Nicolas Cage received his marching orders for “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” several years ago in a phone call from the filmmaker, Werner Herzog.
“He was talking about ‘the bliss of evil,’ and ‘letting the pig loose,’ and all this crazy stuff,” Cage recalls of an early conversation, long before the star and his director — plus cast (Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer) and crew — descended on the Crescent City to shoot the over-the-top rogue-cop drama.
“I never really saw my character as a pig,” Cage adds, deadpan, “but then Werner said it came from some sort of Bavarian mythology, that it was a Bavarian catchphrase — to ‘let the pig loose.’ So that was a direction that he would give, but I never really took it.
“I just came in doing what I had to do, and thankfully, he let me do it. I knew where I wanted to go with the part, what levels I wanted to express myself at, and he had the guts to let me go there.”
What Cage does in “Bad Lieutenant” is easily his best, and most unleashed, work in years: as Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans cop strung out on prescription painkillers and cocaine, Cage walks around with a look of glazed pain, his shoulders sloped, a gun tucked sloppily in his pants. If he’s not letting the pig loose, he’s certainly loosened something.
“There were some real exalted moments of just diving in and going for complete abandon,” he concedes, citing two scenes in particular: first, a drug-den fracas in which Cage’s character yells, “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” to a dealer about a rival dealer who was clearly just blown to smithereens.
Blown to smithereens, but then Herzog’s camera swings back to the dead guy, and there he is, breakdancing on the marble floor.
And then there’s the scene in the Big Easy retirement home, where Cage’s gun-swinging cop threatens a sweet old lady and her elderly caregiver, reprimanding them for, well, being alive and running up huge health-care costs. At one point, the bad lieutenant yanks the oxygen hose straight from the senior citizen’s nose.
“That scene I knew would be funny and awful all at the same time,” says Cage, on the phone from Los Angeles recently. “I wrote some of that dialogue when I was working on ‘Knowing,’ and I wanted to talk about the unspoken dirty little secret that sometimes family members think when there’s a loved one in a hospital and your inheritance is going down the drain.
“But I wrote all that not knowing that there was going to be this huge spotlight on the health-care situation in the States. ...
“That scene, it was like, ‘OK, this is really disruption at its worst.’”
As for his “shoot him again!” freakout, Cage drew his inspiration from a psychedelic moment a few of his friends had shared.
“I knew some folks ... that had all done drugs, and they all had the same hallucination at the same time, involving a football player with antlers. And I thought that was a hilariously bizarre hallucination for three people to have.”
Although “Bad Lieutenant” takes its title — and bare-bones premise — from the 1992 Abel Ferrara-directed indie with Harvey Keitel, Cage says that in no way is what he and Herzog have done a remake. In addition to changing the location from New York to New Orleans — and giving the post-Katrina city a major role, in a way — Cage says that, thematically, the films are very different.
“One — the Abel Ferrara one — is much more of a kind of religious program, dealing with Catholic guilt,” he explains. “And the other — ours — is more of an existential experience.
“I’m a fan of Abel Ferrara and of Harvey Keitel’s, but we’re looking at two different beasts.”
Cage, 45, has managed — and continues to manage — mixing oddball projects with mainstream blockbusters. His two “National Treasure” titles, a family-friendly franchise, have earned more than $804 million. He won an Oscar for his performance as a suicidal drunk in Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas,” was nominated again for his doppelganger turn in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” has done art-house Euro schmaltz (“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”), and was paid $20 million to star opposite Angelina Jolie (whom he has called “the female me”) in “Gone in 60 Seconds.”
There are three finished Cage pics set for release in 2010: “Season of the Witch,” “Kick-Ass” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
The first is “the story of a Teutonic knight in the 14th century, who’s trying to transport an alleged witch to a monastery in order for this young lady to be exorcised — to stop the Black Plague wreaking havoc,” he reports. Ron Perlman and Christopher Lee costar. The alleged witch is played by British actress Claire Foy, who played Amy Dorrit in the Emmy-winning Dickens adaptation “Little Dorrit.”
“Kick-Ass” is based on the Marvel comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. about a teenage vigilante superhero. “My character is more of a supporting part,” says Cage. “I play the father of a young lady named Hit Girl, and Chloe Moretz plays that part. ... It’s kind of a very bizarre, loving relationship in the middle of what (director) Matthew Vaughn would call a lot of ultraviolence.”
And “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is, indeed, a live-action feature drawn from the Mickey Mouse-and-his-buckets-and-brooms sequence in the animated Disney classic “Fantasia.” “They really want to entertain the whole family with that movie,” he says. “They’ve constructed more of a story — I’m a sorcerer that’s in search of this young, budding sorcerer, and I have to bring his abilities out and teach him how to access his abilities so he’ll do good.”
And Cage does not yell “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” at the kid.