Nicolas Cage may have grown up in southern California, but he’s always had one foot in The Big Easy. The city has had a hold on the actor ever since he traveled there to film the 1990 movie Wild at Heart, so it’s hardly surprising that he jumped at the chance to return last year to film The Runner (in theaters and on iTunes Aug. 7).
In the first of at least two films based on the 2010 BP oil spill (the other, out next year, is a disaster movie, whereas The Runner is an introspective political drama), Cage plays Colin Price, a Louisiana politician whose noble intentions to aid constituents devastated by the spill get derailed by a textbook sex scandal. Fans looking for Cage dancing down the aisles of liquor stores or flashing bug-eyed maniacal grins won’t find those antics here; The Runner represents a self-directed turn toward more “emotionally naked” performances.
Cage spoke with TIME about his history with New Orleans, the roles he cherishes most and what political scandals have in common with film criticism in the era of TMZ.
TIME: Your character, Colin Price, is driven by his empathy for his constituents in the aftermath of the oil spill. How did you get a feel for the way the spill affected New Orleans?
Nicolas Cage: It was pretty hard on the fishing industry and the restaurant industry. That city relies on the ability to deliver fine cuisine in the Cajun and Creole flavor that people from around the world go to the city for, and the spill put that industry into complete shutdown mode. A lot of people lost their jobs and were going bankrupt. When I went to film the movie, I got a chance to speak to some of the fisherman and the shrimpers, and you could see that it took a toll on them.
Did you have a personal affinity for New Orleans before signing onto this movie?
I have a love-hate relationship with New Orleans, which is the strongest sort of relationship. I’ve had some extraordinary, beautiful, poetic experiences in this city and I’ve had some terrible experiences in this city. I’m drawn to New Orleans, in many ways feel I grew up in New Orleans, even though I’m from the West. I went there for the first time for Wild at Heart, and I kept going back to make more movies there. I’ve become very close to the city and part of me does feel like a New Orleanian.
When you were preparing for the role, were you looking to any disgraced politicians, real or fictional, for inspiration?
Without mentioning any names, I looked at pretty much every story that may come to your mind about a politician on the rise who was stopped short or dragged down by personal flaws and then became just a media storm. I see this as a thing that continues to happen in America and I wanted to say something about that.
Can a politician whose personal life has gone off the rails still be an effective leader?
I’m always going to judge somebody on their work ethic, and whether or not they made me feel something, or whether or not I felt they did a good job. To me, it’s important to try to block anything personal out and look at the performance, in any field.
You’ve talked about wanting to be more “emotionally naked” in your performances, to strip down rather than play bold and loud. How did that perspective evolve for you?
It’s almost been 40 years of doing this, and I’ve gone through different reinventions of film performance, by design, just to stay interested. I love art, I love music. I can listen to Stockhausen and a very experimental, avant-garde approach, and I can listen to Beethoven and have a more classical, traditional approach. Why not be able to do that with film performance? When I started experimenting with fantasy and horror films and looking for characters who had some sort of emotional or mental difficulty, I saw opportunities to express my music—dare I say art—in a way that I could get a bit surreal—like Francis Bacon’s screaming pope, or Edvard Munch with [The Scream].
But I had done that, so now it was like, OK, what’s going to keep me interested? Perhaps let’s go back to a more quiet, internal, emotional style of film performance which I started exploring in a little movie I made called Joe a couple years ago and then again with The Runner.
Looking back on the more than 75 movies you’ve made, are there any roles you regret taking on?
No. They’re all my children. Whether they worked or didn’t work, I grew by taking risks and dealing with critical backlash. I was OK with it because I felt that I was still finding things in my instrument that made me remain fresh or excited. I got into film acting because I wanted to be James Dean. We lost him at a very young age—he was only 24—but I’m 51 going on 52, so there’s only so many times you can act like James Dean. I had to find new ways of expressing myself that kept me fascinated with film performance.
Do you have a handful of roles that you consider your favorites?
There’s a few of them, sure. I thought that Werner [Herzog] and I got up to something special in Bad Lieutenant. Certainly Mike Figgus and I found something pretty emotionally naked in Leaving Las Vegas. I was very happy with Vampire’s Kiss, which in my opinion was almost like an independent laboratory to start realizing some of my more expressionistic dreams with film performance. Then using what I had learned in Vampire’s Kiss and putting it into a very big action movie in the form of Face/Off with John Woo. If you look at those two movies back to back, you can see where I stole from my performance in Vampire’s Kiss.
How important is criticism to you at this stage in your career?
I think that there was a period in film commentary where it was like the gold standard—I would cite someone like Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or Paul Schrader—where they were really determining based on the work itself, the film itself, the performance itself. And now, with the advent of this kind of TMZ culture, it sadly seems to have infiltrated the vanguard of film commentary. I see these reviews sometimes where I think, well, you have a right to say whatever you want about my work, and I will listen whether it’s good or bad and see if there’s something that I might work with, but personal issues don’t have a place in film commentary.
That was one of the reasons why I wanted to tell the story of Colin Price. I saw someone in this fictionalized political character that was trying to do something important for his city. He meant well, but then you see that the human flaws had really derailed his past. It seems to be happening more and more in our country. I wanted to hold a mirror up to that.