Nouveau Shamanic: The Enigmatic Style of Nicolas Cage

With his upcoming film ‘Mandy’ destined to be the next chapter in the Cult of Cage, what’s behind the vitriol and fascination of this polarizing actor?
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By  · Published on July 3rd, 2018

I’m one of those fortunate people who like my job, sir.” – Nicolas Cage as Stanley Goodspeed, The Rock.

How do we define acting? Easy, right? Simply, it’s the art of representing a character on stage or on screen. It’s about inhabiting a role, coercing audiences into believing that you are someone else. Much of the connection between an actor and the audience lies in the mystery, and the surprise, of disappearing in front of someone’s eyes.

So then how do we define good acting? Is it still just that; the illusion of an actor vanishing into a role? If so, then how does that account for our love of seeing anyone actor in a movie? While Daniel Day-Lewis may fall deeply into character, we are still wildly aware of Day-Lewis the actor on screen. In a way, the attraction that he brought to his own methodologies, in some regard, has been his own downfall. This is of course despite still being recognized as one of the most talented living actors of our generation.

But then conversely what does an audience mean when they describe an actor or a performance as bad? It could just be that they don’t believe the actor. But more commonly I find it revolves around not the choices the actor made, but rather the choices the audience would’ve made. “That’s not believable! I would never do that!” says the armchair action hero.

But that’s wholly subjective, isn’t it? There’s an endless litany of possibilities of how someone will react to any situation, especially ones so heightened as we see in film, so who are we to say that one choice is better than the other?

Or is it possibly comparative? Do we only know good acting based upon who we historically recognize as good actors? Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and Sidney Poitier are all rightfully remembered as some of the greatest actors of the past generations, but does that make them the litmus test for the rest of the world’s stage?

But what if an actor doesn’t fit into the mold that those veterans have created, that audiences have come to expect? If they don’t fit into the style that was established over 60 years ago through the burgeoning Method, modern audiences see it as best over-the-top and at worst deliriously indulgent.

Granted when some less than professional actors are given lines and blocking, they tend to forget how to speak and what to do with their hands. But when you are a star as charismatic and arresting as Nicolas Cage is, no one is saying you don’t know what to do with your hands. Typically, they don’t know what to make of you at all. Because the usual summer blockbuster audience isn’t accustomed to watching an actor express his craft in such distinct ways as Nicolas Cage does.

Over the last decade though there has been a memeification of Nicolas Cage and specifically his acting style, despite his illustrious career and honors including an Academy Award for Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas. While it’s mixed with some genuine appreciation, it can get muddied in a wisecracking sense of impertinence. Laughing at his performances, rather than with.

Take this headline from TIME Magazine, “Nicolas Cage Just Blessed Us With the Most Nicolas Cage Answer About His ‘Over the Top’ Acting” This headline, specifically in the context of this article, is meant to be a slight at Cages otherworldliness, “I don’t act. I feel and I imagine and I channel.

But what they and so many fail to realize is that this idea, that we are not acting but feeling, isn’t unique to Cage. It’s not a Cage-ism, rather it’s a concept at the heart of what every actor strives to do. To invest ourselves so fully in a character that it’s not merely acting an emotion, but rather truly experiencing the characters emotional state through physical or psychological recall. While it may sound eccentric and is definitely extra in Cage, it’s recognizable to every actor and paramount to every performance.

I don’t even like the word acting anymore because it implies lying in some way.” isn’t a Cage original either. An actor who I extensively worked with hated the word acting as well, as a common reaction we get to our craft is “Oh, you’re just great liars.” when in reality, as the actor put it, “We’re expert truth-tellers.

While, yes, acting by its sheer nature can be thought of as a form of lying, that’s a wholly shallow way of viewing an art form. And this shallow view I think is integral to the lack of understanding of what Nicolas Cage is actually doing on screen: refined experimentation that’s unafraid of risk-taking.

So what even is Nicolas Cage’s method of acting? He’s described it as Nouveau Shamanic, a phrase that gained attention during the press junket for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and later while promoting David Gordon Green’s Joe. As he told LA Weekly,

“I can’t really take credit for that. I read a book by professor Brian Bates called The Way of the Actor. I was really just recalling what I read in that, which is the notion that,… thousands of years ago, pre-Christian for example, the medicine men or the tribal shamans were really actors. What they would do is they would act out whatever the issues were with the villagers at that time, they would act it out and try to find the answers or go into a trance or go into another dimension, which is really just the imagination, and try to pull back something that would reflect the concerns of the group.”

This may sound like Cage-style hyperbolics, but what he is describing is an integral part of performative history. These ideas are directly correlated to the earliest Medieval theatre, from Mummers to Pageant and Mystery plays, where the players donned masks and performed Biblical and moralistic stories on a traveling stage. While this may not say much about how Cage is performing in the moment, it does give us a clue to Cage’s style: he’s deeply invested in the history of his craft.

Nouveau Shamanic may have given us a starting point for his acting -isms, but it doesn’t account for how that translates to screen. Most general audiences only exposure to what goes into preparing for a role is from The Method, the ominous-sounding concept developed by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner which itself is derived from Konstantin Stanislavski’s System of Acting. But even within the Method, the three practitioners still had their own approaches to it, from behavioral to sociological and psychological. But therein lies the inherent problem with acting methods: no one way is truly right, despite some actors being vehement over their chosen training.

This is what makes Nicolas Cage so intriguing as a performer. He feels so wholly unique. While I could trace his roots from Michael Chekhov’s Circles of Attention and Grotowski’s “Art As Presentation”, or Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints, to even Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, a study that relied on motion rather than language to express thoughts and ideas that could not be told through naturalistic theatre, it’s not just one method that he utilizes. He cuts right to the root of what all of these methods are ultimately trying to get an actor to return to: their sense of play.

This sense of play is what the royal we find so appealing about Nicolas Cage’s performances. It’s best likened to a child winding a Jack In The Box. The moment the clown pops out from the top, the child laughs because they are surprised. In these moments that have created this Cult of Cage, we’re not laughing at him rather we’re laughing because we too are surprised.

And what surprises us is his impulses, the physically intuitive choices that he makes when he is invested in a moment. We also recognize something of ourselves in these Cage Rage scenes. His seemingly bizarre choices are akin to the energy we feel when we’re excited and have an urge to move or dance. But with Cage, he channels that energy into stylized gestures for his actions, from eating an olive to destroying a pool table. When he’s feeling the action, he allows it inspire his motivation rather than second-guessing himself.

Unlike most actors, instead of taking risks in classes, Nicolas Cage has had the opportunity to take risks on the screen, unconcerned if it doesn’t always work. Vampire’s Kiss is one long-acting exercise in following his impulses. The infamous scene where he recites the alphabet to his therapist is pure unadulterated impulse. You can almost see the written page “Loew has outburst in doctors office”, but when engaged at the moment he lets loose. I’d even argue he doesn’t remember doing it, a temporary lapse in memory that only comes when you lose yourself in a scene.

Leaving Las Vegas is a perfect storm for Nicolas Cage. The inherent eccentricities that can be mined from the steady decline into crippling alcoholism are tools used to create a distinctly original interpretation of an addict. The performance is studied, while also allowing for the impulses that are key to Cages techniques. A shaking hand that proves too overpowering to even sign his name, a significant sign of physical addiction, is used to fully engages his body. It’s a tool to tell the audience something of his character, like an elbow akimbo as he holds a glass of wine while talking up a girl in a bar signifies the characters lack of social mores.

But these methods are still not an actors self-indulgence, because he always tempers each performance towards the film he’s making and the director he is working with. It’s the reason why we have such heartfelt performances like his turn in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck or The Coen Brothers Raising Arizona. These aren’t overly exaggerated stories, and while they still have heightened moments of Cage’s impulse following, he finds a grounded root for each character.

But when placed in films with outlandish plots from directors with brash pedigrees, it allows for him to reach further into his bag of tricks. Take for example Larry Charles’ Army of One. While the film is based on the true story of Gary Faulkner’s pilgrimage from God to find Osama Bin Laden, Charles’ corpus is with Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of irreverent humor. Cage leans into the directors own artistic boisterousness as a jumping off point, finding his character, like Peter Sellers before him, from the voice first.

He adopts a high pitched, nasally vocal fry that is unlike Faulkner’s real voice and wildly unexpected, but it elevates the character off the page. In another’s hand they may not have reached for these chances, an inherent fear of going “over the top”, and in doing so they take no risk. Acting shares the cardinal rule of cinema in that respect: the worst thing you can do is be dull. 

In his acceptance speech for his Academy Award, Nicolas Cage said:

“Oh boy. Oh boy…I have got to thank the members of the Academy for this…for helping me blur the line between art and commerce for this award. I know it’s not hip to say this but I…I just love acting and I hope that their will be more encouragement for movies where we can experiment and fast forward into the future of acting.”

Cage is the blurred line between movie star and avant-garde artist. An actor who can have the charisma and presence to carry a film like National Treasure to box office gold, while still having the desire to not only mine his characters emotional truths like his industry peers, but to also explore the limits of an art form that so rarely sees its boundaries tested for fear of failure.

Nicolas Cage has a bizarre humility to the meme-ification of his craft, that in spite of so many perceived failures to bemused audiences, it doesn’t stop him from continued experimentation. And at a point in his career where most other actors may just coast on the charm of past characters, Cage reminds us through every role exactly what he reminded that Oscars audience 22 years ago: he just loves acting. And we love him for it.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)