Nicolas Cage instinctively knew how to play Rob, the melancholic truffle forager at the center of “Pig.” The indie film explores Rob’s connection to his pet pig and his tortured relationship with his past celebrity as a renowned chef. Cage, one of the top action stars of the late 1990s and early aughts, related to Rob’s complicated feelings about fame and shared a desire to live off the grid.
“I do feel that I’ve gone into my own wilderness and that I’ve left the small town that is Hollywood,” Cage says. “I don’t know exactly why Rob left his stardom. It’s never fully explained, and I like that about the movie. But as for me, I don’t know if I’d want to go back. I don’t know if I’d want to go and make another Disney movie. It would be terrifying. It’s a whole different climate. There’s a lot of fear there.”
Cage is no longer the box office draw he was when headlined comic book films like 2007’s “Ghost Rider” and Jerry Bruckheimer blow ’em ups like 1996’s “The Rock” and 1997’s “Con Air.” He’s spent the last decade or so popping up in low-budget fare, some of it forgettable (“Kill Chain,” anyone?), some criminally under-seen, as was the case with his tender turn in David Gordon Green’s “Joe.” But Cage says even when he was riding high he sometimes bristled at the commercial constraints that were imposed on his performances.
“When I was making Jerry Bruckheimer movies back-to-back, that was just a high pressure game. There were a lot of fun moments, but at the same time, there was also ‘We wrote this line. It has to be said this way,'” Cage remembers. “They’d put a camera on you and photograph you, and order you: ‘Now say the roller skate training wheels line.’ I’d say, ‘I’ll do that but I’d also like to try it this way.’ On independent movies, you have more freedom to experiment and be fluid. There’s less pressure and there’s more oxygen in the room.”
“Pig” was an opportunity for Cage to remind movie-watchers that he is capable of doing subtle work after a stretch of scaling operatic heights in films such as “Mandy” and “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” the latter of which had him acting out what it would be like to have a testicle blown off.
“I wanted to remind myself and also remind some folks perhaps in the audience or in the media that I could also apply myself to a much more quiet and measured performance style,” Cage says. “I had gone on this tear, mission almost, to kind of break form with film performance and what was considered good performance by being naturalistic or photo-realistic or minimalistic.”
For a film like “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” Cage says he choreographs each beat of his performance and applies a style of acting that he labels “western Kabuki theater,” one that draws on off-beat vocalizations, German expressionism and unbridled intensity to create a style all its own. Memes, scores of them, have been devoted to the scenery chewing results. It’s also inspired a devoted following, with no less an expert than Ethan Hawke praising Cage as “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting.”
“It created a kind of culture of what has been labeled ‘Cage rage,'” Cage says. “I’m glad it landed. I’m glad it communicated. I’m glad there was an id there that I shared with other folks in cinema that were interested.”
With “Pig,” he opted to do something different.
“I just wanted to show up on set, walk into a room and carry whatever my life experiences, whatever my memories were, whatever my bad dreams last night were, and just tell the story,” Cage says. “I wanted to get back to a much more haiku, for lack of a better word, style of performance. When I say that I mean it quite literally. Haiku is five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, and it’s really the quiet spaces that you’re led to contemplate that are inspired by the words and the syllables. That’s what this film is like.”
“Pig” isn’t just a character study. The film also examines the intense bonds that can develop between humans and animals. In Rob’s case, his truffle hunting pig is his best friend and sole source of unconditional love. For Cage, there’s a similar bond with his cat, Merlin.
“I was always close with my animals,” Cage says. “I think a lot of people that are in the public eye probably feel this as well. There’s a truth there. Sometimes when you meet somebody who knows you from a movie, but doesn’t know you as you, they want to undercut you in some way or see you as competition. You don’t get that with animals, so the animal relationships become the closest to family. They become the ones that have nothing to hide and just want to share this moment together with you.”
“Pig” opens July 16, and reviewers are hailing it as a return to form for Cage, but don’t expect the actor to abandon his outré projects. Cage will soon be seen in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” playing a fictionalized version of himself, an aging star who is enlisted to help the CIA.
“I will never see this movie,” Cage says. “I’m told it’s a good movie. I’m told people love it and are enjoying the ride, but I made that for the audience. It’s too much for me to go to the premiere and sit there with everybody. Psychologically, that’s too bizarre and whacked out for me.”