Being alone in a room with Nicolas Cage was, to say the least, surreal. Not because of his star power, nor for any lifelong adulation that I may have had for him. No, it stems from the fact that, somewhere along the line, my subconscious started to believe that Nic Cage is a fictional character. It's as if I'd been assigned to interview Snoopy. But there he was, in the flesh. I had expected to find a man with his guard held high, perhaps saying a lot but, in the process, saying nothing. What I found was a man who was reserved -- that's for sure -- but at the same time strikingly revealing, considering our short time together.
In "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," Cage once again plays Johnny Blaze, as he did in the first "Ghost Rider" film. What makes the sequel interesting is that, well, it's not a sequel. The events of the first film never happened in the second film -- though Cage still plays the doomed title character who has an evil-hunting demon inside of him, transforming him at times into the Ghost Rider. Over the course of our interview, Cage discussed what it's like to play a character that urinates fire, why his career is like Led Zeppelin, how he almost wound up in "Dumb and Dumber," and why "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was a terrible experience that led him to change his last name.
At least this isn't on camera.
Is it not on camera? Let's get out of these lights. These lights are obnoxious. OK, now, let's talk.
That is better.
This "Ghost Rider" movie is technically a reboot, not a sequel. So, what didn't you like about the first movie that you wanted to change with this one?
It's not a sequel. And you're leading the witness a little bit, because I did like "Ghost Rider." I did.
I didn't mean that you didn't like the entire first movie, but what did you want to change from the first movie?
Well, what you said was, "What didn't I like about the first one?" And the truth is, I liked the first one. I feel that I achieved what I wanted with Mark Steven Johnson in "Ghost Rider." I wanted to create a kind of Walt Disney, Faust tale that you can take the whole family to. But, with "Spirit of Vengeance," it was very important to [directors] Neveldine and Taylor that we really augment the horror aspect of the character. And I think in this movie, the people that want to see an edgy Ghost Rider and an edgy John Blaze will get what they want. There's a cynicism and an irony and a sarcasm to Blaze, after living with the curse for eight years, that has taken a toll on his state of mind. And, also, Neveldine and Taylor invited me to play the Ghost Rider himself in this film, which I hadn't done before.
Was that fun?
It does look a lot different than what we saw in the first film.
Yeah, and there's very little CGI.
It's just the face, right?
It's just the face and some heat on the jacket. But you can see that all of the actors are really there. And that gives it kind of a rawness and a visceral quality that Neveldine and Taylor's movies have.
So in the first one, did you feel left out when the Ghost Rider was on screen?
Yeah. I wanted to be a part of it. And I wanted to use my body language to convey, hopefully, an aura that you could look at and not really understand. I wanted him to have kind of a ancient dignity, but, also, a movement like an animal.
My dad owned some "Ghost Rider" comics, which I read when I was six years old -- they were scary at that age. How old were you when you first read "Ghost Rider"?
Well, "Ghost Rider" came out in 1972. And I had the first issue and I was eight. And it really blew my thought process because I couldn't get my head around how something that terrifying, who was using the forces of evil, could also be good. I'm looking at this flaming skull on a bike and it was like a philosophical awakening for an eight-year-old because it's so complicated.
There's a scene in this movie where the Ghost Rider urinates flames.
Was that your doing?
No, I had nothing to do with it. That was Neveldine and Taylor. And I knew, having seen their work, that they were capable of going into a pop-art, lowbrow spectrum -- all the way to the sublime. Kind of like a Robert Williams painting. And I knew there was going to be some moment in this movie that would have that signature, I just didn't know what form. And then when I read the script, I thought, Oh, boy. Here we go. This is it. Really, man? I'm really going to be peeing fire in a movie? Am I really going to have the guts to go on record with that? And then I said, "Well, it's a Neveldine and Taylor movie and I have to be a part of the club." And I just did it.
There's a similar theme to "Superman II" in this movie, with Ghost Rider giving up his powers. Did that thought cross your mind?
I didn't make that comparison, but I did wonder, "Do we really want to see Blaze lose his powers?" I was always a little nervous about that.
Because I didn't want him to seem castrated in any way. I wanted him to stay strong and powerful. But the movie works, also, because he gives it up and ... well, I don't want to give too much away.
Would you trade these two "Ghost Rider" movies for that chance to play Superman that almost happened?
No. No. Look, I would love to work with Tim Burton. I think we would be very good together. And I think he knew it at the time and so did I. But we were both the victims of a very unfortunate studio bureaucracy. So it didn't work out. But I'm not upset about it, because I do genuinely think that Ghost Rider is a better match for me. And I think Ghost Rider had more of an effect on me, even as a child. I didn't read "Superman" comics. That wasn't my hero of choice. I liked the monsters. I'm enthusiastic about the character of Superman simply because of what he represents in terms of the American invention that is comic books -- that has changed the world, literally. Without Action Comics No. 1, it never would have happened. He is the beginning. Without Superman, there would be no Ghost Rider. But the comic that affected me was Ghost Rider, because I liked the monsters and I felt sorry for the Hulk and the Ghost Rider. And I was much more of a Marvel enthusiast than a DC enthusiast.
I love the scene in "Peggy Sue Got Married" when you're on stage singing with Jim Carrey.
That's a surreal scene now, knowing where both of your careers went.
Yeah, yeah ...
You two should do a movie together.
You know, we don't really speak so much anymore. We used to be very close.
I didn't know that.
Not that there's anything wrong. We just fell out of conversation -- who knows why?
So when you look back at that scene ...
Well, we talked at length about trying to do a movie together. In fact, he wanted me to be in "Dumb and Dumber" with him. And then I wanted to do a much smaller movie instead called "Leaving Las Vegas."
That worked out well for you.
Yeah. So that didn't happen, but I've always admired his abilities.
You mention "Leaving Las Vegas." Is winning another Oscar important to you? Or is it now more, "Well, I did that. Now I just do what I'm going to do"?
It's not important to me. In fact, I think that if you go about making movies to win Oscars, you're really going about it the wrong way. I think that it's ... right now, what I'm excited about is trying to create a [pauses] kind of a cultural understanding through my muse that is part of the zeitgeist that isn't motivated by vanity or magazine covers or awards. It's more, not countercultural, but counter-critical. I would like to find a way to embrace what Led Zeppelin did, in filmmaking.
That's an interesting way to put it.
Do you know what I mean? They did no press, you know?
And "Stairway to Heaven" wasn't even a single.
Yeah! And they were the biggest band in the world and they remained intimately mysterious -- because they just went about it their own way, or against what the advice might have been or what the council might have been. And I admire that. And I would like to tap into more exploration of horror films and just everything that I shouldn't be doing, according to representation.
One of your first roles was in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Was that a good experience?
No. It was a terrible experience.
Yeah. Terrible. Because I must have auditioned for the Judge Reinhold part 10 or 11 times. I was underage, so I couldn't get it because I couldn't work as many hours. And I was surrounded by actors, whose names I won't mention, who were not very open to the idea of a young guy named "Coppola" being an actor. So that movie was instrumental in me changing my name because of the kind of unfortunate responses to my last name.
So they held that against you?
Yeah. They would congregate outside my trailer and say things, like quoting lines from "Apocalypse Now," and it made it very hard for me to believe in myself. So it wasn't until I auditioned for "Valley Girl" -- where Martha Coolidge did not know who I was. I had already changed my name to Cage and I had this weight come off my body and I went, "Wow, I really can do this." And I felt liberated by that experience. And you can see it in "Valley Girl" that I'm free. Whereas in "Fast Times," or even "Rumble Fish," I'm somewhat stuck.
Well, regardless of what they said, I feel things worked out for you.
[Laughs] Well, thank you.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter