Earth’s history is rich with alchemists—Albertus Magnus, Hermes Trismegistus, Nicolas Flamel, Isaac Newton, Aleister Crowley, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Paracelsus, John Dee, Terrence McKenna and even Carl Jung. Alchemy was a proto-science that paved the way for modern science (chemistry, modern medicine, physics) but also had a spiritual, shamanistic aspect.
This is not to say that alchemists and shamans were and are officially coterminous, only that they both aspire to a better understanding of existence through various means: mysticism, magic, study, and drugs (which we know shamans have done, though whether Alchemists ever did is uncertain). In fact, McKenna attempted to synthesize alchemy with shamanism in various lectures, and described alchemists as pursuing a “magical theory of nature” (like Shamans) in the film “The Alchemical Dream.”
What does any of this have to do with Nicolas Cage? Well, it seems that Cage dabbles in alchemical and shamanistic techniques.
In a Q&A session with Empire Magazine readers, Cage talked about his preparation for the roll of Johnny Blaze and Ghost Rider in the film “Ghost Rider.”
It was the first time that I played Ghost Rider. Blaze was easy; I knew he was a man who had been living with a curse for eight years of having his head light on fire, and the tone that would take. I compared him to a cop, or a paramedic who develops a dark sense of humour to cope with the horrors he has seen. But Blaze has also caused the horrors, so he’s hiding out because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone else.
Ghost Rider was an entirely new experience, and he got me thinking about something I read in a book called The Way Of Wyrd by Brian Bates, and he also wrote a book called The Way Of The Actor. He put forth the concept that all actors, whether they know it or not, stem from thousands of years ago – pre-Christian times – when they were the medicine men or shamans of the village. And these shamans, who by today’s standards would be considered psychotic, were actually going into flights of the imagination and locating answers to problems within the village. They would use masks or rocks or some sort of magical object that had power to it.
It occurred to me, because I was doing a character as far out of our reference point as the spirit of vengeance, I could use these techniques. I would paint my face with black and white make up to look like a Afro-Caribbean icon called Baron Samedi, or an Afro-New Orleans icon who is also called Baron Saturday. He is a spirit of death but he loves children; he’s very lustful, so he’s a conflict in forces. And I would put black contact lenses in my eyes so that you could see no white and no pupil, so I would look more like a skull or a white shark on attack.
On my costume, my leather jacket, I would sew in ancient, thousands-of-years-old Egyptian relics, and gather bits of tourmaline and onyx and would stuff them in my pockets to gather these energies together and shock my imagination into believing that I was augmented in some way by them, or in contact with ancient ghosts. I would walk on the set looking like this, loaded with all these magical trinkets, and I wouldn’t say a word to my co-stars or crew or directors. I saw the fear in their eyes, and it was like oxygen to a forest fire. I believed I was the Ghost Rider.
The last webchat question was an inquiry into whether Cage was still considering writing a book on his acting technique “Nouveau Shamanic,” to which he replied:
I am not currently writing a book about that. I’m at work on something else. I was invited to go to Ireland to have a Q&A with a group of thespians about this concept, but the truth is, like Brian Bates said, everybody who’s an actor is already there; they just don’t know it yet. This style, if you will, or programme, is really teaching how not to act, and how to utilise your dreams, power objects, even taking weekends to experiment with imagination and finding ways of infusing your performances with those experiences so that it’s no longer acting but truth. Acting implies lying in some way – Olivier said as much in his autobiography, and I don’t want to lie. Thankfully Sean Penn said that Nicolas Cage is no longer an actor, and that’s what I want. I want to find a way to make it more truthful. This style is stimulating your imagination to be more truthful in the words and the movements.
The idea of Nicolas Cage utilizing alchemical and shamanic techniques to better inhabit a character is thoroughly fascinating and not surprising given Cage’s interest in the occult. But it’s also rather interesting to be given a window into Cage’s conception of imagination and creativity—that it is a type of psychosis, for lack of a better term.
Novelists create hundreds of characters in their lifetime—characters that inhabit many worlds. They hear their characters speak. They answer. One character speaks to another, and sometimes a maelstrom of voices results, as in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which might be the defining document of literary alchemy. As I often say to my friends who wonder about writing fiction, it is like a controlled form of multiple-personality disorder. Actors aren’t so very different, as they inhabit one character or more in a play or film, aligning the cinematic and theatrical arts with alchemy as well.
Some might say that Nicolas Cage is off his rocker, but maybe he’s just ahead of the curve.