'Mandy' Star Nicolas Cage On Channeling Bruce Lee And Jason Voorhees For His Craziest Role Yet [Interview]

If ever there was a match made in heaven, it's filmmaker Panos Cosmatos and actor Nicolas Cage. The artful duo's boundary-pushing sensibilities coalesce beautifully in Cosmatos' thrillingly imaginative horror movie, Mandy, which stars Cage as lumberjack Red Miller, who goes on a tripe blood-soaked journey for revenge. The Academy Award-winner has made remarkable and almost otherworldly transformations throughout his career, and his epic animal-like presence in Mandy's Heavy Metal-esque environments is no exception.

While Cosmatos' revenge tale is sometimes like an acid trip gone wrong in Hell with its nightmarish and lush imagery, the hypnotic aesthetic is made all the more transfixing by the visceral emotions from Cage and co-star Andrea RiseboroughMandy has its share of great fight scenes, including a next-level battle involving chainsaws and a demon, but a crucial reason why the movie is so impactful is the palpable sense of loss. There's one scene in particular where Cage lets out pure rage and pain that hits like a ton of bricks, which the actor recently told us about filming.

Below, read what Cage had to say about that particularly dramatic scene, studying Bruce Lee and silent films, his punk rock performances, and the most important question of all, "What would Prince do?"

Originally, you were offered the role of Jeremiah Sand, but what was it that drew you to Red Miller instead?

When I first met with Panos, he told me he wanted me to play Jeremiah Sand, and I said, "Why?" And he said, "Well, I see him as the California Klaus Kinski." And I said, "Well, I am the California Klaus Kinski, but I want to play Red." And he said, "This is a movie about age versus youth." At the time I was doing Army Of One, so I had long white hair and a long white beard, and I looked like I was full Gandalf mode, or Saturn mode or something, Chronos. And it just didn't connect. But I did have a very fascinating conversation with him, and he was talking about how he remembered seeing his figurines, action figure toys melting, whether by some sort of heat, the sun or something. I thought this is not like a conversation I've had with anybody, and I can tell that there's something humanly artistic.

I'd seen Beyond A Black Rainbow, which I thought was profoundly affecting and I didn't sleep for a week after it. It was unlike anything I'd seen before, so I knew I was in the presence of an original artist. But nonetheless, I did not want to play Jeremiah Sand. I felt that I had gone through enough life experience. Not that I can't work from the imagination, I normally do, but I had enough life experience contending the failure of my third marriage and still trying to recover from the loss of my father after many, many years. Still not quite over it. As I look at these footnotes here from the talking points that coincide with Panos himself, having had experiences with loss, certainly family loss, I was in step with that.

I felt I could play Red authentically and organically and put those feelings of loss in a productive place as opposed to a destructive place, and a constructive place. And so, that's why I gravitated towards Red. I just felt that I could go after the cult and the demon bikers in a way that was in his world, but had some sort of sound of truth.

Red Miller isn't as stylized as some of your punk rock performances, but because of the style of the movie and where the character goes, do you still consider Red Miller a punk rock performance of yours? 

I certainly think maybe more of a metal sound, or a darker metal sound, if we had to make a comparison. But I do think that there is a sound that comes up when I'm fighting. I always enjoy watching Bruce Lee, and I loved his wonderful catlike sounds that he would make. Even since I did Con Air, I found there's like a growl, or almost like a combination of a high pitched scream with a low based growl that seems to be my sound when I fight. I would say that, that would go more towards a metal vocalization than a punk vocalization.

You've talked before about sometimes wanting to bring a musical quality for dialogue and a melody. Even though he's not a big talker, for Red Miller, was there a melody you wanted his dialogue to have at any point?

In that particular portrayal, I wasn't really thinking about the music as much, not at least in terms of dialogue, because I didn't have a lot of dialogue. I was thinking more about the music within. The word person actually means where the sound comes from. Persona means where the sound comes from. I guess it's Ancient Greek, but I was really more focused on the internal, if you will, opera that I was listening to.

Note: The next part of the answer sounds better than it reads, so we wanted to share this excerpt from the conversation with Cage breaking down a line delivery and showing how he wanted the melody to sound:

I wasn't hearing the melody in terms of dialogue quite as much, although I would say that the fight sequences did have some melody. There was one line after the demon rips my shirt, and I say, "That was my favorite shirt. Did you rip my shirt? Did you rip my shirt?" That was clearly a melody in my head for that line, yeah. "Did you rip my shirt? Did you rip my shirt?" They wanted me to change it from a question to a statement. And for me, it wasn't a statement. It was a question, but it was a question that was an assault of a question, so that it was a statement. But I was reminding her that you did in fact rip my shirt by asking him or her the question.

Maybe this is a stretch, but I've heard you talk before about how much you love silent film, and how you studied it. Since Red Miller is often silent, so did your studies of silent movies influence you at all? 

It certainly has influenced me in the past, when I was cutting my teeth on movies like Vampire's Kiss, where I was looking at Nosferatu or Fritz Lang's Metropolis for Moonstruck, where I like that kind of German Expressionistic larger than life gesture, but not so much with Red. I actually think Red is one of my more subtle portrayals. I was going more from the emotional content. Trying to go into the well of memory and conjure up something more along those lines, as opposed to some sort of stylization, which I have been known to do in the past.

However, I would say that the fighting style for Red transforms quite a bit prior to him drinking the skull juice, which is a kind of a supernatural drug. Red is a much more ferocious, almost catlike fighter. I even looked at a Bruce Lee shot from Enter The Dragon and showed it to the cinematographer as well as to Panos, where the camera goes from a wide shot into an extreme close up of Bruce breaking somebody's neck, and I said, "That's a great shot. Let's try and get that." I'm happy to say that something approaching that made it into the movie. But then after the skull juice, Panos wanted me to look at Jason [Voorhees] movies.

There was one in particular [Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood]. The number, I don't remember, but he was contending with supernatural telekinesis in a young lady, and Jason was fighting. So, he wanted a style of fighting more like a monolith or statuesque, which I immediately thought of as the golem. Not the Gollum from Lord of the Rings, but the ancient Jewish golem, that was a statue that a sorcerer would bring to life to wreak havoc. And so, that was a collaborative transformation that Panos and I designed together.

Mandy - Nicolas CageI interviewed Panos recently, and he said it's the mistakes to him that are sometimes the most beautiful parts of a movie. Do you feel the same way? Is it sometimes the mistakes that make for your best work?

I certainly think that there are happy accidents that can occur on set, and usually, when that happens I refer to it as the messiness of reality. And sometimes those accidents really make it into the movie. But for me, the joy is really when you have a target and you hit out an idea of where you can go, and you want to hit that target, and then you do. That's a kind of blissful moment of afterward I go home, and I say, thank you. And those moments don't always happen, but when they do, I would say that is the best feeling.

I mean, it's gonna sound very ontological and abstract, but it's like if your body ... if you had a chest made of wax, and there was a pin, a needle of sorts, and it was behind the wax. And it's pushing its way through with its very sharp tip, and it makes it all the way through and comes out to the other side, and the feeling of release, and blissfulness, and peace that you, although exhausted, arrive at. And you feel spent, but joyful.

That's great. When Red Miller loses it in the bathroom, it's heart-wrenching. Was there anything you did before filming to prepare for that scene?

It's a very hard thing to describe with words. It has more to do with memory and sound, and kind of like a trance really, where I know where I have to go. And I'll surf emotion throughout the day leading up to the moment of action, just to see if it's there. Is it at my fingertips, is it in my throat, is it in my eyes? And bring it back, bring it back. On other movies, I've written notes to myself and put them in my pocket, and the moment of action out comes the note, and then I'll put it back in and there we go.

But in that particular instance, I don't know what I was thinking about or recalling, but it is not unlike going into some sort of other dimension and trying to pull up something from a well that's tucked away or buried in the earth somewhere. And the earth happens to be my body, and my whatever it is. It's like memories or imagination. And they all sort of coalesce in such a way where when Panos says action, there we are. It's full throttle. But until that point, I'm just sort of preparing, getting it to percolate and getting ready. I think we did that scene in one or two takes at most, as I recall anyhow. But being in a trance of sorts, I don't really know what happened. It was just something that was let out of the gate.

Are there any other movies you've had similar experiences on? 

I think if you look at a movie I made called Joe that David Gordon Green directed, I had a scene in a bar where I had to get into a bar brawl. I couldn't find it in the internal well to get me there, the feelings of anger and the feelings of grief. So, sometimes I'll go outside of the well, and I'll look at current events. And I had read a story that week, or around that time about a little kid that fell into a pit of wild dogs, painted dogs, at a zoo somewhere. And he got eaten alive, and I think he was two or three, and I was just shocked and appalled.

I even think I talk about it in the movie. I think it came out. It stoked the fires of the emotion so that when I played the scene I just put that all on Ricky Blevins, his character. It just was kind of similar in the sense of here we go. I mean, it's conjured up, and it's out of the gate now.

Throughout your career with projects like Mandy, you clearly stay true to your interests. Having a career where you get to do that for as long as you have, how important is it surrounding yourself with the right people creatively on the same page?

Yeah, it absolutely is [important]. I mean, we all need to have creative people to surround ourselves with and to feel support. And when you don't have that, you cave in, and you do not feel liberated as a performer, or an artist of any sort. You need people around you, who are willing to support your drumbeat no matter how different it may be, and on some level, get it. For me, a big influence was Prince. Sometimes when I'm in moments of uncertainty, I'll ask myself, "What would Prince do? Would he wear those glasses?"

He stuck to his guns when he was a kid. Warner Bros. gave him a contract that he could do everything in the world, and he said, no, because he had to produce all the music. I mean, what balls. But at the same time, I'm sure he had people around him who gave him faith in himself, and without that it's a pretty long row to hoe, and it's pretty lonely.


Mandy opens in limited release on September 14.