Dream Scenario star Nicolas Cage reveals his worst nightmare to us

Nicolas Cage stars in Dream Scenario as an ordinary guy who suddenly starts appearing in everyone’s dreams – which has its ups and (increasingly) downs. Stephen A Russell spoke with Cage and director Kristoffer Borgli about this intriguing, nightmarish pic and where it sits in the actor’s massive filmography.

Dream Scenario star Nicolas Cage has tangled with bloodsuckers in Vampire’s Kiss and Renfield, gone on a chainsaw-driven rampage in Mandy and, notoriously, screamed at a facefull of bees in the misjudged remake of The Wicker Man. But he revealed to Flicks that his most nightmarish role was playing Nick Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

“That’s scariest thing I’ve ever had to do in 40-plus years of making movies,” he chuckles. “There was no muscle in my body that said, ‘Oh, I want to play Nick Cage’. No, all of us actors want to hide behind a character. That’s not me, man. I didn’t have a daughter at the time but I do now. I’m not someone that wants to choose career over family.”

Cage says it was “humiliating” playing a hyper-exaggerated version of himself, as is the fact his career has been “meme-ified” to death. “I woke up one morning and made the mistake of Googling myself and just saw this mash-up called ‘Nick Cage loses his you know what’, and it was cherry-picking all these crisis moments of different characters that I had played, without any regard for the narrative or how the character reached that point.”

It was discombobulating to see how viral his performances had become on social media. “I didn’t know what was happening to me and I couldn’t stop it,” he says. “I couldn’t control it. There was nothing I could do. It just started growing exponentially and compounding on itself.”

While he acknowledge that Massive Talent has plenty of heart, “It was a high-wire act, and I never want to do anything like that again.”

A dream gig

In LA-based, Norwegian-born Sick of Myself writer/director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest film, the Ari Aster-produced, A24-backed Dream Scenario, Cage plays schlubby, dad joke-spouting professor Paul Matthews. The role seems remarkably different from the Cage we all know and love. A blend into the background type, it’s very odd when Paul suddenly starts appearing in folks’ dreams the world over. His initially innocuous presence gradually takes a turn for the nightmarish.

Cage could recognise shades of his late, academic father, August, in Paul, and winced at elements of his own meme-ification. “People are dreaming about him and he has no control over that,” he says. “So behind the design of the character—the voice, the movement, the look—was genuine emotion. And lately, I want to get more personal with my work. I want to find characters like Rob in Pig, or Paul in Dream Scenario, glide into them and not feel like I have to act too much.”

Sliding in is one thing, but Cage does love to transform for a role. his vocal performance is a big part of that, because when Cage started out, he felt his voice was too weak for the gig. “All my heroes had very distinct voices, like James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart, that you can hook into,” he says. “So I tried to develop my own voice.”

With Vampire’s Kiss, he borrowed his dad’s. “He spoke in a mid-Atlantic accent, and I couldn’t understand it,” Cage says. “I was like, ‘Dad, why are you talking like that? You’re not British’. And he’s like, ‘I’m an English professor, and I chose to speak with distinction’.”

Cage speaks in a slightly higher, gentler register for the physically meek Paul in Dream Scenario. Cage insists it’s a dream role, with Borgli’s screenplay right up there with the best he’s ever tackled, including Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona and Adaptation. Its nightmare tilt reminded him of the dream-like logic of Japanese horror movies Ringu and The Grudge. “I thought we could play with that here.”

While he says the fantasist in him wants to believe that dreams mean something, like the one he had the other day about his nanny going Cage-like crazy, he’s too much of a scientist at heart. “They’re kind of little mind expressions or blips in the normal process of thinking and it’s very abstract, inherently,” he says. “And I think that movies and dreams go together, because they share the same DNA.”

From VHS to vision realisation

Speaking from a parking lot outside a Director’s Guild of America do, Kristoffer Borgli reckons no one but Cage could have paled the role. “The challenge became to shave off that Nic Cage-ness in the beginning, to have a very grounded, normal, nerdy character, and then unleash the Cage as the movie went along,” he says.

Growing up in Oslo, Borgli worked in a video rental store while frenetically writing his own screenplays, after buying a copy of the Coen brothers’ Fargo to figure out how it worked on the page. He would play Cage marathons and can’t quite believe the pair have now made a movie together, or that Dream Scenario, living up to its name, rates near the top of his star’s career-high list. “It’s a great honour, and who am I to disagree?” he laughs. “I became really in awe of the idea of there might, one day, be a Nic Cage marathon that includes Dream Scenario.”

As for why this feature and Sick of Myself relentlessly deploy excruciatingly awkward scenarios, Borgli says we’d have to speak to his shrink. “For some reason, I am drawn to the uncomfortable side of comedy,” he says. “And I think some things are best left in fiction. I really like to go to those places that I dread, and social awkwardness is the biggest fear I have.”

What language does Borgli dream in now he’s living in the US? “I feel like my dreams have gradually moved into English, but I’m sure that if whoever is in my dream is a Norwegian person, I will probably switch,” he says. “I keep a dream journal, but funnily enough, I don’t remember which language they’re in, and that’s very interesting. Now I need to make a note of that.”

Cage appeared in Borgli’s dreams in the months leading up to the shoot. “It feels easy to analyse, but it was always about him ruining the shoot, refusing to do what I say,” Borgli chuckles. “One dream in particular, he showed up with a spiky Korean pop star hairstyle and said, ‘This is the only way I’m doing this movie,’ and I was forced to shoot it with this ridiculous haircut.”

Thankfully Cage was easier to handle IRL. “He’s the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with,” Borgli says. “He’s like an architect. Certain things I thought were impulses on the day, like body language or mannerisms he suddenly had that we hadn’t discussed, I could then see in the editing that he’d made a running joke out of them and that it was very thoughtful. He’s a mastermind. I’m really in awe of the level of work he commits to.”

Cage admired Borgli’s approach on set, too. “That’s something that actors really appreciate in a filmmaker, that they have confidence in their vision,” Cage says. “Every step of the way, we were sculpting it together. It was the two of us working together to make his dream come to life.”