A new movie makes an unlikely hero out of a violent and reclusive man. Set in small-town Texas, Joe is about a hard-working, hard-living ex-con — played by Nicolas Cage — who's trying to stay out of trouble. He finds that the best way to do that is to not get involved with people — until he meets a teenage boy, played by Tye Sheridan, in need of help.
The movie is directed by David Gordon Green, who got his start with small films set in the tough, decaying American South. He transitioned to more Hollywood fare, like the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, but Joe feels like a return. Green has crafted a quietly powerful film that allows Nicolas Cage to lose himself in this character — no small thing for an actor famous for big, theatrical performances.
Cage and Gordon Green tell NPR's David Greene about the pull of the South, the film's use of amateur actors and finding a place for levity in difficult stories.
On what attracted Cage to this role
Cage: I had been waiting for the better part of a year to find a script where I could be as emotionally naked as possible. I'd done several movies where I was experimenting more with performance style and operatic kind of style, but now I wanted to go into almost like Dogme style of film performance, where I didn't have to think too much about it and I could just be, and take my memories or my past experiences and flood them into a character that would be the right vessel for it. So when I read Joe, right away there was an implicit connection with the dialogue where I thought, "Wow, I understand this man and I think I can play this part in a way where I wouldn't have to act."
On the appeal of the South
Green: It's a region of tall tales and sitting on the porch listening to my Grandad talk. Growing up in Texas, it's just been a region that really appealed to me, the textures and the voices. Every time I move someplace and they stop calling me darlin' at the diner, I have to turn around and go back home.
Cage: I love the way people talk in the South. I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, probably became a man in New Orleans — in fact, I know I became a man in New Orleans. And I just think the way they speak, it's just so poetic.
On the scene in which Cage's character tries to teach the teenager, Gary, how to make a "cool face"
Cage: This is a moment where you see Joe bonding with Gary and all the humor that that can bring in to a scene. This was me trying to find a place, over my entire career, to put my theories about the anatomy of a cool face, which I discovered by watching Marlboro Man commercials. 'Cause the guy in the Marlboro Man commercial, I would say to myself, 'Is that cool? Because you look like you're in pain, and yet you're smiling?' ...
You're smiling through the pain and therefore you're cool. ... But let me also reiterate that it's within the context of the character that it's cool. I don't really — Nicolas Cage doesn't really think that's cool. I think it's absurd, and that's what makes it funny.
Green: When we're dealing with a movie like this that has very difficult subject matter, a lot of dramatic elements to it, I find it very healthy to find the humanity of these characters and find moments of levity.
On the film's use of amateur actors like Gary Poulter, who played a violent alcoholic father and died after a night of drinking shortly after the film was made
Green: One of the things that's always really important to me is the authenticity of casting. Once we had Nic as the centerpiece of the film, we wanted to bring an unpredictable quality to the rest of the cast. Gary Poulter was a man that we met at a bus stop, just got talking to him about his story and we brought him back to read for the third lead in the film, and he just blew our minds. This is a man that hadn't been in front of the camera, and he'd been living on the streets for a while and was a street performer, and he was looking to turn over a new leaf in his life and use this as a creative outlet. It was just amazing working with this guy every day.
Cage: I was completely in awe of his charisma. And, by the way, I want to stress that he was totally on point when he was filming. He had all his dialogue; he showed up on time; he was 100 percent there. He reminded me of like a Civil War captain; he could have been in a great old Western movie. I said, "Just keep it together for a year, Gary, and I promise you your phone's gonna start ringing, your life is really gonna change." And he looked at me in this very vulnerable way, and he said, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah, man, really." So when David told me a couple months after photography that he passed on, I was pretty upset.
On what Cage hopes people take from this movie
Cage: I never want to impinge on your personal connection with a movie. There's a secret there, and whatever you get from it is what is right. But for me, [the film is] an ode to those people that we come across in life — those angels, if you will — that really embody what a father is. It could be a coach, it could be a science teacher, it could be a big brother, it could be a cop — you know, who take someone in and then they see that potential in the young person and they say, 'I'm going to celebrate that. I'm going to empower that.' I want people to go to the movie and think about those people in their own personal lives, that have been the — let's call it — the true father.