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Nicolas Cage: Finding Real Treasure in Book of Secrets

  • Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
  • 2007 17 Dec
Nicolas Cage:  Finding Real Treasure in <i>Book of Secrets</i>

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.

To me, Book of Secrets is like a movie unto itself.  When you change the treasure, you change the whole story.  You get new clues that are historically accurate and you get new locations.  The actors stay the same; the characters stay the same.  Having been a fan of Basil Rathbone and Sherlock Holmes, I thought, “Why not bring Ben Gates back as a sort of historical, modern version or a historical or archaeological detective looking for these treasures.  Jon Turtletaub has a genius.  He’s made a lot of movies—without a gun.  And I’m happy I did it.

What’s it like having young fans for the first time?
Children to me are of the utmost importance, and they really are the future, aren’t they?  So I want to treat that carefully. I’m one of those people who believe that the power of film is intense, and you have to really think about it responsibly.  And in this case, to get them to enjoy themselves with Mom and Dad but also look into their history books—in a way that isn’t “you must read or you must learn’ but actually helps them enjoy the ride even more, because there’s a level of believability to it.  You wonder, “Wow, why are there missing pages in the Booth diary?”  Then you go see the movie and you use a little imagination, and it makes the ride a little more enjoyable

I’m always thinking about the kids, if I make that sort of movie.  Even with Ghost Rider, I was thinking about the kids.  Walt Disney, for me, is a magnificent hero of sorts, because he was probably the most influential artist of our times.  He was such an influence that we don’t even think of him as a human being.  He did this amazing stuff. He took these classic stories like Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast and Snow White and made them accessible to children.  With Ghost Rider, I was trying to do the one story he never did, probably for obvious reasons, which was Faust—and make that something that kids could go, “Yeah, this is just a myth, but we’re all going to get in trouble and how do you get past that?”

Did you want to do something new with the character, since it’s the first time you’ve played the same character twice?
That was my first question to Jerry Bruckheimer.  It’s been three years; I’m not the same guy.  How am I going to go back and do Ben Gates?  He said, “That’s it.  The character has changed.”  The response I got at Disney was that I seemed lighter.  I’m smiling more.  I’m happier.  I think the weight has been taken off the character.  He’s been accepted academically.  He’s not considered wacko.  So he feels happier.

Would you mind doing a third National Treasure film?
I believe that National Treasure should become more and more international treasure, and I was very happy that we went to London and Paris.  But I would like to see the movie go wider still—into Africa, Egypt and Asia—and keep going.  My hope is that Ben is recruited, and he gets a dossier from these other countries about their history and he has to download it and learn and go on these hunts for and on their behalf.  That would be a lot of fun for me.

How are you like Ben Gates?
One of the things that come to mind is ancestors.  In a lot of so-called primitive cultures, there is a tremendous respect for our ancestors that we don’t see as much, for whatever reason, in American culture.  With Ben, I wanted to make it clear that he really believes—probably because his grandfather, [actor] Christopher Plummer, knighted him at such an early age and he took it to heart—in a chivalrous way that everything he is is on account of his ancestors.  They’re not dead to him. They are still there with him, and he’s honoring them.  I like that about him, and I’m trying to embrace that in my own life.  Also, history.  It’s a quid pro quo.  I really appreciate history now, probably because of playing Ben Gates.  And I enjoy being in places where I feel the weight of past events.  I like old architecture and old buildings.  And if you use a little imagination, you can time travel.

What are your interests?
Personally, my interests are ancient history and ancient civilizations.  In my own life, I’d like to go to places like Ankowat or Easter Island.  It would be fascinating to see Ben go to those places as well and see how they could all tie together somehow. The way we left the movie, the president asked me what was on page 47.  I wanted to figure out what I could say that would make people interested in what is on page 47.  I thought of the words “life-altering.”  So whatever it is, it’s going to have to be life-altering.

In the film, Ben makes a comment to the president that many today would consider old-fashioned.  He implies that because of the office of the presidency, he admires the man and considers him to be an honorable man.  Do you think that’s an old-fashioned value that has no place in today’s society?
Well …

Without getting political!
Yeah, I’d rather not.  Ben is really speaking what we all want to believe. In a way, he is charging the president, saying, “You took this office.  This is the oath. Are you going to perform or not?”  That’s how I saw that.

Were there any conversations while filming to keep it from veering off into current events or perhaps criticism?
You know, that was always the concern from day one, even before principal photography—that scene with the president. I kept going over it and over it and over it in my room, late at night.  I would look at it, I would rewrite it, I would tinker with it.  I would send the pages back to the powers that be at Bruckheimer Films.  They would fact-check it or go through it with their writers.  We tinkered with it.  I realized the importance of that scene not lapsing into something overtly political or sentimental or maudlin, but to try and get to the root and simplicity of it.  It became clear to me that it was an overture to the president to step up.  Whatever there is about politics—and we all know that lying is endemic to politics—we used what was good and what was meant to be and what we want to believe, to be the overture.

The Gates family in the film is very connected to their ancestors.  Can you relate to that, as far as your acting career?
I do relate to that. I think so.  It began with Carmine Coppola.  We didn’t come from money.  He came here because he could play the flute, and he joined Toscanini’s Orchestra, no less, as the chair flautist.  The most beautiful thing happened about two years ago.  I was sleeping.  The TV was on the arts channel, and I heard this flute and I woke up.  It was my grandfather playing the flute, “The Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”  I’m getting chills thinking about it.  It was like he was talking to me. It was amazing. He was the beginning of our history in the arts.  Then he married my grandmother’s family.  He was writing songs and composing and from there, it just kept going—Frances and Sophia and Talia and everybody.

Book of Secrets releases right before Christmas.  What are the Cage holiday traditions and what are you doing to celebrate?
This year, I’m going to do something new.  I’m going to have a Dickens Christmas.  I’m going to take everyone to England.  I’ve never done that, and I want to just walk around Bath and see how they celebrate the holidays.  I’ve always fantasized about that.

Why Bath?
Because when I’m in Bath I feel like I’m walking around a snow globe.  I’m in this contained, beautiful, historic universe.  Everybody’s really, really nice, and I don’t have to use a car and I can walk everywhere.  I feel like I’m in touch with the past and world events and history—I’m going to other places and I’m learning things.  It’s helping me grow.

Are you going to have a Christmas goose?
I’m going to try and have a Christmas goose—absolutely.

What is the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?
Hands down, it was a tool to stimulate my imagination.  My father was on sabbatical in Italy, and I had a little toy car that was being driven by Pinocchio. For whatever the reason, Pinocchio’s head fell off, the day before Christmas.  I had played with it too roughly.  My father picked up the head, and he went into the garden and he planted it.  I thought, 'Why are you doing that?’  The next morning, there was this enormous thing that had grown in the garden.  I ripped it open and it was a giant wooden Pinocchio.  I was scratching my head trying to figure out how that grew.  Then I started planting everything.  I planted all my Hotwheels. I had a little G.I. Joe slipper.  I thought if I planted that it would grow really big, and I could put my sleeping bag in it.  So he really got me thinking at a really young age and using my imagination.

How has being a parent of a young child changed your perspective on your work and on the choices you now make as an actor?
Well, children—especially from one to six—are so impressionable.  The main priority is to just make sure they’re happy, as much as possible.  That’s our job, to make them as happy as we can possibly make them, in my opinion.  Because we know that as soon as they get older, things start happening.  There are pressures and hormones and all that.  So in the beginning, you want to keep them as happy as possible for that wonderful magical period of time.  And that means movies that are positive.  He [Nicolas' son] likes Yellow Submarine and the Beatles and the Wiggles and that’s great.  There is plenty of time to discover the other stuff, and I’m sure he will if he’s like the rest of my family.  In terms of choices, I try and make movies that will hopefully do some good for the whole family.

Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Ed Harris, Helen Mirren and Jon Voight, National Treasure:  Book of Secrets is rated PG (violence and action) and releases in theaters nationwide on Friday, December 21, 2007.  Click here for more information.