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Cage on Cage

As one of the internet’s favorite performers, Nicolas Cage knows what it’s like to be a myth—an experience he brought to the lead role of A24’s sleeper hit ‘Dream Scenario’

A24/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nicolas Cage has spent the past 15 years seeing himself reflected through the world’s eyes. Since the early 2010s—when a YouTube compilation titled “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” went viral and the actor became one of the most memed celebrities on the planet—Cage’s on-screen bravado has spawned a sort of meta fervor. He’s a paragon and a punchline. “I had no reference point for how my meltdowns, if you will, from different movies were cherry-picked and put into viral mash-ups,” Cage told me. “I didn’t sign up for that when I became a screen actor. I wanted to embrace my favorite stars from different periods in filmmaking, but then the internet came along.”

His newest movie, Dream Scenario, which recently opened in wide release, takes that status to a Jungian extreme. Cage plays a woebegone biology professor named Paul Matthews who starts unwittingly invading strangers’ dreams, becomes famous, and watches his persona outstrip his personhood. Dream Scenario wasn’t written specifically for Cage—director Kristoffer Borgli first enlisted Adam Sandler, but their schedules didn’t align—but the movie has an extra layer with him as its lead. Many performers clam up when asked to reflect on how the public perceives them. Not Nic Cage—at least not right now. As quickly as he tries to defer any analysis to his character, he launches into a monologue so self-aware it’s almost jarring.

“I found a hook, a way into Paul Matthews, where I thought I could play him authentically, and that was my own memeification,” Cage said. “That experience was an adjustment, and I wanted to find a way to put my feelings from that experience into Paul, which is why I knew Paul was a character I had to play. But the internet and what it’s done in terms of my performances—I’ve found a way, subsequently, to make friends with it. I think it’s kept me in the conversation. The more operatic or maximalist performances have struck a nerve in the zeitgeist that people seem to respond to online. The only hesitancy I have to give it a full, enthusiastic response is that I don’t want it to eclipse the idea that I can also do minimalist performances, like Pig or Joe or Birdy.”

Dream Scenario is a feature-length meltdown, which is to say it has far more nuance than a contextless clip of Cage yelling in Face/Off or a GIF of his wide-eyed stare in Vampire’s Kiss. As Paul’s life implodes because of his inexplicable overnight fame, Borgli’s film mimics the life cycle of a viral sensation. Immediately beloved, he’s courted for PR deals and sexual fantasies. Then the backlash sets in and Paul lashes out. The apology video he issues is roundly rejected, which in turn prompts an alt-right attempt to heroize him. Eventually, an entire tech industry springs up based on Paul’s dream-hopping metaphysics. By then, his wife (Julianne Nicholson) is gone and he’s lost his university job—all for something he never sought in the first place.

Cage hasn’t had to deal with much in the way of backlash, unless you count audits by the IRS. But in his mind, what happens to Paul is what happened to him. As a social media ascetic, Cage said he had no idea that the celebrity apology has become its own microgenre. The idea of releasing a mea culpa via front-facing camera or the Notes app is foreign to the 59-year-old actor, yet filming Paul’s come-to-Jesus manifesto was the scene he most related to. “That was me responding to what I felt the internet and the mash-ups and the memeification was like,” Cage said. “I just applied the feelings to this character at that moment. It’s very naked.” Interestingly, Paul’s message is really a defensive non-apology, which is why it backfires.

Before production began, Borgli and Cage holed up in a DoubleTree suite in downtown Los Angeles to develop Paul’s aura. To instill some distance, Cage made Paul’s voice higher and more “adenoidal.” He gave Paul slumped posture, a balding hairdo, and a slower gait. He considered what it’s like to be a “boring and cellophane man who was invisible”—something Nicolas Cage most certainly is not.

Part of why Cage’s esteem spiraled beyond his recognition is because his career went a little haywire around the same time that “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” blew up. After a series of profligate purchases, including two islands in the Bahamas and a dinosaur skull that had to be returned to the Mongolian government when it turned out to be stolen, Cage made a seemingly endless string of straight-to-VOD action movies to pay off the millions he owed in back taxes. When his gonzo performances in 2018’s Mandy and 2020’s Color Out of Space sparked a renaissance, it was partly because they embodied the exact version of Cage that was celebrated by the mash-up: feverish, flamboyant, aspirationally berserk. Exhibiting the opposite as a withdrawn truffle hunter in the acclaimed drama Pig gave Cage even more room to poke fun at that formula when he played himself in 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Paul Matthews may be mild-mannered by nature, but he, too, takes on larger-than-life qualities once he absorbs others’ projections. “I think what’s unique about Nicolas Cage is that his persona has outgrown the man,” Borgli recently said, in a way also talking about his protagonist. “It’s almost like he’s a mythical creature.”

“He was talking about something in esotericism which is called the egregore, which is like a channel of energy of thought,” Cage said, launching into another monologue in response to the Norwegian director’s assessment. “Enough people get together and they start thinking the same thing, not unlike Jung and the collective unconsciousness, and they build an entity out of someone and it keeps growing into a mythos. I think Elvis is a great example, and a very potent example, of that. Or if you want to go way back, King Arthur. Even Star Trek can be an egregore that people tap into. You become a part of that mythos, and you can use it to give you strength in your own life. I started acting at a very young age, and I was very interested in punk rock. I wanted to make a big noise and put myself on that map. Now, I’m going to be 60 next month. I’ve gone through different lifetimes already, but nonetheless, the persona or egregore that generated was that of the wild man, which was largely put forth when I was 18. I think what Kristoffer is talking about is that persona. That persona has outgrown the man that stays home and is with his baby girl and his wife and his sons. But listen, I’m not reflecting on any of this in any way of complaint. It just is.”

When we leave Paul at the end of Dream Scenario, he has both accomplished something and been hollowed out. He’s written a memoir about his experiences, though the publisher retitles it I Am Your Nightmare against Paul’s will. His wife has left him, but he uses the dream technology to do what his avatar wouldn’t in so many reveries: save her life. The whole thing can feel like a downer. He’s alone, just himself and his notorious visage that invaded so many strangers’ psyches. Still, there’s hope. Maybe he had to lose everything to realize that his marriage and his career were all he needed to begin with. And maybe both can be salvaged.

Cage opts not to weigh in on what might happen to Paul once Dream Scenario fades to black, lest he influence anyone else’s interpretation. “It’s bittersweet,” he simply said.

And as discombobulating as it must be to be Nicolas Cage, to Google yourself and discover that your work has been cataloged in ways you never imagined, he has learned to appreciate the memes and the way they’ve fueled his latest act, which now includes a hip A24 movie lighting up the art house box office. “There’s something to be said for the memeification, if you will,” Cage said. “It gave people some sort of vicarious enjoyment. You know, we all want to be good members of society and behave well and work within the community. But we all have an id, and we all sometimes want to just scream.”

Matthew Jacobs is an Austin-based entertainment journalist who covers film and television. His work can be found at Vulture, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, HuffPost, and beyond. Follow him on Twitter @majacobs.