AUSTIN, Texas — Nicolas Cage was everywhere at the South by Southwest festival.
He was on temporary tattoos, handed out as part of promos for his new film, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” and on T-shirts worn by many fans who turned up at the premiere over the weekend.
His face was on posters made by one superfan plastered across Austin that read: “Nicolas Cage I’m your biggest fan please call me.” Which, later, Cage did. Three mascot Nic Cages, who looked like life-sized bobble heads of the actor, were even walking around town.
The marching band around Cage is not only normal; it’s expected.
“There’s an authenticity to Nic, because he is this guy. He is a deeply weird individual who is a cinephile and very sensitive,” Tom Gormican, the director and co-writer of the new Cage film, said in an interview at the SXSW festival. “He puts this out in the world with such bravado and confidence that I think people get it, they understand he’s authentic.”
Cage plays a fictional, more egotistical and financially unstable version of himself in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” In the very meta film, he’s offered $1 million to appear at the birthday party of rich superfan Javi Gutierrez, played by Pedro Pascal, in Spain. The events that transpire turn the film into a buddy comedy-meets-Cage-style action movie.
The Lionsgate comedy has already generated a 100 percent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes — The Verge appropriately described it as “a Nic Cage meme as a movie” — and a lot of buzz ahead of its April 22 theatrical release.
“I think part of the interest in the film is ‘Who is he actually?’” Gormican said.
The goal was not to make fun of Cage but to celebrate his prolific career, co-writer Kevin Etten said. Throughout the film there are references to notable Cage movies, including “The Rock,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Face/Off,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” “Guarding Tess” and “The Wicker Man.” There’s even a room filled with many, many props from the Cage canon that were collected by Pascal’s character.
Neither Etten nor Gormican had met Cage before they wrote the film. “We just started writing it — it’s a colossally stupid decision that worked out nicely,” Gormican said. They wrote the script in 2018 over eight or nine months and then shopped it around to studios.
Eventually, Lionsgate got on board, but “with the caveat that if Nicolas Cage didn’t come on board they were no longer on board,” Gormican said.
Etten and Gormican said they would not have rewritten the script to feature a different actor playing himself if Cage had turned it down. “The narrative really only works with him,” Gormican said.
Etten added, “There’s such a deep love for him in a way there aren’t for some of those other people that have had similar trajectories.”
To convince Cage, the duo penned a letter. They emphasized how they were making something to celebrate his career.
“He’s done everything well, and there are very few actors that can cross genres like that,” Gormican said. “We said, ‘How about the opportunity to do it all in one project?’
“We also talked about how in a world where your identity is constantly litigated in a public sphere … we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be an interesting piece of performance art to take the reins of this in a feature film narrative and put things that are real and fictional out there in a blend of the two and have people not know?'”
For example, Cage does not have a daughter in real life. But in the film, he has a broken relationship he is seeking to repair with his onscreen daughter, Addy, played by Lily Sheen, who is frustrated by her actor father’s need to be the center of everything.
“There are things people don’t know, there are things that are real and things that aren’t,” Gormican said. “The more Nic put pieces of himself into that equation while we were filming, the most interesting this piece of performance art for us got.”
It helped that the two had done their research.
Cage was initially reluctant, turning down the opportunity several times before saying yes. The oft-parodied actor said he was concerned the film would be more like “an Andy Samberg ‘SNL’ sketch mocking whatever so-called ‘Nic Cage’ is.”
“No muscle in my body told me to play any version of myself in a movie. And because it scared the crap out of me, I knew I had to do it.”
-Nic cage on playing a fictional version of himself in ‘The unbearable weight of massive talent’
“It was a high wire. It was terrifying,” Cage told audience members at the festival. “No muscle in my body told me to play any version of myself in a movie. And because it scared the crap out of me, I knew I had to do it.”
He also told the audience that he has “been trying to get back into my dramatic roots and back into independent films, which is my base.”
“I’m always going to go back to that. And I was thinking a lot about Tony Curtis,” Cage said. “How Tony Curtis could play the Boston Strangler and then he could be in movies like ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ and ‘Some Like It Hot.’ And I’d think: ‘Well, that guy has range. Let’s get back to some comedy, let’s flex a little bit and do the comedy and the drama.’ So thankfully Kevin and Tom allowed me to do that with this.”
There’s even a moment when Cage kisses his younger alter ego, who appears in the film several times. That was Cage’s idea, Gormican said. “It’s the thing you only get with Nic. He comes to you and says, ‘Tom, I’d like to French kiss myself.’”
Cage said of his creative suggestion: “It was so symbolic of what was happening. I’m actually making a movie about two versions of myself. …It’s like making out with yourself in the weirdest way. So we might as well do that symbolically and have them kiss each other.”
Everyone involved in the film had a love for Cage and his films. Pascal, according to cast members, was probably the biggest fan of the group.
When Pascal was asked on the red carpet whether his “Mandalorian” character loves Grogu (Baby Yoda) more or whether Javi loves Nic Cage more, he responded, “It’s an impossible question to answer.”
As for Pascal himself? “I grew up watching Nic Cage movies,” he said. “I think whether I knew it or not, I think I’m an actor because of Nic Cage movies. I really do. And so it’s a next level of surreal to be a scene partner with him.”
On set, the pair’s bond transcended the meta movie premise. They even shared film recs.
“I knew more about Nicolas Cage movies than they did,” Pascal said of Gormican and Etten.
As Cage, who sported a plaid suit, walked the carpet to enter a packed Paramount Theatre, fans erupted in cheers and chants of “Nic! Nick! Nick!”
He stopped to pose with photos for a few and answered questions of those in the audience, who gave him a standing ovation after the film ended.
Cage accepted a rose from a fan and thanked the festival after he was presented with an outsize belt buckle in recognition of “40 years of massive talent.”
“I’m going to wear this … and this is going to encourage me to keep trying to surprise you and entertain you,” he said.
So what’s next for the actor? Cage said at the film’s premiere that he would love to do a musical at some point. Sounds like it’s time for Etten and Gormican to get cracking on their next Cage script.