Nicolas Cage returns to our screens as Marvel comic anti-hero Johnny Blaze in sequel movie Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance In 3D, released on Friday, February 17. The quirky actor talks about almost ending up in a Romanian prison while filming, scaring his co-stars and mingling with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
By Susan Griffin.
Nicolas Cage wants to make something clear - he's not the crazy man you see in his movies.
"I'm not insane. Damon Macready, my character in Kick-Ass was insane. He's the 48-year-old who dresses up like Batman and tries to seek vengeance," says a tanned and suited Cage of his role in the 2010 film adaptation of the comic book.
"The thing I'm attracted to are characters that allow me to realise my more surrealistic and abstract dreams for film acting," he adds, in American vowels so flat he hardly needs to move his mouth.
"I think acting is no different to painting or music, and if you can get outside the box, or as critics like to say 'over the top' in a Francis Bacon painting, then why not a movie?"
Cage just wants to take on roles that provide an outlet for his imagination, he explains.
"That's why I'm attracted to characters like Terence McDonagh in The Bad Lieutenant. He's high on cocaine, so I can make certain sounds and do crazy things with old ladies and handguns."
And it's also why he was interested in reprising his Marvel comic role of Johnny Blaze, a renowned stunt motorcyclist who in the original 2007 film, Ghost Rider, is tricked into becoming the Devil's henchman, and spending his life seeking out the wicked and dawned to suck out their souls.
In the follow-up movie Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, Blaze has isolated himself in a remote part of Romania, where he hopes to keep his alter ego at bay. However, spirited monk Moreau, played by Luther's Idris Elba, rolls up to ask for his help in saving a young boy from the curse of the devil.
Blaze has to decide whether seeking vengeance for himself and the boy is a worthwhile reason to ignite the Ghost Rider.
"I was eight when I first discovered Ghost Rider and in fact I have the very first comic," says Cage, 48.
"I would stare at the picture of that cover and I couldn't get my head around the fact something so terrifying to look at, and who was using forces of evil, could also be considered good. How was he a superhero? It was my first philosophical awakening."
A renowned comic buff, he feels it important to stress he's not an obsessive.
"I want to make it clear that I'm loyal to my comics - but I'm not up at 4am with a stack of Spiderman comics," he says.
While promoting the first movie in London, Cage had a revelation regarding his character.
"I was dressed in motorcycle pants, leather jacket and motorcycle boots, and went to Westminster Abbey on my lunch break, just on a lark," he recalls.
"I walked into an environmental summit with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, and a bishop from Colorado introduced me to them.
"There I was, dressed as the Ghost Rider with these spiritual leaders and then the Denver bishop whispered in my ear, 'And by the way, I can be naughty too'. Well, that was the beginning for me."
In this latest film, Cage gets to play both Blaze and the Ghost Rider (previously the Rider was played by a number of stunt performers), which is something he relished. As far as Cage is concerned, the more risk the better.
"The odd thing with me - when you see me with all this caffeine on the table - is that it calms me down. Red Bull relaxes me," he explains.
"If someone puts some fire on me or asks me to drive very fast in a car chase, everything slows down and it gets my mind off whatever baggage may be happening. It all goes away and I relax, so I like doing stunts."
It's why he believes teaming up with film's directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor proved the perfect partnership.
"They have this gonzo energy, this wild intensity and they're both really up for anything. I think I fit into that, too," says Cage.
It was Taylor who suggested Cage inhabit Ghost Rider, Blaze's evil alter ego over whom he has little control.
"That opened up all sorts of new doors for me," says Cage, who's played multiple roles in a movie before (as twin brothers in the quirky comedy Adaptation, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 2003) but this time the character wasn't human.
"Since the Ghost Rider's not anything you can relate to, it was important to me that there be some distance and some fear present when playing that part," Cage explains.
That's why he'd turn up to set with his face painted like a voodoo skull and wearing black contact lenses.
"The point is it stimulated my imagination to think I really was this character. I'd walk on set projecting this aura of horror and would see the fear was there [in my co-stars]. It was just like oxygen to a fire." Then he pauses.
"The problem is when you're shooting until 3am and you're invited to go to a Christmas party in Romania, there's some schnapps involved and you're still in character. Well, all hell can break loose. I'm lucky I'm not in a Romanian prison."
Cage was born the youngest of three sons in Long Beach, California to a comparative literature professor father and dancer mother. His interest in film-making was possibly sparked by his uncle, the revered director Francis Ford Coppola with whom he's worked numerous times.
Cage changed his second name from Coppola to Cage shortly after his first feature, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, was released in 1982.
The following year he appeared as Randy in the sleeper hit Valley Girl directed by Martha Coolidge who, along with director David Lynch, he credits with having made a great impact on him.
"Some of the film-makers I worked with at a young age had a bigger effect on me because I was still learning and impressionable," says Cage.
He also thanks Lynch for reminding him it's important to have fun while filming.
"If you don't, then the audience won't. It sounds trite but it's essential."
Cage has appeared in almost 70 films including the good (Leaving Las Vegas, in which his searing portrayal of an alcoholic won him an Oscar in 1996), the darkly funny (1987's Raising Arizona) and the downright ugly (the lambasted remake of The Wicker Man in 2006). But whatever the film's outcome, his quirky eccentricity always pervades.
"The key is to be enigmatic," says Cage. "My favourite movie is 2001: A Space Odyssey because it doesn't answer all the questions, it keeps you guessing and that's what gives movies or a performance a greater shelf life."
Extra time - Nicolas Cage :: Cage made his directorial debut in 2002 with Sonny, in which he cast Brenda Blethyn as James Franco's mother and pimp.
:: A motorcycle nut, his life insurance stipulates he's not allowed to ride them - unless it's for work, so he always jumps at the chance.
:: His only regret is that he hasn't had a chance to work with director Tim Burton yet.
:: His gut instinct is not do biographical movies. "What's interesting is creating somebody and introducing the filmgoer to that person."
:: He created a comic book with his son Watson called Voodoo Child.
:: Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance In 3D is released in cinemas on Friday, February 17