Nicolas Cage is a force; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would deny that. But the prolific actor has been toeing the line of self-parody in the past few decades with his larger-than-life characters. In the Southern gothic Joe, director David Gordon Green gave Cage the opportunity to lose himself in a serious performance again as an impetuous, selfish ex-con who surprises himself when he becomes protective of a hard-luck kid he hires for lumber work, played by Mud‘s Tye Sheridan.
It was a somewhat unconventional choice, but, it seems to have been an inspired one as well. Cage got raves for his performance after the film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
Green always knew he would be perfect for Joe Ransom. “He had tremendous masculinity. He’s just in incredible shape and intimidating in stature. He also has great dramatic range as an actor. He can be in Con-Air and he can be in Leaving Las Vegas. And just for me, personally, and the manner in which I like to work…he’s a funny guy,” Green told EW. “I like to have a good time when I’m making movies, and he seemed like a guy who would agree.”
So he invited Cage to Austin, where they drove around and talked for a few days about the role. Cage even helped Green scout locations for Prince Avalanche, which Green was about to begin production on at the time. Cage, Green said, “was so eager to reinvent himself. It felt like a great opportunity to me.”
That’s not to say that he wasn’t a little nervous to focus his movie around someone so famous. “When you get involved in a professional relationship with a movie star you never know what’s going to show up — whether or not he’s going to lock himself in his trailer,” Green said. “With Cage I was relieved to find a guy who knew everybody on the crew’s name and learned about their jobs from them and was involved in the process.”
Cage threw himself into the role. He not only read the novel the story is based on, by the late Larry Brown, he got to know his family. He visited Brown’s widow. “He went the extra mile,” said Green. “He wasn’t just the actor sitting in front of a mirror memorizing lines.”
As for what actually happened when the cameras started rolling, it’s transcendentally Cage. “When you let him loose, you find unexpected things,” said Green. “He could handle a venomous cottonmouth snake without protection. That showed me an actor that was fearless. If it was appropriate for the role or his character, he would get in that mind-set and he could do anything — he would do anything. There’s a beauty to that.”
Roadside Attractions will release Joe in theaters on April 11.