Interview | Nicolas Cage on ‘Pay the Ghost’ and Classic Horror

Nicolas Cage is one of the most recognizable actors of his generation, but do you know where you probably don’t recognize him from? Horror movies. Although he’s skirted around the genre multiple times throughout the years, in action movies with horror elements (Ghost RiderSeason of the Witch) and bizarre cockroach-eating 1980s character studies (Vampire’s Kiss), he’s only starred in a couple of actual horror movies. But that might be about to change.

This week’s new release, Pay the Ghost, stars Cage as a college professor whose son goes missing on Halloween, and who may be the victim of supernatural shenanigans. Co-starring Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) and directed by Uli Edel (Houdini), Pay the Ghost is an unusual sort of film for the actor, something we had to talk about when we spoke on the phone earlier this week.

Find out more about Nicolas Cage’s horror movie preferences, and what’s keeping him from making the transition from film to television, right here, right now.

Related: The Essential Nicolas Cage: 15 Must-See Movies

Crave: Pay the Ghost is an interesting film in your filmography, because although you’ve done a lot of films with horror elements there aren’t a lot of straight-up horror movies on there. Is that a coincidence?

Nicolas Cage: Well, I think it is. I certainly would have participated more in what you call “straight-up horror” if I had been given the opportunities to participate in them earlier on in my career. It’s always been a genre that has fascinated me. I see the horror film as sort of the outlaw of Hollywood. It’s a club that I’ve been trying to break into for a long time because I am a fan of a certain quality of horror film. I’m not a fan of the slasher movie by any stretch of the imagination but I am a fan of the early Universal horror films, like Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man and Frankenstein, naturally. Then later with the Hammer horror films I enjoy the charm of the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing classics that that particular company made. So yeah, it’s been something that I’ve tried to participate in for quite a while.

A lot of the films that you mentioned are very character-driven, and were often very sympathetic to all of the monsters. We don’t really see that in a lot of slashers. Slashers are often just a body count.

Yeah, I totally agree with you and I think that that’s what I found so compelling about the earlier horror films is that there was a kind of tragic quality to the monsters and it’s so much do, in terms of performance, you have so much to work with in terms of how to build the characters. And then later with the Seventies we got into movies like The Exorcist and The Omen, where you saw a very kind of naturalistic approach to film performance so that it would anchor the supernatural elements of the movie even more, and make the experience more terrifying for the audience. 

That was certainly the gold standard, the model, at least going into Pay the Ghost. I wanted to give the performance and all the performances in the film that kind of cinema verité style of acting, so that the collision with Annie, the ghost, would be more shocking.

Pay the Ghost Nicolas Cage

What I think is interesting about your character in this film, and I feel like it’s something I don’t see enough of, is that he judges himself. He’s spending the entire film judging himself. I’ve talked to a lot of actors who say they don’t judge their characters but you really seem to blame yourself for the loss of your child, and that puts you in a very dicey psychological state.

Yeah, and also I wanted to make it extremely clear that he didn’t lose him! He’d been vigilant about, “Just make sure you hold my hand and stop looking through the video camera,” to the point where it almost seems like he was a little bit hard on his kid. So that when it did happen, how could he have lost him? Then the character is going through a complete masochistic self-destruction of his psyche and emotions, simply because he’s riddled with guilt. I think that’s what made the character compelling for me to play.

And yet I think it’s that fact, that he really didn’t do anything wrong, that makes that scene so terrifying. That’s got to be every parent’s worst nightmare, right? Losing your kid in a crowd like that?

Totally. Totally the worst nightmare, and a very real nightmare, and it happens far [more] often than any of us would like to admit to people. It’s pretty tragic stuff. And also the fact that Sarah [Wayne Callies]’s character does not forgive me until much later in the movie. You know, these things happen in a split second. So the idea of those two elements of horror – the emotional horror and the dramatic horror of losing one’s child, escalating into the supernatural horror, [until] I have to plunge the depths of another dimension to get the kid back – that’s what I thought was interesting about the script, anyway.

Pay the Ghost

Was this a script you sought out, or did this end up on your lap?

No, this came to me. It was something that came to via an offer, and I read it, and I thought it was unlike anything I’d done before. So that immediately provided interest, and something that would give it an eclectic quality [compared] to some of the other choices I’ve been pursuing, like the political drama The Runner, to go from that into a horror film like Pay the Ghost to me provided a different experience.

You work a lot and I admire your work ethic, and yet I can’t help but wonder what goes into that process. Are you just trying to keep yourself interested, and doing whatever film interests you?

That’s accurate. I do think I’m trying to stay interested and I’m trying to stay on top of my craft. I feel that when I don’t work that I get very calcified and I get very tense, in that I have to keep the instrument, so to speak, fluid and loose. And the only way I can do that is by continuing to practice, and practice for me means making movies and trying different things and learning something and staying interested.

If you want to stay loose and stay acting at all times, have you thought about maybe doing television? That’s a regular gig on a regular basis.

Yeah, you know, that would be interesting wouldn’t it? But the thing is I just haven’t had the luxury of being offered anything that would compel me to go on television. I have not seen True Detective but by all accounts it’s meant to be very compelling dramatic work, great acting and great writing, but I haven’t been offered anything that would give me the trust to take that leap. That’s not to say I wouldn’t but I just haven’t had that experience yet.

Images via RLJ Entertainment

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.