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With ‘Dream Scenario,’ Nicolas Cage Reclaims the Memes

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Nicolas Cage is not afraid to go big. This is, after all, a man who channeled the grandiose gestural acting of German expressionist films while starring in “Moonstruck” and was nearly fired from “Peggy Sue Got Married” for using a voice he had modeled on the Claymation sidekick Pokey from “Gumby.” Even the decision to change his name — born Nicolas Coppola, he traded his filmmaking family’s famous moniker for the comic-book superhero Luke Cage’s — allowed him to invent a personal mythology in line with his outsize ambitions.

“When you think of ‘Nic Cage,’ I wanted people to think you were going to see something just a little bit unpredictable, a little bit scary,” he told me last month on the balcony of a Beverly Hills hotel. “It’s not going to be the same old, same old.”

But at some point, that bigness is exactly what audiences came to predict from him. Over the last decade, YouTube supercuts emerged that combined Cage’s most go-for-broke moments into one marathon meltdown, while popular memes — like the “You Don’t Say” image that is based off his wide-eyed expression from “Vampire’s Kiss”— made it seem like pure outlandishness was his stock-in-trade. Cage could sense that shift but felt powerless to stop it: How should a star react when the public’s changing perception starts to turn like a tidal wave?

Cage sent up his persona by playing a heightened version of himself in last year’s “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” but found even more to mine in “Dream Scenario,” which has its limited release next Friday. The A24 film, which is produced by Ari Aster and written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, casts Cage as Paul Matthews, a mild-mannered college professor who inexplicably starts to turn up in people’s dreams. For Paul, who has spent years yearning for the same level of renown as his more published peers, this sudden surge of viral stardom is unexpected but not entirely unwelcome. Still, once those collective dreams become nightmares, the hapless professor is helpless against the public backlash.

“For me, this movie is an interesting analysis about the experience of fame,” said Cage, who called “Dream Scenario” one of the five best scripts he’s ever read. (The others are “Leaving Las Vegas,” which won him the Oscar for best actor, “Raising Arizona,” “Vampire’s Kiss” and “Adaptation.”) And though Paul is a well meaning but ineffectual academic — “Some folks would call him a ‘beta male,’” the actor said — this is Nicolas Cage we’re talking about: His version of boring can’t help but be fascinating, and it’s a hoot to watch Paul plod through his scenes in hiking boots and an oversized parka, meeting each new indignity with objections raised in a fussy, pinched voice.

ImageIn a scene set in a parking lot, a balding man in an unzipped winter coat stands near a car with the word “Loser” spray-painted on it.
Cage as a professor who goes viral in “Dream Scenario.”Credit…A24

The film earned strong reviews at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, and taken in tandem with his praised lead performance in “Pig” (2021), the 59-year-old Cage certainly appears to be on a critical upswing. Just don’t call it a renaissance, as some pundits have: Yes, Cage’s career has zigged from Oscar-winning dramas to action tentpoles, with a recent zag to direct-to-video thrillers that helped pull him out of debt. But all along, he was making indies — like the hallucinogenic “Mandy” (2018) — that still allowed him unfettered access to the big swings he does best.

“I’m a little conflicted, because is it a renaissance?” Cage wondered. “I’m still approaching the material with the same process that I’ve always been approaching it with.” He thought about it for a moment. “Perhaps it’s more of a rediscovery,” he said.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

How did you end up in “Dream Scenario”?

I was a huge admirer of Ari Aster, “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” in particular. I had wanted to work with him, and we were talking about maybe doing something episodic on television, but it wasn’t quite right for me. Then he sent me this script. I guess they had some other actors in mind at first, but I read it and right away, I responded to what I could inform Paul Matthews with.

And what was that?

All the feelings that I went through around 2008, 2009 when I stupidly Googled my name online and I saw, “Nicolas Cage Losing [It].” Somebody had cherry-picked all these freakout scenes and cobbled them together without any regard for how the character got to that level of crisis. And then it started going viral, exponentially growing, and became memes.

I was confused, I was frustrated and I was stimulated. I thought, “Maybe this will compel someone to go look at the actual movie and see how the character got to that moment,” but on the other hand, I was like, “This isn’t what I had in mind when I decided to become a film actor.” I had that feeling of weight for years, and when I read “Dream Scenario,” I said, “Finally I can do something with these feelings, and I can apply them to Paul Matthews.”

Paul isn’t sure why he’s gone viral in people’s dreams, but at first, he’s flattered by the attention. When you first started experiencing fame, was it that same sort of thrill?

Gosh, it’s been so long. I started acting professionally, I think, when I was 15. I wasn’t into film performance for fame or accolades, so the first few times it started to happen with autographs, I was confused how to receive it. I almost felt ashamed of being happy that someone wanted my autograph, like, “Well, that’s a pride thing. That’s not why I’m in it.”

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Cage knows what it’s like to go viral. When a supercut of his freakout scenes was posted online, he recalled thinking, “This isn’t what I had in mind when I decided to become a film actor.”Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

What’s interesting is I don’t wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Oh, I’m famous.” I sometimes still meet people and they’re acting a bit different, and I think, “What’s wrong? What did I do?” And I go, “Oh, they saw me in a movie.” But more than ever, I know not to go out now if I’m not in a good mood. I just stay home. I don’t want to blow somebody’s day because I was in a bad mood and didn’t sign every autograph.

Paul isn’t necessarily looking for the limelight, but there is a part of him that wants to be published and validated. The desire to be recognized somehow motivates a lot of people — including actors, I would think.

If you want to be famous, make money, get an award, that’s OK, but that’s only going to get you so far. Sure, it’s nice to be regarded. Like Gary Oldman said, the sound of applause is never to be taken lightly, and gosh knows I’ve had enough tomatoes. But the point of it all is telling a story and having it connect with your audience, where they’re in on that secret with you, where they felt like they had an experience.

As Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, you grew up adjacent to fame. What was your impression of fame before you experienced it yourself?

I remember once going to the theater in San Francisco to see “All That Jazz” with my uncle. As he was walking down the street, I was lagging, and everyone was saying, “Francis Coppola. Francis Coppola. Francis Coppola.” I thought, “OK, that’s what’s fame is: People whisper your name when you pass.”

Do you still think fame is like that?

Well, when my first son was really little, he used to call me “Nicolas Cage,” so he must have heard it from people. He didn’t call me “Dad.”

Can you relate to Paul’s experience going to a restaurant, where he can sense that people are staring at him and trying to snap covert pictures?

I’ll take every picture. I wouldn’t go to a restaurant unless I was able to meet people well and be thankful that they liked the movie. I’m comfortable with it now, but when I was a kid, I had to learn how to get there.

Scenes from a career: clockwise from top left, Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas” (with Elisabeth Shue), “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Raising Arizona” (with Holly Hunter) and “Adaptation.”Credit…Clockwise from top left: United Artists; MGM, via Alamy; 20th Century Fox; Columbia Pictures

People are eager to pull out their phones around Paul, hoping to catch a viral moment that could help them piggyback off his own notoriety. That’s a very new wrinkle on fame.

And very real. I’ve had things happen to me where I go to a bar in Sin City on a Saturday, and I have no idea that someone’s videotaping me and it goes on TikTok. It’s like, “OK, no more bars for me, man.” But it’s a new world. And that’s another reason I like this movie: It’s relevant. This is the way it is in the 21st century. This isn’t the way it was when Bogart was making movies.

I wonder if we aren’t accelerating toward a point where people say, “Look, there’s just too much information in too many of our heads at too many moments of the day.” Certainly, “Dream Scenario” is addressing that sort of collective subconsciousness, but the desire to unplug from it sometimes feels so overwhelming.

Alan Moore, the great graphic novelist, said we’re going to a place where information is going to be deployed so fast that eventually we’re all just going to become steam. But the thing is, Kyle, we have to evolve, we have to progress. This is the way it is, and it’s staying. I shudder to think what’s next. Is it going to be in a chip in our brains? I don’t know. But whatever it is, we’re evolving, and I want to find a way to work with it.

You’ve been working lately with a lot of emerging filmmakers, like Kristoffer Borgli and Michael Sarnoski, who directed “Pig.”

That, I am so grateful for. I always knew that it would take a young filmmaker who would have grown up with me in some way saying, “I want to try this,” and I have the humility to say, “You’re half my age and you’re twice as intelligent, I’m going to give you the controls.” But it’s interesting to be rediscovered by someone from a different generation. I think they haven’t had their dreams whipped out of them yet. They’re still full of potential and imagination of what they can accomplish, and that keeps me fertile.

When you were starring in blockbuster studio films, were your representatives keen to keep you there instead of indies?

That was the deal, that I was always going to go back to the well of independent drama, my roots. With the bigger movies, there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, too many people giving you notes. But with an experience like “Dream Scenario,” I’m with my director and we have the floor and we’re experimenting together. It’s important to have that intimacy to get to the really truthful expression of film performance. That’s harder to do on a big movie.

What did you get out of your blockbuster leading-man era?

It was a dream come true. I was told, “You can’t do it. You don’t look like one of those guys. What makes you think you can pull it off?” I said, “Well, I’m a student and I think I can try this and learn something from it. It’s going to be a challenge. Let’s see if it works.” Well, it worked maybe a little too well, and I got in that cycle. But at the time when I was doing these adventure films, it was considered not the done thing. My agent was saying, “You’re an actor’s actor. Why do you want to do that?” Because I never did it before! Keep it eclectic, keep it challenging.

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Cage is so mindful of his effect on fans that he prefers to stay home rather than “blow somebody’s day because I was in a bad mood and didn’t sign every autograph.”Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Something you’re not keen to do, though, is engage with social media.

I’m not on any social media. I don’t want to tweet, I don’t want to be on Instagram or TikTok. That’s largely because I feel like that’s the only way I could stay close to a certain golden-age idea of what a film actor should maybe be, where you didn’t have that much access. Jack Nicholson refused to go on talk shows.

You’re not afraid of going on talk shows.

I personally think talk shows are a great interview, because you can get the tone, you can get the flavor, you can get the nuance expressed. You don’t have to worry that it’s going to be misinterpreted. That now is the danger, clickbait: You say something and then that gets transmogrified into something you didn’t say, and then suddenly that becomes your truth.

I don’t want to walk on eggshells and keep editing myself because I want to give you an authentic interview, and I want that to be enjoyable for your readers. But there’s a dance there. I know something’s going to get cherry-picked and cobbled together, and they’re going to take it and say I said something I didn’t say. But can you imagine if John Lennon gave an interview today, what would happen?

If you reread magazine interviews from a few decades ago, it’s astonishing how candid celebrities were willing to be.

I do think people genuinely enjoy authenticity, just like they feel a connection with a performance that feels real to them. But again, we’re in this time where it will get repurposed. That sometimes happens to me, and we know the reason behind it: The clickbait sells. But I am going to choose to stay authentic, and I’m not going to let it get in the way of us having a conversation that is stimulating in some way. I just can’t let that happen. I don’t want to live in fear of that.

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