Cage and Hunter in 'Raising Arizona'
Cage and Hunter in 'Raising Arizona'

From the start, Cage fearlessly tested his mettle in a wide range of projects, from his uncle Francis's "Rumble Fish," "The Cotton Club" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" (Cage changed his name from Coppola) to the Coen brothers' zany comedy "Raising Arizona" and Norman Jewison's romance "Moonstruck," opposite Oscar-winner Cher. The youthful Cage made an endearing goofy leading man who was willing to take chances, eating cockroaches in "Vampire's Kiss" and sporting a snakeskin jacket as he channeled Elvis in David Lynch's Cannes-winner "Wild at Heart." After holding his own opposite John Travolta in John Woo's demanding character/actioner "Face/Off," Cage reteamed with Woo on the ill-fated World War II actioner "Windtalkers." 

Cage won the Oscar for his all-out performance as an alcoholic who drinks himself to death in Mike Figgis's "Leaving Las Vegas." He was also nominated for his dual role as twin brothers (aspects of the film's screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman) in Spike Jonze's "Adaptation." (He rejoined Kaufman on the upcoming "Frank or Francis.")

Cage also appeared in family-friendly fare like Bruckheimer's live-action movie based on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which was Cage's idea: he wanted to play a magician inspired by the sequence in "Fantasia." Although the actor gave a solid performance in the $150-million movie developed, produced and directed by the team that delivered the goods in 2004's PG franchise "National Treasure" and its sequels, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was roundly rejected by both critics and audiences.

Some of his worst movies were produced by Cage himself, like the comedy/drama "A Thousand Words," starring Eddie Murphy, "Bangkok Dangerous," "The Wicker Man," and "The Life of David Gale." His 2002 directorial debut, "Sonny," starred James Franco and grossed $30,000 at the box office. 

Clearly, the best way for Cage to improve his status as an A-list movie star was to make fewer movies. In the past, Cage was often driven to take on too many roles because he was living beyond his means. He not only played Elvis, but briefly married his daughter, Lisa Marie. (He's been married three times and has two kids, Weston and Kal-El, named after Superman, a role he almost played for Tim Burton.) Although he's a multi-millionaire, Cage is an obsessive collector (yachts, jet, cars, skulls, shrunken heads, Bahama island) who can't seem to hang on to his real estate. At one point he owned 15 homes (including a castle), some of which were decorated so strangely--from miniature trains to comics collectibles--that they weren't easy to sell. Even after earning $50 million in 2008, he lost the $24-million Bel Air mansion once owned by John Wayne to foreclosure after not being able to raise $7 million. 

"I can tell you there have been times when I have had to make money," he says, "and to survive to put out fires. But within that context I was always looking for scripts where I know I can do my job in one way or the other. Is every scene great, what you want, or memorable? I give 100%. But it can't always work out that way, often the way it's edited, or the music, or other actors aren't on point. I shoot for the best, maybe it's only two memorable scenes that come out of it, in the true sense. That's happened. But that makes it worthwhile. I'm a working dog, I have no problem with that. I'm a hard worker. That's someone to behold, not something to apologize for. I'm at my best when I'm working. It doesn't mean I cable it in, or roll over. I work through problems, when I have a job to do. It keeps me disciplined. I'm proud of the other movies too. Those 'National Treasure' movies make a lot of people happy. I like making people happy."

The bottom line: the guy can act. No matter how strange and awkward he can be in person (he should stay away from Comic-Con), Cage is an experienced veteran who knows what he is doing. The guy is willing to try anything, from cockroach-swallowing horror roles to 1000-year-old wizards. And he never phones it in, no matter how bad the movie. Cage's ability to carry action films, romances and comedies have kept him constantly employed. He can be scary, loverly and hilarious, sometimes all in the same movie. Like it or hate it, his vengeful assassin-dad in "Kick-Ass" and drug-addicted detective on the loose in "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" were not easy to pull off. 

Next up: Cage signed up to do Christian film "Left Behind" (October) because it "was unusual material," he says. "I've never played a pilot of a jumbo trans-Atlantic jet before. People start disappearing. It's challenging, how to make that real so that the experience feels like it's really happening. I'm up for that. I haven't seen the movie yet." "Outcast in China" costars Hayden Christensen, whose work in the "Star Wars" movies impressed Cage, he says: "We're playing two western soldiers in an eastern world."

Would he work with Werner Herzog again? "Absolutely, Werner is magnificent. I had a great experience working with him in New Orleans. I'm always looking for something hopefully to get with him on."

Cage doesn't buy the idea that he's fallen on hard times as an actor. "I need to make something clear," Cage says with some irritation. "In my filmography there's always one movie like 'Bad Lieutenant' or 'Matchstick Men' or 'World Trade Center' that are adventurous films. I am proud of always trying to keep it eclectic. I was trying to be indie-spirited with 'Ghost Rider,' 'Face-Off,' 'Vampire's Kiss." You can see the stuff I developed on 'Vampire's Kiss' put into 'Face-Off.' You can be indie-spirited in a big movie.  I have never been a snob. I believe in trying everything...

"I agree with Elia Kazan: talent never dies. It can be discouraged, but it never dies. I have no regrets. I like to work and to have opportunities. I see myself as a student. I take that path, looking to learn and try new things. I never refer to myself as a maestro or master. I'm not going for grades, I'm going for an education."