“It’s great,” muses David Gordon Green, the director of the new film Joe, starring Tye Sheridan and an impressively bearded Nicolas Cage, “when you can have actors who can find within them depths of reality, and things that can really trigger something in audiences. I mean, that’s why we go to movies, to see people like these guys that really invite us into their lives, to experience characters through their eyes. That’s the most rewarding part of a movie like this, getting in the ring with actors like Nic and Tye, and taking a story that I have a great history with and bringing it to life.”
Cage, of course, has had one of the most fascinating, and at times beguiling, careers of any actor of his time. Growing up virtual Hollywood royalty as part of the Coppola family, he dazzled early in films like Rumble Fish and Birdy, then had a truly stunning three-year run in 1986-87 with romantic leads in Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Moonstruck. All that was before he turned 24. Eight years later, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.
And that’s when things got a little weird. The last nearly two decades of Cage’s career have been wildly polarizing. He’s became one of the biggest action stars in the world, much to the chagrin of many fans who thought he had sold out and abandoned his thespian roots. He also appeared in some real stinkers. Big-budget stinkers, which are the hardest to forgive, it seems.
It was always a somewhat false duality. Cage turned in excellent performances in films like John Woo’s 1997 Face/Off, Martin Scorsese’s 1999 Bringing Out the Dead, Spike Jonze’s 2002 Adaptation and Werner Herzog’s 2005 The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But for many movie watchers, Cage had become the hack that cashed a big check for a National Treasure or Ghost Rider film once or twice a year.
For a while there, David Gordon Green had been accused of turning his back on sensitive indie drama himself. Still, he can be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Cage when he imagined the title part in Joe. “Whenever I’m reading a book,” the director says, “I’m thinking about the movie. I’ve been that way since I was a little kid. My first thought, reading the Larry Brown book long ago, was ‘This is Robert Mitchum.’” Somebody who really has this sense of wit but masculinity, and dramatic ability. But when I started thinking about the reality of putting this project together, Nic is the only guy who carries those with gusto. Who has the Oscars to prove it, has the bad-assed action movies to prove it and has the hilarious comedies that I can quote to you all day to prove it. So I really wanted that kind of complicated texture.”
“And I really wanted to bring Larry out,” he continues. “There is a resemblance. If you look at images of Larry, when Nic grows the beard out, there’s definitely a very vivid resemblance. And when I started imagining that, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
As for Cage, though, he raises his eyebrows, gives a “Who, me?” kind of shoulder-shrug, and passes the credit. “The great news was,” he says, “when I read the script, I knew right away that this was something where I wouldn’t have to act too much. That I could bring whatever my life experiences were from the last couple of years into the role. And it’s interesting, when the movie premiered and my wife saw it, she said, ‘Well, that’s you.’”
Cage might be being just a bit disingenuous here. It’s never quite as simple as “just being yourself” on camera. First of all, it’s damned hard to “just be yourself” in such an artificial environment—in a situation that’s not your real life, speaking words not your own with cameras and bright lights and cameras trained on you and dozens of people watching. (And knowing that millions will be watching later.) And second, what feels to an actor like “just being yourself” doesn’t always translate to audiences as character information onscreen.
Still, there’s certainly a truth at the heart of his point about the script, adapted from a novel by Larry Brown, possibly the greatest Southern novelist you’ve never read. When he wants to be, Green is a truly brilliant director, and he can be brilliant at bringing out very naturalistic performances from his actors. Despite his reputation for over-the-top performances in recent years, Cage treasures that sort of role. “One of the things about working with David,” he says, “is that he will interview his actors. He’ll invite little stories you may recall from your own life. And he’ll put those in the film, so that you get that feeling of spontaneity, that feeling of real life, of that actually happening, instead of something being acted out. Little memories, little bits and pieces of dialogue, little thoughts or experiences that actors can put into their performances so that you don’t have to act so much.”
The project has deep, long-standing roots in Green’s life. In college, his film professor, Gary Hawkins, turned him on to Brown’s novels, mostly set in Mississippi and all tough, gritty, gripping stories with unforgettable characters, many of them men struggling with images of masculinity. Green was transfixed. He went on to begin his career with critically lauded indie classics like George Washington and All The Real Girls before returning to work on Hawkins’ 2002 award-winning documentary about the author, The Rough South of Larry Brown.
When Brown passed away suddenly in 2004 from an apparent heart attack, Hawkins decided to adapt his novel, Joe, as a screenplay, thinking it was at once Brown’s most personal work, the work that Hawkins himself most responded to, and the most cinematic of the novels. He couldn’t get any interest from the industry. Nine years later, he was having an idle conversation with Green, who had since parlayed his critical acclaim into big-budget Hollywood films (Pineapple Express, The Sitter) and legendary TV comedy status (Eastbound and Down). Green asked his old professor if he had anything he should read and received, in return, the script for Joe.
“When I read the script,” Green remembers, “it struck me as a great contemporary Western, a genre I’ve always been drawn to and that I love. It’s a story very distant from me, but it’s something that really resonated with me. I felt really familiar with this world, even though I can’t quite say I grew up in the squalor of Tye’s character, and I can’t quite say I’m as bad-assed and masculine as Nic’s character. But they’re people I look up to, and I wonder about. Even the horrific characters, or some of the quirkier characters, are people I feel like, in my strange life, I’ve met along the way. And I love to explore, and take a few steps in their shoes.”
Green had a few tricks up his sleeve to give the film a real grounding in the world in which it’s set. “I remember when Nic came to town,” he recalls. “We were talking about how to flesh out the cast. I really wanted it to have a raw authenticity and not a Hollywood polish. We were going to make sure these characters felt like they were of a real world, and that we were dropping in on guys who knew how to do this labor, and how to do these voices of either poetry or horror, depending on who we were looking at. We cast it, outside of Nic, with all Texans. It was all shot in and around Austin, and we’d go downtown in the morning, and there’d be a construction foreman looking for guys for the job, and some people with landscaping needs looking for someone for their job, and then there we were looking for some people for our job. So we would cast them based on their face and their voice. It was definitely taking a leap of faith with the instinct of myself and my casting directors, who are really unique, really visionary in the lengths and detail of looking for fresh faces.”
But filling one specific part was a nagging challenge, says Green: “I just knew I needed a movie star of the magnitude of Cage for the Joe character, and I knew I needed a fresh-faced young voice with great energy for the Gary character, but for the other character I just didn’t want it to be a cynical Hollywood villain. I wanted somebody who felt sad, in a way, and had a depth and darkness behind his eyes rather than a guy who was going to just roll up his sleeves and chew up a ‘bad guy’ role. So we looked a lot of places. I auditioned some incredible actors—some well-known actors—for the part. For those who are familiar with the novel, it’s a very memorable, notable character in contemporary Southern literature. So it really just needed to be finessed in the casting process.”
“[Casting directors] John Williams and Karmen Leech,” he continues, “met Gary Poulter at a bus stop downtown, just waiting for a bus. He had actually just come back from his father’s funeral. He’d been living on the streets downtown for quite a while and had had some hardships. But he had some amazing stories to tell, and a wonderful charisma, and a positive ambition to bring to the table. He was really looking for a new step in life. It was amazing to work with him and introduce him to Cage. I introduced them at breakfast one morning, and they hit it off. Then I introduced him to Tye, and they hit it off, and we just had a wonderful time working with this guy.”
A lot of A-list Hollywood stars might take pause at sharing significant screen time with a homeless man with no previous film experience. Not Cage. “The thing is, Gary Poulter had a work ethic,” he raves. “He had the Vincent Price monologue, from the Alice Cooper Black Widow album, down. He would perform it. All the time. At the drop of a hat. It was outstanding. I mean he was a real, trained street performer. So when I was ready to work, he was ready to work. And vice versa. It didn’t feel that much different from working with someone out of Julliard. He was on point.”
Cage did his best to give Poulter a vision of the change he was in the process of making in his life. “I said to Gary, ‘Just keep it together for one year,’” he says, emotionally. “‘One year, and your life is going to change dramatically. You’re going to be getting all kinds of phone calls, and you’re going to be making all kinds of movies.’” Just over two months after the end of filming, Poulter’s lifeless body was found in three feet of water in Lady Bird Lake in Austin. It’s a loss that no one in the production can speak of without obviously raw emotion. “It’s sad,” Cage says, shaking his head helplessly.
Still, during the time Joe was being filmed, Green kept the set loose, as is his wont.
“I like working with David,” agrees Tye Sheridan, “because he incorporates a sense of realness and honesty into his films. He’s very spontaneous. I remember one time he told me to eat a booger.” He pauses, with perfect comic timing. “I told him no.”
“Regardless of the darkness or dramatic nature of the film,” Green explains, “I always cast people with a sense of humor. Because people who are super-serious don’t understand when I ask them to eat a booger. It’s not about that; it’s about inviting a little bit of absurdity and humanness into the process. It’s about remembering that no matter who we are, or what sort of pedestal or what glamorous lighting we’re under, we’re all eating boogers, man.”
Green was glad to have gotten Sheridan at this moment in his career. He had dazzled audiences in two of the best films of the last two years, 2012’s The Tree of Life and 2013’s Mud, directed by fellow Texans Terence Malick and Jeff Nichols. But he hasn’t quite reached that DiCaprio level of teen celebrity. “You sometimes get a little self-consciousness in actors,” Green explains, “especially young actors that are starting to see themselves in ads and interviews and thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m cool as shit!’ So it’s good to get Tye before he gets into that teen idol shit, and be able to put him in a headlock and be a big brother to him. He’s fun, and he brings a lot of ideas to the table, and as much as me or Gary or Larry are looking at this period in a young man’s life, why not look to the young man to tell us what to say? And if he ever comes to us and says ‘Hey, this line’s bogus’—hey man, that line’s gone.”
Cage leans in to interrupt Green. “I was also a witness,” he says with that deadpan Cage smirk, “to the moment when Tye said, ‘No, I will not eat that booger.’ It showed that he had dignity.”
“I like to work with young people,” Cage continues, “because young people haven’t had their dreams kicked out of them yet. They’re full of confidence and imagination and vision. And when they score, that all gets empowered. And Tye was a great example of that.” And of course, Sheridan reciprocates Cage’s warm feelings about him. “Nic, I think, is just a true professional,” he raves, “and has had a great career. I look up to him. He’s one of my role models.”
Cage avoided playing the elder statesman role on set, though. “I never wanted to be the older actor who was giving advice,” he says. “That, to me, was always incredibly obnoxious. So I wanted to just be there. We’re equals, we’re playing it together, we’re finding it together. I never want to be the guy who says ‘Now this is how you do it, son.’ I’m not that.”
Joe seems much more of a piece with Green’s 2013 film, Prince Avalanche, than with any of his other recent work. The connection isn’t lost on Green himself. “I think there is a spiritual connection between the two, in a way,” he agrees. “There’s something about Mother Nature’s efforts and the catastrophic nature of a forest fire, and then there’s something very intimately peculiar about a man who takes a hatchet with poison and takes out a tree. As much as a lot of my films have been about strange conflicts of masculinity, I think there’s also always been a template of backdrop. I’m always interested in where we are. Who are these people, in this place, in this time? With a little more hindsight and recollection, I think I’ll be able to connect them more, but we made them back-to-back, and they really feel like it. One of them’s a little funnier, and one’s a little darker. And I think it’s up to you to decide which is which, and your own personal perspective would dictate what that is. But I think Joe’s hilarious.”
There’s even a connection between the two and his next film, which is perhaps the most highly anticipated of his career. “Yeah, I think they’re this strange Texas trilogy,” he says. “Manglehorn is a movie that I’m editing right now, with Al Pacino and Holly Hunter and Harmony Korine and Chris Messina. A strange cast of characters. I’ve known Austin well; I grew up in Texas. But when I started to look at it through the lens of a camera, I started finding these faces and voices, and what appeals to me about the beauty of the landscape. In the case of Manglehorn, it’s more of an urban landscape. But it’s a story of three wandering souls looking for their place, and a somewhat magical journey. I haven’t polished that movie off yet, so I’m not sure exactly what it is, at the end of the day, but it came from a very similar place, a similar heartbeat.”
The concern with images of masculinity on Brown’s writing and Green’s filmmaking is obviously an element that resounded strongly with Cage. He even contributed one of the film’s most memorable conversations to the script. “About two thousand years ago,” he explains, “I had put a script together called Heartbreaker, Incorporated, which never got made. In that script, I put a line in there, but I never found a place for it to work. And I thought that maybe with Joe, it could work. I don’t know how it came to me. I think I was looking at old commercials of the Marlboro Man. It was always this guy who was kind of squinting and kind of smiling. And I was like, ‘You look like you’re in pain, but you’re smiling… Is that the icon of cool? Is that what it means to be cool?’ I did the math—okay, make a face of pain, okay now smile, yeah, that’s cool. So I thought I’d put that concept into this movie.”
Still, if there’s a good many pieces of Joe in Cage, the actor is keenly aware of the differences, as well. He’s asked in a press conference whether he’s ever had to do backbreaking work like Joe does in the film. Without missing a beat, he says urgently, “I used to sell popcorn at the Fairfax Movie Theatre in Los Angeles; that was my first job. And I took the tickets, too. I was also the usher. And I was trying to figure how I could get from there to being on the screen. One day a guy was smoking during the movie, and my boss told me I had to go tell him to put it out. And I went up to the guy and said, ‘I’m sorry sir, you’re going to have to put your cigarette out.’ And he looked at me, and took one big puff, and he just blew all the smoke in my face. And I quit.”
He pauses and gives the questioner a meaningful look. “That was the most back-breaking work I’ve ever done.” The room erupts in loud laughter. And that’s how Nic Cage, A-lister, action star and gifted thespian, can still bring the house down.