Nicolas Cage Talks The Trust
The actor on working with Elijah Wood and Jerry Lewis, and "finding the jazz"
One of the more intriguing features coming to SXSW this year is the anticipated debut of Alex and Ben Brewer's The Trust (hitting DirecTV April 14, before getting a theatrical run on May 13). Filmed in the nonglamorous locales of Las Vegas, it's a layered and unpredictable black-comedy heist film, starring Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood as two morally compromised officers secretly working a drug case. It evolves from a realistic Keystone Kops affair into plans to rob a secret vault, with shocking consequences and revelations.
The film blends specific realities of law enforcement, including its at times crippling mundaneness – often leading to corruption – with touches of gallows humor and chilling surprise elements. It's a character-driven affair, pushed along by the characters' satirically misguided yet reasonable charm.
"We were thinking about the psychology of what it means to be a police officer," explains Ben Brewer, co-director with his brother Alex. "We met some cops, and they provided information in helping us research the film. But, of course, we actually were sort of analyzing – from an armchair psychologist's angle – what we were hearing, and about certain aspects of their personalities.
"We wanted to drag in a lot of humor. There's this thing in movies, where you see a cop, and he's wearing a leather jacket, and he's got long hair. We thought, 'Any cop I've ever met, isn't like that at all,'" continues Ben.
The film is a fascinating choice for Cage, given it's the Brewers' first Hollywood feature as a duo. (Ben directed 2011 Slamdance entry Beneath Contempt.) The brothers said Cage "made it extremely easy for us," and that he "didn't hold that lack of experience against us."
For his part, Cage arrived impressed with the brothers' previous output. "They had great energy, and they were passionate about the project. I was going through a decision in my career, that I wanted to try working with younger filmmakers who were cutting their teeth, and trying to establish themselves. I thought maybe there would be a new voice that they could find in me."
Cage portrays Jim Stone, an enterprising officer who's gained the respect of everyone except the people he wants it from most. In a character who's much more than meets the eye, Cage's dynamism powers the film forward with a locomotive's strength. The script gave the Academy Award-winning actor wide-ranging latitude, as Jim is stripped down of discernible self-consciousness, opening up all possibilities.
"The script provided a character, for me, that was full of surprises. I thought that I could make him the nicest guy in the world, and all of a sudden, he turns into a monster. It's those kinds of characters – that are both funny and scary at the same time – that I find compelling. It's the sort of role that I'm comfortable with."
Elijah Wood plays Officer David Waters, Jim's damaged and overly pragmatic friend. According to the brothers, Wood brought an infectious positivity to the set. Both he and Cage expressed mutual admiration and enthusiasm in wanting to work together. This spills over into the performances, putting Cage in a comfort zone.
"When Alex told me they got Elijah Wood, I said, 'Well, that's as good as it gets.' I could just express my admiration as the character I was playing. I think Jim genuinely adores David, so it put me in a situation where I didn't have to act – I can play, and riff off of him.
"With me, I always want to get it to that place that I know can be frustrating sometimes with other actors, who are very by-the-book – which is a good thing to be, by the way," Cage explains diplomatically.
"You want to get the scenes down where the script is serviced. But once you have that, y'know, let's 'find the jazz.' We would go off-book. I think that's where a lot of the humor in the movie came from."
Part of Jim's angst lays in his at-home relationship with his father – himself a former cop – played by film legend Jerry Lewis, in an atypical, but proficient, dramatic turn. Cage used his real-life difficulty in acting with Lewis – long a personal idol – to his advantage.
"I have had a friendship with Jerry. We've had some dinners together. He's someone I've spoken of in the highest terms, because of the extraordinary contribution he's given to us in cinema. So, I asked him, which I wouldn't normally do, 'Would you do this? I'd love to have this experience with you, because you know how high my regard is for your talent.'
"What that automatically did was put me in a situation where I didn't have to act. When I was working with Jerry, I was ..." he pauses. "There's not too many people I get nervous about before I go to work, and he's one of them. I was very nervous and worried. So all that takes the need to act away. I just played it like I felt it."
The brothers aggregated disparate ingredients from serious cinematic fare, including All the President's Men, and Clouzot's classic nail-biter The Wages of Fear. Alex explained that other films like M*A*S*H, and a particular cult classic, assisted with the darker pitches of comedy found in the film.
"We watched The Big Lebowski. We wanted the film to have a funny honesty, and not necessarily be about the two coolest criminals in the world. We wanted it to be about two real people."
Narrative Spotlight, World PremiereThe Trust
Sunday, March 13, 3pm, Paramount
Tuesday, March 15, 10pm, Topfer Theatre
Friday, March 18, 11:15am, Stateside