There are at least two Nicolas Cage personae.
One is the wildly eccentric, Oscar-winning character of Leaving Las Vegas, as well as similar loose cannons in Adaptation, Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart. The other is the action hero of The Rock, Con Air and Gone in 60 Seconds.
National Treasure, which opened Friday, combines both of them. Cage plays an eccentric, scholarly treasure hunter who seeks riches possibly buried by our Founding Fathers, who wanted to prevent the booty from falling into British hands.
"That's what attracted me to the character," Cage says in a phone conversation about the film.
"He's so completely enthusiastic about history. He knows every battle that was ever fought, every uprising that was ever raised. He's a history geek who's on a treasure hunt."
Playing such a role is part of the actor's overall game plan. His goal, he says, is to avoid getting comfortable.
"After Leaving Las Vegas and the Oscar, I could have stayed intense and played a series of intense, maybe even tragic roles. I could have continued in that mode for I don't know how long. But I would have grown too comfortable.
"The thought of doing an action film made me uncomfortable. So that's what I wanted to do. I took some hits from critics for doing action films, but being uncomfortable in a genre stretches me.
"Now I've reached a point where I've built a career that allows me to hopscotch between characters that make people feel happy and those that make people feel uncomfortable. There's nothing wrong with either reaction. If someone gets uncomfortable watching a movie, maybe that feeling of discomfort will make him think about things and come up with some answers."
Cage wanted to be an actor ever since he was an adolescent with, as he says, "a definite dark side," and first saw James Dean in East of Eden.
"It was the scene where James Dean tries to give some money to Raymond Massey, who plays his very rigid father, and Raymond Massey just turns him down. There was Dean crying, and there I was sitting in the audience crying along with him, really blubbering out some sobs. I got so emotionally involved. Maybe I was on the outs with my father at that time. Maybe I was just overwhelmed by Dean's performance and how much his character wanted to get through to his father. But I realized that no other art form can engulf you the way movies can."
That point would make an interesting debate at Cage's family gatherings.
The son of comparative literature professor August Coppola, he is the nephew of Godfather and Apocalypse Now filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and the grandson of composer Carmine Coppola. His cousins include director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and actor Jason Schwartzman (I Huckabees).
That's pretty heavy company, and Cage changed his last name to avoid the appearance of nepotism. He enjoyed his first real satisfaction as an actor when he watched himself woo Cher in 1987's Moonstruck.
"The funny thing is, I never wanted to do that movie. I thought it was just going to be too light and sunshiny. I had to be talked into doing it. But there I was, watching myself in the scene outside the apartment where I'm trying to get Cher to spend the night with me. And I'm telling myself, 'Yes, you made the right decision. You decided to be an actor and now you really are one.'"
At the time of Moonstruck's release, its director, Norman Jewison, mentioned the same scene and said that Cage's declaration of love for Cher reminded him of James Stewart proclaiming his infatuation with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.
"He really said that?" Cage says with a laugh. "That's a remarkable comparison. I don't understand it, but I'm flattered by it - although I'm not sure how Jimmy Stewart would feel. I love Jimmy Stewart. I feel like the guy I play in National Treasure could have been played by him. Does this mean I'm interchangeable with Jimmy Stewart? No, no way. But it's a flattering comparison."
In 2002, Cage made his directing debut with Sonny, starring James Franco as a young man trained to be a gigolo while growing up in his mother's bordello.
Despite a cast that also included Brenda Blethyn and Mena Suvari, the film received only a marginal release.
Cage says he plans to direct again, although he won't say what or when.
"It will probably be another smaller film about a taboo subject. That's all I'll say. I want to explore uncomfortable feelings. I don't want to get too comfortable as an actor or as a director."