On the set of Bad Lieutenant in New Orleans, director Werner Herzog was alarmed to see Nicolas Cage snorting what looked like cocaine. In the movie, inspired by Abel Ferrara’s cult classic, Cage inherits the Harvey Keitel role as a drug-addicted cop. It was only the second day of shooting, and Cage was trying to get into character. “He sniffs from a vial of white powder,” Herzog recalled during a recent interview, “and the moment it’s up his nose, he’s so scarily different I walk up to him and say, ‘Nicolas, what is that you snorted?’ ” As the actor explained in a separate interview, “I couldn’t answer the question because it would have broken all the prep I’d been doing. I had this little vial of something really benign. I would snort that and try to pretend I was getting high so I could play the scene. So I told Werner, ‘It’s coke.’ Just to not break that.”
This is what happens when the nuttiest Hollywood star this side of Joaquin Phoenix joins forces with a European director who has a reputation for being a madman. Let’s compare their mythologies.
Insanity has been good to Nicolas Cage. He’s done his finest work playing obsessed, manic and deranged individuals—the mad lovers in Moonstruck and Wild at Heart, the delirious alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, the demented twin screenwriters in Adaptation. But Cage has also learned to compress his trademark intensity into one hack role after another, with paycheque performances in formula thrillers, from Gone in 60 Seconds to National Treasure. Then again, the man has some crazy bills to pay. Hit with US$6.6 million in unpaid taxes, he saw his two New Orleans mansions auctioned off last week after foreclosures. And his Michael Jackson-like extravagance is legendary. Cage’s purchases over the years include two castles, a dozen mansions, two yachts, a jet, some 50 cars (including a half-million-dollar Lamborghini), a pet octopus, two albino king cobras—and a dinosaur skull that he bought for US$276,000, outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio.
Herzog is notorious for a different kind of excess. When shooting Fitzcarraldo (1982)—starring Klaus Kinski as an obsessed colonist who built an opera house in the Peruvian jungle—the director risked life and limb to haul a 350-tonne working steamship over a small mountain in the Amazon. And in making Rescue Dawn (2006), this “method” director shed 35 lb. to show solidarity with his star, Christian Bale, who lost 65 lb. to play an emaciated prisoner of war. As a director who likes to shoot drama with documentary realism, no wonder Herzog thought his star was snorting real cocaine on the set of Bad Lieutenant. After all, Cage famously ate real cockroaches for his role in Vampire’s Kiss (1988).
But the 45-year-old actor insists he was totally sober on the set, and drew on his experiences with drugs 25 years ago. “I was shocked Werner didn’t know the process by which a film actor uses the imagination,” he says. “It was an impressionist performance, in that I had to look at this landscape of something that happened so long ago and try to recall what that might have been. Werner was saying, ‘Let’s do the bliss of evil.’ But I wasn’t trying to glamorize drugs in any way. I wanted to show the effect they had, the ticks and facial expressions. They can really contort the face.” And the voice. As Cage’s character gets more drug-addled, his voice gets weirdly pinched, until he starts to sound like Jimmy Stewart on helium.
Let off the leash in this darkly comic film noir, Cage delivers one of his wildest performances in ages, as a homicide cop with a lucky crack pipe who hallucinates iguanas while trying to solve a mass murder. In Herzog he has an eager accomplice, a director fascinated with men who lose their minds in jungles real or imagined. “Sometimes I would nudge him to the brink,” says Herzog. “But I didn’t have to push him. When he sees me next to the camera, he knows he can go to the outer limits. He can turn the pig loose.”
Although Bad Lieutenant was touted as a remake, it’s a different script. And while Cage isn’t as nasty as Keitel, he has some great gonzo moments—like when he snatches an oxygen tube from a wealthy matron in a wheelchair, sticks a .44 Magnum in her face, and says, “You’re the reason this country’s going down the drain.” But compared to the protagonist of Herzog’s next film, he’s a pussycat. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is the true story of an actor in a Greek tragedy who becomes consumed by his role and kills his mother. Now that’s method acting.