Nicolas Cage gets it. He knows how ridiculous his performances can look out of context.
After years of carving out a career full of oddball comedies—Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Raising Arizona (1987)—and intense dramas—Wild at Heart (1990) and his Oscar-winning work in Leaving Las Vegas (1995)—Cage leaned hard into a different kind of film. Face/Off (1997), the remake of The Wicker Man (2006) and Knowing (2009) allowed him to scream and thrash around in campy sci-fi and horror thrillers as those genres most necessary element: the normal guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
Viewers often wonder why Cage picks such questionable roles. (The mystery even led to a recurring SNL gag where Andy Samberg, playing Cage, accepts any and all parts.) But in Mom and Dad, a pitch-black horror comedy that opens nationwide Friday, Cage’s gonzo performance shows he clearly understands what he’s doing.
In the film, Cage plays Brent Ryan, an aging metal-head rocker who suddenly feels a biological urge to kill his son and daughter. He screams “you motherfuckers!” at his kids and punches through doors, only to swing immediately into blubbering tears. It’s a crazy conceit—even for Cage—but he felt tuned into it. The wild B-movie accelerates from zero to 90 within the first act—a rhythm he calls "operatic" and "manic”—and never lets up.
Still, he says he had to dig for inspiration in playing such an intense character. "If I don't have enough anger in my own life, I look at the newspaper and I find something that really pisses me off, and I use that,” the 54-year-old actor told Newsweek.
It’s a technique he has used often. While filming 2013's thriller Joe, for example, Cage says he prepared himself for a bar brawl scene by summoning a true story that had horrified him when he read it in the paper. "There was a little boy, only a toddler, who fell into a pit of wild dogs at the zoo,” he remembers. “There was no one there to help him, and he died. That really angered me, and I rolled that story around in me until I was ready to go."
On Mom and Dad, Cage found anger inspiration in a more unlikely place: “The Hokey Pokey.”
In one scene, his wife Kendall—played by Selma Blair, giving Cage a well-deserved partner in deadpan comedy—watches silently, with a sociopathic and unimpressed stare, as he cracks a pool table in half with a sledgehammer. All the while, he screeches “The Hokey Pokey” and tells her between swings that middle age is a living hell. The sequence wasn't originally scripted to include “The Hokey Pokey,” but Cage added it while working through his acting process.
“I thought about those days in kindergarten where the teacher makes you get into a circle and sing the song, ‘The Hokey Pokey,’” Cage explains. “I knew even then, at 5 years old, that the Bureau of Education had created that song to separate un-coordinated kids from the coordinated. I wasn't un-coordinated, but I was very protective of friends who were. I found the whole thing incredibly condescending and it made me angry, so I thought of that as the most despicable scene while preparing."
Cage understands that adding “The Hokey Pokey” into a more serious film wouldn't work. But he believed that it fit Mom and Dad 's particular brand of vicious satire. It helped that he’s also on the same wavelength as writer-director Brian Taylor, who's most famous for 2006's Crank and Syfy's 2017 series Happy!. The two worked together on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011) and formed a deep connection—he says Taylor is the Akira Kurosawa to his Toshiro Mifune. "[He] has a high-adrenaline, absurdist sense of humor that he marries beautifully with a sense of darkness and menace," Cage says. His work in horror-comedy, according to Cage, is "delightful and delicious."
One of the knocks on Cage’s more recent films is that it can look like he’s phoning in performances in films which are beneath him. But pull back the curtain on his process, and it’s clear there’s far more at work than earning a paycheck. He’s tuned into the material, his collaborators and, most importantly, himself. He knows how to get the results he wants—it’s where to find them that marks his actor’s journey.
“Sometimes, I luck out and the answer comes to me in a dream,” Cage says. "Other than that, I don't know where it comes from. It's like a trance."
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