In an upbeat mood, Nicolas Cage, who rarely talks to the print media, was strikingly enthusiastic and in good spirits when he met the press to promote the family-friendly adventure National Treasure, in which Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates who, through his life, has been searching for a treasure no one believed existed: amassed through the ages, moved across continents, to become the greatest treasure the world has ever known. Hidden by America's Founding Fathers, they left clues to the treasure's location right before our eyes, but this film, Gates must elude the FBI, stay one step ahead of his ruthless adversary (Sean Bean), decipher the remaining clues and unlock the 2000 year-old mystery behind this country's greatest national treasure.
Reminiscent of some of Hitchcock's lighter escapist fare, Cage, who is a veteran of many an action film, says that he was drawn to National Treasure for the same reasons that gave the Oscar winner initial trepidations to take it on, "which is the idea of a man going in and stealing the Declaration Of Independence, which I didn't think seemed very plausible, and wondered exactly how this can actually be pulled off," Cage explained. "I met with [director] Jon Turteltaub and he said: 'But that's what's interesting. The character's audacious and bold.' I also got to do it in a tuxedo, which was interesting to me as well," adds the actor, smilingly, comparing elements of this character to a James Bond of sorts. "Cary Grant also comes to one's mind. It's interesting because at the beginning of the rehearsal process, I wasn't exactly sure what the tone of the movie was going to be, and it was Jon Turteltaub, to his credit, who kept sort of pushing it towards a stylization not unlike what maybe Vary Grant or Jimmy Stewart might have done in the Thirties and Forties, where they seemed to have a very playful touch during these caper movies."
The trick in this film was to make the implausible seem less so. "I think you have to give yourself over to the context of the movie and go along for the ride, which is what I did. I saw it for the first time the other night with an audience, and was very happy with the way it all seemed to work logically within the suspension of disbelief. I enjoyed it and it has a certain spirit which is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but where it parts company with Indiana Jones is that there's nothing supernatural about National Treasure. There's enough there that we can wonder about, or can think about in terms of: does this treasure really exist, and indeed several highly intelligent people who believe it exists have risked their lives looking for this buried treasure."
While unable to exactly identify with the more fanciful or historically intellectual facets of this character, Cage concedes that there have been times when he has been as bold as this character. "Without going into too much detail, I have had my obsessions. Certainly this is a character who's obsessed about this marvellous Templer treasure, and has devoted his entire life and groomed himself to figure out exactly what he needs to do to find it in the face of great ridicule and I think I've been obsessed over the years with where I could go with acting, or how I could challenge myself with that."
These have been challenges Cage has faced since his desire to act at a young age, recalling the first time he may have had that first spark to perform. "Well, at a very early age, I would watch television and would see Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West or Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood, be fascinated by the magic of filmmaking and would walk to school and actually have crane shots worked out in my mind where the crane would be pulling up and looking down at me as a tiny object in the street walking to school. So I guess it was something that was very pure and organic in me that wanted to be a film actor. I loved more than just comic books, but also movies. I loved watching the TV and getting lost in films, anything that stimulated my imagination, which, in those early years, was what really inspire and protected me."
But while yearning for a career in the movies, despite his Coppola connections, Cage didn't advertise those early yearnings, he now recalls. "I kept it pretty close to the vest. I don't think a lot of people knew that I wanted to be an actor, even though there were little hints. I enjoyed Halloween and liked disguising myself, wanting to be a disguise artist, and actually thought I was going to be a detective. I was always transforming myself and play acting, so I guess they might have had an inkling that it might lead to this. I don't think anyone really thought for certain that I would actually become a film actor."
20 years since making initial impacts in the likes of Valley Girl, Racing with the Moon and Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage has remained one of Hollywood's most enduring and successful stars, but admits to not quite knowing whether or not he remains surprised by his own success. "I don't really know that I have the same perception of myself that other people may or may not have. I don't really look at myself as a successful person, but as someone who's trying to find the next place to go, the next thing to discover or improve upon. I have a difficult time looking at the cup half full and always tend to look at it half empty."
In a career spanning some 20 years, Cage is by no means looking like slowing down. A youthful 40, the actor jokes about his feelings recently reaching that particular milestone. "I always add a year to myself, so I'm prepared for my next birthday. So when I was 39, I was already 40, and now I'm 41," he says with much laughter. "I don't want to say I'm happy because that's too fragile a word, but I'm definitely content, and hopeful about the future, although I spend most of my time thinking about the present." That may include his recent marriage to Alice Kim, a former sushi waitress. His third marriage, Cage doesn't talk about his personal life, even when asked if he is relieved to not being married to someone in the entertainment business. "I'll say that I'm very content at this time in my life," Cage offers, half smilingly but putting such questions to rest. Professionally, Cage has been long associated with the comic book action film Ghost Rider, and the assumption here in Hollywood is that Cage is set to star in what would be his comic book film debut. But, says Cage, you shouldn't believe everything you read. "I'm very curious about that, but 'm still in talks about that particular movie. It's not a definite at this point." The actor says the delay with that film has to do "with really just the vision of the movie and how it will be portrayed, as well as about script and things like that. It's true that I was involved with Ghost Rider over three years ago and was trying to develop it with another filmmaker but these things are very sensitive. It's a bullseye and you really have to hit it; otherwise it may not work, so it's best for everyone to be cautious and make sure it's got the auspices."
Cage says that if Ghost Rider fails to happen, he won't be trying on any future comic book costumes. "I think if this doesn't work, then that's pretty much it. I've never made a comic book film and I'll just sort of enjoy my nostalgic memories as a boy." While dreaming of celluloid heroes as a young, Cage's imagination was also fuelled by comic book heroes. "Comic books for me were one of the ways I learned how to read, as I was always fascinated by the mythology of them. Because I used to love Greek myths, I discovered a kind of kindred spirit in the mind of Stan Lee and also DC Comics and I always felt they were successful in film as well even before they became successful. I guess the reason I responded to them was that they had the fantasy of the child's mind, and they're a wonderful alternative world in which to lose yourself."
Next for Cage is Lord of War, which the actor also produced. I play one of those characters that I guess if you were to take Scarface and replace the drugs with guns, he's a gun runner who's always figuring out where the political climate is in the world to get rich and sell the right amount of guns, and really has no ethics as to picking sides. He just has got his calculator, and needless to say, it's a politically charged movie. "One which he shot on location in South Africa, which he says, was a unique experience in itself. "South Africa is a fascinating location because it can model for so many other locations. Lord of War is a world stage, which takes place in many different areas. You have Manhattan, the Ukraine, you have Liberia, and so there are so many locales that you can actually use South Africa for, which becomes very convenient. It's much less expensive to shoot there and now I believe even DreamWorks is going to be building a studio out there. The way the tide is going now, it's becoming increasingly rare to shoot a movie here at home and that's just is the way it is. If you can do a $120 million movie for $80 million in South Africa, then that's what the studio is going to do." Cage says that he has reached a point in his life where he is trying to slow down and be more selective. "I took almost a year off after Matchstick Men to find my next picture which was National Treasure, so I just sort of hit a spurt where there were screenplays that seemed interesting enough and diverse enough to me to want to continue working." While Cage continues to diversify as an actor, shifting genres and types of film, Cage says that if he decides to direct again, he'll need to establish the kind of director he would become "That's the one area that I am slow to pull the trigger on because I feel that I am still cutting my teeth in that area and am still sort of finding myself as I go along. I'm very happy with Sonny and it was a challenging move, but one that was difficult for people to grasp because the subject matter is somewhat taboo, but that's the very thing that I think is stimulating to me, so I have to look very carefully to find the next script that would fit in that. In that regard, I think I am trying to find my identity." But it's Cage the movie star, the treasure hunter in this case, who continues to embrace his profession. Even now, a tad past 40, Nicolas Cage says that being on a movie set and acting, reinforces old childhood dreams of fantasy. "I mean at the end of the day it's impossible, at certain times on the set, not to take a look at oneself. I look at where I'm standing and I go: I'm still here, still in the back yard playing like I'm a treasure hunter. It's still very much the spirit of playfulness that children have and such a great way not to have to grow up."