How the ''Bringing Out the Dead'' star went undercover on the mean streets of L.A.

By Liane Bonin
October 22, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
Star Max, Inc.

Nicolas Cage may be Hollywood’s $20 million man, but for ”Bringing Out the Dead” the city of Los Angeles managed to squeeze a little free labor out of him. ”I was dropped into a paramedic bus and told to put my bulletproof vest on,” says Cage, who tagged along with an EMS unit in East Los Angeles to prepare for his role as a paramedic haunted by the souls he couldn’t save. ”There’s a drive-by shooting, and I’m there helping a young kid with a bullet shot through his leg. He’s saying, ‘Can I take the gum out of my mouth?’ And I’m taking the gum out and putting a gas mask on him. I was terrified.”

While helping the wounded, Cage had a few other worries too. ”I was concerned they’d think, Oh my god, the character from ‘City of Angels’ is here, coming to take me away!” jokes the 34-year-old actor. ”But none of the patients recognized me.” Still, his unflappable cool couldn’t compare to that of some of his ride-along buddies. ”We had just done a four-hour drive, and I was with all the paramedics,” Cage recalls. ”I asked them, what would it be like if somebody had their face blasted off with a shotgun and you had to look at that? And one guy just looked at me and went, ‘Cool!’ As dark as that was, I understood it. He was not going to get emotionally invested in it.”

The actor had a harder time understanding one ER doc who felt the need to outshine Cage’s star power. ”He was the only person who really recognized me, and he started showing off,” Cage says. ”So they’re doing chest cracks on people and there’s blood everywhere and there’s two cadavers on the table. I’m just trying to stay cool, and he’s looking up at me, saying, ‘What do you think of THAT, Nic? Watch this!’ At one point he smiled and said, ‘It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a movie star or a CEO or a homeless man, you’re all gonna come see us.”’ Yeah, and if you’re really unlucky, you’ll have an actor as your paramedic.