed Pig back July, I stated that “it’s not just one of the best performances of the year so far, but how it is the best work he has ever done,” and after seeing the film again, that statement firmly holds up. This sentiment was fleshed out a month later in an FYC piece for Cage to get a nomination for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars, noting that what the legendary actor was doing in this part was “an astonishing achievement” and that he delivers “a bloody, broken, delicious showcase that lingers well beyond the briskly efficient 92-minute runtime.”
After writing about this performance all year long, it only seemed fitting to go to the source and sit down to ask the actor about his incredible, career defining work in this movie. In the interview below, I spoke with Cage about his time making Pig, the bonds with Sarnoski and Wolff that grew on and off set, the lessons he learned in playing a chef, and his love of cinema. At the end, we concluded our chat with some interesting rapid-fire questions with answers lifelong fan of his movies have always wanted to know, as well as take a look at what he has coming in the not too distant future.
The audio version of this interview runs 24m 32s.
Ryan McQuade: Well, thank you for sitting down with me today, Mr. Cage. It’s a real honor to speak with you today.
Nicolas Cage: Well, thanks, Ryan. Call me Nic.
RM: Yes, sir. Yes, Nic. You stated in previous interviews that you chose Pig because you wanted to do a smaller, subtle performance. Why was that?
NC: It was more of a return to performances that I had previously explored in movies like Joe or Birdy. I had gone on a bit of a tear for a while, exploring what I thought I could do with the boundaries or the limitations of film performance, and I had this philosophy, if you will, that what you could do in one art form, you might be able to do in another, and why not try it? Why not try something surrealistic or operatic or abstract or impressionistic in film performance? It was more experimental. A lot of it was very satisfying and very rewarding for me and my personal dreams about what I wanted to examine with film performance, but I had done that, and I felt that I had developed enough life experience, memories, dreams, where I could return to a more naturalistic, quiet style. That was what I was looking for when I said that to my agent and they sent me the script, Pig, which was like kismet, because right away, I knew that I had these memories and experiences and observations that I could play this part in that style, if you will, that format of quietude and naturalism.
RM: Yeah, no, for sure, and it shows in the film. I think what’s great about it, too, is you’re working with a first-time director here, and you’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors in your career, what was it about Michael here that clicked with you before the production?
NC: With Michael, we met for about an hour and there was just a flow to the conversation. Sometimes when you’ve been doing it for long enough, you can develop almost like a second sight to the person that you’re communicating with, like you can tell, “Is this going to be something that’s going to be chaotic? Or is this going to be something that’s going to be unpredictable? Or is this going to be something that’s just going to flow and be almost effortless?” With Michael, when I sat down with him, the conversation was very brief, but we were having some food together. In the movie, as you know, food plays a large part in it, and we were sharing our interests in, “Oh, did you try the shishito peppers? What did you think of the …?” and this comradery of interest in that, which is culinary.
Then also, I said, “I had this remarkable dream the night before about my cat and something had happened to him,” and then I started thinking about Rob and what he was going through with this beloved pig, and I know that was just odd. Now, obviously, this is an incident that happens to Rob that is a layer on top of a layer that has another well of grief that seems to emerge as we go along in the movie. But it just was remarkable to me that I had that dream the night before. To me, it seemed, again, almost like a kismet that this was happening.
Then that carried through on the set. We didn’t do more than two takes it. We didn’t really have a lot of discussion about where to go with the character. It just seemed to be in the blueprint that was the screenplay by Vanessa and Michael and that carried through. If anything, the only direction I really got from Michael was “slower” or “faster.” That was about it.
RM: No, no, that’s fantastic. Tell me a bit about working with Brandy, who plays your prized truffle pig in the film. How was she as a co-star? She’s such a big part of this film.
NC: Well, she wasn’t interested in acting, I can tell you that. I would not describe her as an actor. She was in interested in eating, like one might imagine with a pig, and she wanted to get paid, and so I felt a little bad for her because she was thrown into this world, she was not a trained pig, thrown into this world of working with these strange people. But I found ways of helping her by getting, like I would get close with her and be on the ground with her, and I would maybe speak softly to her and give her a carrot, and she knew she was safe with me, so that was good, and she also knew she would get paid with me, so that was also good, so I would give her what she really wanted, and that helped. But being that she wasn’t trained, it was at times difficult for the crew.
RM: Speaking of a great relationship you have as your other co-star, which is Alex Wolff, who’s fantastic alongside you in this movie.
NC: He’s superb, yeah.
RM: I actually spoke with him recently, and when we were talking, he told me that you are essentially “his spiritual guide” as a person. I just want to ask you what it’s like working with him and that bond that you guys have created since the film’s been shot and now released?
NC: Well, see, I’ve always viewed myself as a student. I would never say, “Oh, I’m a master.” I am a student. In that, I mean the idea is to keep learning and to keep looking and discovering. One of the things that really excites me, if you have that mindset, is working with younger actors. Alex was somebody who I was very familiar with because I’d seen the remarkable work he had done in Hereditary and when I first met him, I said, “I know who you are,” meaning you’re as good as it gets, you’re an actor that is as good as it gets.
For me, the exchange was also I also knew that his dad, who I’d met years ago on The Arsenio Hall Show, was a fantastic jazz composer. One of the styles that I like to play with in the collection of styles is jazz. The idea of jazz is you riff off the other musician and you support each other. You throw out a melody and then the other musician throws out a melody and then you bring it together and then you play with it and then you put an umbrella on it, whatever it may be.
With Alex, I was able to say, “Well, what do you think of this?” and he would try something, and he would do something really extreme and I would be like, “Awesome, let’s do that again,” and so that was the exchange. If I had an idea and I wasn’t sure about, I would ask him. I don’t know. I mean, that’s very nice that he would say I’m a spiritual guide in the sense that the spirit, meaning that which we feel and that which motivates and inspires and lifts us and that that was the relationship we had for both of us, not just for him, but also for me. I am happy to consider him my friend and that he’s someone I can talk to. I think one of the great ways to look at life is what Epicurus said, which is Ataraxia, which is that “To have a peaceful life is to surround yourself with people who are friends that you can talk to,” that that is one of the ways to happiness.
RM: Yeah, no, and I mean, he had nothing but glowing things to say. He called you his favorite actor and you could just feel the energy, like when you’re speaking there, and when I was speaking with him, just how much you guys have this bond, and it is on screen. In the film, Rob states he remembers everyone and everything he’s cooked, and it causes reflection into the impact of his craft. Was there a past performance or experience that helped you when you were making Pig?
NC: One of my own performances or …?
RM: It could be. It could be one of your own, it could be something else that you tapped into that got you into the mind space of Rob.
NC: I think one of the great natural screen performers in my estimation, who I think when you watch this person on camera, I don’t see any acting, it just feels like this person is being, and it’s a kind of brutal realism, and that person is Martin… (Loud noise chimes in the background) … Sorry. That’s my cuckoo clock. (Laughs)
RM: It’s okay. (Laughs)
NC: I guess, yeah, it’s 11:00. (laughs) That person is Martin Sheen. There are film actors that have that level when they’re really in the zone where you don’t see the acting, it just seems like they are so emotionally informed. (Gene) Hackman is another one in The Conversation. Yeah, so I think in that way, in terms of a style, that was a little bit on my mind.
But the thing that’s interesting to me that emerges from this movie is the power of food, the emotional power of food. This isn’t a movie about somebody looking for bloodlust and revenge, this isn’t a John Wick movie, this isn’t a martial arts movie, this is a movie about somebody that he knows that the power of the meal can evoke truth and emotional response and he finally gets his answer at the end as to what happened to his pig through the power of food. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But that is, to me, highly original. I’ve never seen that in another movie. I have not one time seen, and Michael and Vanessa wrote all that.
RM: No, and I agree, because I’ve told a lot of people the premise of this film, and said, “It’s not that,” and they’ve come out of it and they felt something completely different. I think what’s so great about is how authentic it is. It goes back to the preparation that you had for the role. You trained a lot to cook, obviously, to the level that you would hope that Rob is at. Were there any lessons that you learned in that training process that you can carry in your work as an actor moving forward?
NC: In my life, the greatest lesson I learned, and I use it every day, is I remember Chef Rugner was like, “Nic, the claw. You got to use the claw,” meaning because I always take a sharp knife and I cut things and my fingers are always like that and he’s like this. A kitchen is a very dangerous place. I mean, things are going on fire, hot oil, olive oil, whatever it is, but if you slice like that with your fingers like that, you got to have the claw because otherwise you’re going to lose your fingers, so I use that every day.
But there was also another note that I received from one of my teachers, which is about when you hold the food in your hands, the contact with the food, it’s a passionate and it’s a sensual experience, that you have to feel the energy of the ingredients and you’re sort of massaging them as you’re building the mushroom tart with the dough, all of that, so the connection, that was very important with the hands. I think they did a good job photographing that, like the love that was going into the respect for the food itself, for the ingredients, because when you think about it, food is first. I mean, for me, I can’t do anything until I have my breakfast. If I have my breakfast, then I can think, and that includes spiritual things, or whatever it is I want to do, meditate or read a book or watch a movie, and so I respect the food because that comes first for me. I think the movie shows the power of the experience that we all have with food.
RM: Yeah. It’s completely therapeutic, I think.
NC: I think so, yeah.
RM: Speaking of love and respect, this movie is one of the most acclaimed films of the year, your performance is one of the most acclaimed performances the year, so I must ask you, what does it mean to you to be celebrated by many for this film, including the industry you’ve grown up in?
NC: Well, I am deeply thankful. I mean, I think Gary Oldman said, “The sound of applause is never to be ignored, it’s to be appreciated,” and I’m touched, I’m deeply touched that other people in the industry and film enthusiasts, cinephiles got something out of the movie, and the public, the public responded. This was a movie that I think even CNN said it mirrored what we were all feeling coming out of isolation and feelings of quarantine and as Rob is emerging, so even for the audience in the public who don’t make movies, aren’t part of this industry, they responded to it almost like a folk song. I really have Michael and Vanessa to thank for that because they wrote this script and they gave me something that, I mean, this doesn’t happen often, that there is a collision like lightning in a bottle that happens maybe once every, I mean, I’m doing this now 43 years, this is like maybe in that time period twice, and this is one of them.
RM: No, and I think all this praise is also a celebration of your career and everything.
NC: Thank you.
RM: I’ve read a lot about you and you’ve always called yourself a “film enthusiast” in the past. Did that come initially from the legacy of your family or was it more a process of self-discovery?
NC: No, that was definitely the latter, which is, “I want to do that.” Even as a child of three or four, I mean, my memory’s… One thing I’m cursed with is this steel-trap memory. I don’t forget anything. That’s a blessing and a curse, but I can remember being two, three on my living room floor watching television and going, “I don’t want to be around these people. I want to go inside there and be with those people.” That, I think, was my most nebulous and embryonic idea of becoming an actor, specifically a film actor or a television actor, just I wanted to be in that frame. It was so much more interesting to me than the other people in my living room.
Then when I got into the teenage years, I went to the New Beverly Cinema, and I saw a double feature of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. When I saw his breakdown in East of Eden when he was trying to give his father the money he had worked his ass off selling the beans for his birthday and he’s rejected, that emotional breakdown that he went through was the most powerful thing I’d ever seen in terms of the arts, and I grew up watching old movies and going to museums because my dad was a professor, but I knew then that I wanted to do that.
Then we just lost Sidney Poitier. I woke up on my birthday and I just saw on the news he had died, so then I went on a film festival and I watched a marathon of his movies, like The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night, and I mean, the charisma and just the style and the coolness, and then the charm, I mean, these are the kinds of people that inspire me, that keep me wanting to stay in this path of cinema that I’ve chosen.
RM: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ve got just a couple more questions, but I wanted to do something different with you real quick.
RM: For our last moments together, I wanted to do a rapid-fire of some fun or more laid-back questions that I know a lot of people would love to hear from you. First one is, what’s your favorite Nicolas Cage movie?
NC: Vampire’s Kiss.
RM That’s a great one. I love that one.
NC: Thank you. (Smiles)
RM: Mine’s Wild at Heart.
NC: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. David Lynch. Beautiful. Yeah, Laura Dern.
RM: What is the film of yours you wish more people would talk about?
NC: Bringing Out the Dead.
RM: That’s a great one, you and Scorsese. I think of Joe and Knowing. I really liked Knowing and I know a lot of people didn’t.
NC: I love both those movies. Knowing, in particular, was kind of marginalized. Well, Joe in the beginning was getting some attention, it seems though fallen out over time, but that’s a good one. But Knowing, specifically, I think is that’s a good one to select because I think people might enjoy that, especially now.
RM: What character would you want to play again if you got a chance?
NC: Oh. Whew. I don’t know how to answer that because I don’t go back. I’m always looking forward, so I don’t think I’d want to play any of them again.
RM: Which is a character or person that you haven’t played before that you would love to play one day, maybe another fictional character or real-life person?
NC: I’ve always liked the idea of playing Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because my first love was the ocean. I always thought that that would be something I could really express from a place that was honest.
RM: What excites you the most about playing Dracula?
NC: To me, the character of Dracula, and they’re still trying to finalize all that, by the way, but the character of Dracula, to me, was always love in exile, that this was a being that had so much love and that he made the wrong choices and wound up in exile, and I think my uncle did that best with the performance you got from Oldman and his movie. I think that really expressed that when you look at that performance and what he did, Francis.
RM: What is a movie from 2021 that moved you and that you hope everyone checks out besides, obviously, Pig?
NC: I really liked what Kristen Stewart did in Spencer. I liked her performance. I mean, the entire movie, not so much, but what she did, I thought, was emotional for me because, I mean, my mom had some issues, so to me, that was pretty heartbreaking.
RM: Yeah, no, that’s a great performance. Lastly, in your next project, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, you are playing a version of yourself. With that, who is Nicolas Cage?
NC: Nicolas Cage is a student who is on a path in cinema to try to keep learning and finding great characters with which to tell stories with.
RM: Absolutely. That’s fantastic.
NC: But that’s one, then there’s the father, and then there’s the… You know what I mean? There’s others, but in terms of how people whom I don’t know view me, I would say that.
RM: No, that’s great. Sir, I thank you so much for sitting down with me. I love your performance in this movie.
NC: Thank you.
RM: I wish you and your family the best in this new year. Thank you so much for sitting down with me.
NC: I wish it to you as well. Happy New Year to you. Much peace, health, and success to you.
Pig is available to rent or buy wherever you stream movies.