He’s one of the biggest actors in Hollywood—and one of the strangest.  Judging by his reputation, anyway.

In person, however, Nicolas Cage comes across as charismatic, polite and surprisingly intelligent—especially for a high school dropout.  He spends his spare time reading, studying ancient cultures and traveling with his family.  And now, thanks to his latest film, Disney’s National Treasure:  Book of Secrets, Cage—like so many young fans of the original film—has discovered just how fun history can be.

“I really appreciate history now, probably because of playing Ben Gates,” Cage says.  “And I enjoy being in places where I feel the weight of past events.  I like old architecture and old buildings.  If you use a little imagination, you can time travel.”

Nephew of both Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and actress Talia Shire (Rocky), the young Nicolas Kim Coppola changed his last name to “Cage” after dropping out of Beverly Hills High School, in order to make his own way in the world.

But family connections are a powerful lure.  After his scenes were cut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which left Cage selling popcorn at a movie theater, he accepted a role in his uncle’s 1983 film, Rumble Fish.  Later that same year, his star turn in Valley Girl pushed Cage into the limelight.  A slew of hits, including Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona, followed.  He received Golden Globe nominations for Moonstruck and Honeymoon in Vegas, followed by an Oscar win for his portrayal of an alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas.  Most recently, he also received an Oscar nomination for Adaptation.

Cage’s personal life hasn’t been quite as successful.  He fathered a son with model Christina Fulton in 1990 then married actress Patricia Arquette in 1995.  After they divorced in 2001, Cage married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis Presley—one of Cage’s idols.  They parted ways just 21 months later.

Six weeks after that divorce was finalized, Cage married sushi waitress Alice Kim. At the time, Kim was just 20 years old—and 20 years Cage’s junior.  The pair had their first child in 2005.

Cage recently met with reporters in Los Angeles to promote the National Treasure sequel, in which he goes on a hunt for a long lost tome of secrets called “the presidents book” in order to clear his family name.  The quest takes him and co-stars Jon Voight, Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha to England, France then back again, where they convene on (and inside of) Mount Rushmore.  Actors Ed Harris, Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel and Bruce Greenwood, who plays the president, complete the cast.  Here’s what Cage had to say:

What were the particular criteria for you to sign onto this project—especially since it’s a sequel?
I’ve not done a sequel before, the reason being that I don’t like to repeat myself.  In this case, I do believe that if you’re going to do a sequel, it has to promise to be better than the original—or at least as good.  Largely the fear with sequels is that people get lazy.  They realize they have a winner and they just throw money at it and they don’t care. Fortunately, working with [director] Jon Turtletaub, in particular, he really cares about the story.  I wanted to make sure that we could go in a direction that would raise the stakes and also hopefully be more interesting. 

When they first presented the idea of Civil War Confederate gold, John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination, I said, well right off the bat, for me, that’s more interesting historically and personally.  Then they said, we have to ratchet it up from stealing the Declaration of Independence.  We thought you should kidnap the president of the United States.  I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.  Hold on.  New rules.  How?  How?  How is Ben Gates going to kidnap the president of the United States?” and I got nervous.  Then I started thinking about it, and I started laughing.  I realized that that was the joy of it.  It was funny.  It was absurd.  When they cast Bruce Greenwood, I realized that there would be a level of believability because he looks marvelously Kennedy-esque, and that at the same time he has a terrific gift of comedy that he would be able to embrace that comedia del arte, if you will.