The year's best actor -- ''Leaving Las Vegas'''s Nicolas Cage discusses his move to the limelight

By Steve Daly
Updated March 15, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

”Nobody really knows me down here,” says Nicolas Cage. He’s perched on a red-velvet couch in the 12th-floor penthouse suite he recently purchased in a teemingly pan-ethnic but predominantly Latino section of downtown Los Angeles. Clad completely in textured black clothing — scaly boots, fleecy jeans, and a rumply T-shirt torn at the neck — Cage looks like some dark version of a blank canvas, primed but unpainted. ”I can walk around, and it’s completely anonymous,” he says, his intense gray eyes unwavering. ”I can get a chicken soft taco or something and sit there in the market and imagine I’m in South America somewhere.”

In his other homes — a San Francisco Victorian mansion with custom-made stained-glass windows picturing a dragon and an outlandish, 11-room Hollywood Hills abode fashioned in the style of a German castle — Cage bonds with his wife of 11 months, actress Patricia Arquette, and his 5-year-old son, Weston, whom he had with ex-girlfriend Kristina Fulton. (Arquette also has a 6-year-old son, by musician Paul Rossi.) So isn’t this talk of escape pretty bachelor-ish for a family man?

Cage considers the question carefully, the way he considers every question. As he weaves his answer, his California-dude accent emerges from a throat so constricted with concentration at times that you want to find the choke control and ease up on it. ”I think that having different environments is better, rather than having one huge, you know, space that you reside in all the time,” he says, gesturing in a way that makes his T-shirt ride down and reveal his carefully demarcated chest-hair trim line. ”I think it’s more interesting to have smaller spaces that you can explore and feel like different people.”

It’s that overwhelming hunger to keep shifting his shape that has landed Cage at center stage, putting him at the vertex of a career he still seems to be a bit startled to find thriving. Already lauded with every conceivable award — the Golden Globe, the SAG statuette, citations from the three major critics’ groups — for his role as a terminal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, his 25th film, Cage is considered the front runner for Best Actor at the Academy Awards March 25. He’s just wrapped what he hopes is his first successful action movie, Hollywood Pictures’ The Rock, in which he plays an FBI agent opposite Sean Connery and Ed Harris (Cage’s paycheck: $4 million). And on the afternoon that we speak, news has broken of two more major movie deals: $6 million to $7 million for Cage to team with John Travolta and director John Woo (Broken Arrow) in the Paramount thriller Face Off, and then another action film, Con Air, about a planeload of prisoners.

Pretty heady stuff for an actor who had no significant formal training and who, in his teens, couldn’t land any good roles under his real name, Nicolas Coppola, because casting agents ”would spend the whole audition time asking me about my uncle Francis.” (Cage’s father, August, a former professor of literature at Cal State Long Beach, is the brother of Francis Ford Coppola and actress Talia Shire.) So how does Cage intend to celebrate now that he’s scaled the heights of the action-movie A list in Hollywood? By moving on out, he hopes. ”I’ve been looking at places in New York,” he says. ”The idea of a foot culture, that you are going to observe more people, to me is food, you know, for acting. The idea of not having to rely on a car, and not to be in that space bubble, seems pretty attractive to me right now. It’s just that I’m 32 and I’ve been here all my life, and I think I need to have a change.”