When he was 17 and trying to break into Hollywood, Nicolas Coppola came to a fork in the road. After a series of rejections, he was considering joining the merchant navy and abandoning his dream of acting, but decided to give it one more shot. He soon landed a part in Rumble Fish, directed by his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, and his career took off.
To avoid charges of nepotism, the actor changed his last name to Cage. Now 42, he has practically done it all, starring in such movies as Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won an Oscar in 1995), Adaptation and National Treasure.
In taking on his many different roles, Cage draws from personal experience. His father, a university professor, and mother, who was hospitalised for depression during Cage’s childhood, divorced when he was 12. He has been married three times, once briefly to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis. He has a 15-year-old son, Weston, from an early relationship, and a ten-month-old baby boy, Kal-el, with current wife Alice Kim, 20 years his junior.
Next month, Cage plays a character from recent history in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, Port Authority Sergeant John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno rushed to the Twin Towers, only to be trapped under 10m of rubble when the buildings came down. They were among the last survivors pulled from the wreckage.
Cage, who portrays McLoughlin, doesn’t view the film as entertainment, but he hopes it can help heal a society still traumatised by the attack. In an exclusive interview with Reader’s Digest, Cage talked about the movie, his family and his passions.
RD: What made you decide to become an actor?
Cage: When I was 15, I went to see James Dean in East of Eden. I was so affected by his performance, how it made me feel about my life. It was more meaningful than anything I’d ever read or listened to, and I thought, That’s what I want to do. Nothing is going to stop me.
RD: So you went into the business and it all went smoothly?
Cage: I was 17 and had gone on a lot of auditions; nothing had happened. I said, “If I try one more time and it doesn’t happen, then I’m going to sea to join the merchant marine,” because my other passion is the ocean.
RD: So how did it work out?
Cage: I got a part in Rumble Fish, then auditioned for Valley Girl and got that.
RD: You changed your name at around the same time. Why was that?
Cage: It was a time when there was a lot of prejudice because my name was Coppola. Certain actors made it clear to me that I couldn’t act but was there as a figure of nepotism. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this.
RD: What inspired the name Cage?
Cage: At a young age, I was interested in comic books, which was really how I learnt to read. The name Cage came from a comic book character called Power Man. Later, I discovered John Cage, the avant-garde composer, and thought that he was interesting.
RD: How did your mother’s hospitalisations for depression affect you?
Cage: I know it was painful for my mother, and it had to be extremely painful for me and my brothers. But oddly, at the time I didn’t seem that affected by it. She’s a loving person, very soulful, and I know that if I did not have her as my mother, I would not be able to do the things I do. She gave me a sensitivity of feeling. She probably has the soul of an artist, and if she’d had the proper guidance, maybe she could have channelled that.
RD: How is she doing now?
Cage: I bought her a house in the Hollywood Hills, and she’s very happy. She loves classical music, and the caretaker is an opera teacher, so there are always opera singers over.
RD: What is your father like?
Cage: He’s a brilliant man. He’s one of the greatest teachers in my life, because he exposed me to art at such a young age and tried to teach all of us to think in the abstract, which is not the most popular thing to do with kids.