Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes) © First Look Studios

In Werner Herzog’s new film, Nicolas Cage plays rogue detective Terence McDonagh, who is as devoted to his job as he is at scoring drugs – playing fast and loose with the law. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he becomes a high-functioning addict who is a deeply intuitive, fearless detective reigning over the beautiful ruins of New Orleans with authority and abandon. We spoke with Nicolas Cage at the press conference for the movie.

How would you describe your character?

He just is. I don’t judge him, or think of him as bad or good. It’s more existential. Not a part of any religious program, which is what I think separates it mostly from the other film. It just is.

You were instrumental in choosing the location. What is it about New Orleans that led you to talk to Werner Herzog about filming there?

I felt that I had to go through a catharsis, that I had to face my fears. New Orleans is a very potent city in my life for various reasons. It’s a combination of different energies – African, French, English, Spanish, and there’s a lot of magic there, and I’ve had a lot of experiences there, and I wanted to go back there and confront it. I knew that I would channel that energy, and it could either be a disaster, or be something beautiful, or so I was up for the challenge.

Did you have fun letting loose for this role?

Deshaun 'Midget' Hackett (Lucius Baston) and Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) © First Look Studios

I just felt I was in the zone, and came prepared, and did what I had to do. I thank Werner for letting me go. I didn’t need to be pushed, I didn’t need to be pulled, I just came in and did what I needed to do, and I thank Werner for having the guts to let me do it.

A lot of people like to say things like “over-the-top”, but you can’t say that about other art forms, such as a Picasso, or a Van Gogh. Why can’t it be the same with acting? In Leaving Las Vegas, I had a couple of drinks. I wanted to. I had prescribed scenes where I decided I would get drunk, and anything goes. And I’m glad I did it. But with Bad Lieutenant, I say that it is Impressionistic, because I was totally sober, and I was looking at a landscape from over 20 years ago, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was a challenge. But I believe that the filter of my instrument would give you something more exciting because it was Impressionistic.

Your character has a bad back throughout the film, was that something you came up with?

Let’s be totally honest – I designed Terence. I came in with a vision, and a bad back, I was thinking of things like Richard the Third. I like to get my body into it. My mother was a dancer, so I like to use the body as part of the instrument of acting. So I saw this back injury as an opportunity to transform myself. So that’s where that came from.

What is your acting process? Do you like to do a lot of rehearsals? Does it meld with Werner Herzog’s directing style?

Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and his partner (Val Kilmer) © First Look Studios

I think Werner and I had a perfect marriage. He moves very quickly. My best takes are my first two takes. He has confidence in what I’m going to do and I have confidence in what he’s going to do, that he’ll get it. Sometimes I do love to rehearse, but I always switch it up depending on whom I’m working with. I know Werner likes to do as little rehearsal as possible, because he likes freshness and spontaneity, and I appreciate that.

This is your second collaboration with Eva Mendes, in a very different kind of movie from Ghost Rider. What did you two learn from or about each other working together for the second time?

Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes) © First Look Studios

I just feel that Eva has evolved. She was excellent in Ghost Rider, but there’s a new liquid, soft Eva Mendes that’s very fluid, and spontaneous in this film. I’ve been a fan of her work, and becoming an even greater fan as I continue to see her growth, and I hope we work together again.

At this point in your career, you basically do what you want to do. What do you look for when choosing a role, and are you satisfied with continuing to play dark characters?

I do have a personal code that I try to apply. I may be alone in this, but I do sense the power of film, in that movies have the ability to literally change people’s minds. That’s pretty powerful stuff when you consider that.  So I try to be responsible with what I want to project, in terms of who’s going to go see it, particularly when it pertains to children, which is a priority of mine.

So I am trying to go away from too much killing, and gratuitous violence and things like that, and if I do play a character like that, I have to understand why he’s like that, how he got there, to be that way. And then it’s just the matter of figuring out whether there’s some truth in it, is there any way I can play the part truthfully, can I give you something new, or unusual, that has a bit of truth.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane