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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

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 trying to stay out of trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JOE")

NICOLAS CAGE: (as Joe) I don't know who I am. But I know what keeps me alive keeps me out of jail, keeps me from hurting people.

GREENE: That's Nicolas Cage as Joe. And the best way to keep from hurting people, he finds, is to not get involved with them, until he meets a teenage boy, played by Tye Sheridan, in need of help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JOE")

TYE SHERIDAN: (as Gary Jones) Hey, Mister.

CAGE: (as Joe) Yeah?

SHERIDAN: (as Gary Jones) Me and my daddy just got into town. I was wondering if you could give us a job.

CAGE: (as Joe) I'll pay a day's pay for a day's work. And if we work till dinner and get rained out, I pay for the whole day. Does that sound fair enough?

SHERIDAN: (as Gary Jones) Yes, sir.

CAGE: (as Joe) I'm Joe.

GREENE: The movie is directed by David Gordon Green. He 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. There's even a popular YouTube video, an insane greatest hits of Cage's most explosive movie moments.

When we spoke with Nicholas Cage and David Gordon Green about "Joe," Cage said it was the chance to do something different that attracted him 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 dogma 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.

And 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.

GREENE: We should say that the movie is based on the novel by Larry Brown, a writer known for gritty hardscrabble stories about the South. And, David Gordon Green, you've made a few films about the South. What appeals to you there?

DAVID GORDON GREEN: You know, it's a region of tall tales and sitting on the porch and listening to my granddad talk. And growing up in Texas, you know, it 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 had to turn around and go back home.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: That's the moment.

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.

GREENE: I want to have you both take us to this wonderful scene where Joe and the teenager, Gary, have gone looking for Joe's dog who's missing. And, Nicolas Cage, tell me tell me which a character does. I mean he seems to sort of let his guard down, trying to teach this boy about girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JOE")

CAGE: (as Joe) Yeah, work on that cool face. You got to stand like you own land, right? Now, you make the pain face, right? You got a lot on your mind.

(LAUGHTER)

CAGE: (as Joe) Now smile.

(as Joe) Yeah, it's like: I got a lot on my mind but I can do it. I can get through it. Yeah, there you go. Yeah, that's cool.

Yeah, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

CAGE: 'Cause the guy in the Marlboro Man commercial, he's - I would say to myself: Is that cool? Because you look like you're in pain and yet you're smiling.

GREENE: So you're saying you thought about his face for a long time in your career?

CAGE: Yeah. Yeah, I always thought about the anatomy of the cool face - what I call the anatomy of the cool face.

GREENE: And why is that cool?

CAGE: Because you're smiling through the pain and therefore you're cool.

(LAUGHTER)

GREEN: You know, one of the fun things coming out early and working with the actors and the rest of the cast, and guys just kind of shooting the breeze hanging out, the rehearsal process is not like: Hey, say your line and I'll say my line. The rehearsal process for me is just absorbing a lot of these conversations, and then just a little mental notes and saying, how can we infuse all of this into our movie.

GREENE: Well, let me get this straight. I mean Nicolas Cage came in thinking about this face and seeing if there's an opportunity to make it. And, David Gordon Green, you found a moment where he could carry out his wish?

GREEN: Absolutely.

CAGE: But also - let me also reiterate 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.

(LAUGHTER)

CAGE: I think it's absurd, and that's what makes it funny.

GREEN: You know, one of the things too, 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.

GREENE: In this movie, the casting - really interesting. So many of the actors are not professionals. The guys working in Joe's work crew. And there's also the man who plays the father of Tye Sheridan's character, who is just phenomenal, Gary Poulter. I mean David Gordon Green, how did you find these people?

GREEN: One of the things that's always really important to me is the authenticity of casting. And you know, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JOE")

GARY POULTER: (as Nic) I want to teach you a little bit about break dancing. You ever seen break dancing before? You know what popping, you know what locking is? Now do you, bud? And see this hand right here, pretend it's going over a wave like you're out there in the ocean.

GREENE: That's the voice of Gary Poulter in the movie "Joe." As director David Gordon Green mentioned, they found Poulter living on the streets and they cast him to play a violent alcoholic father. Not long after the movie was made, Poulter himself was found dead after a night of drinking. Nicolas Cage told us how hard it was to get that news.

CAGE: Because 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 or like 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 and 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. Yeah. Sure.

GREENE: It just feels like you guys reaching so much to create this dark reality of the South and suddenly this happens. It feels like reality and moviemaking sort of coming together in some really disturbing way.

GREEN: There is, I think, there is a vulnerable place that you put yourself as a director and we brought a lot of people who have a great deal of vulnerability into our film and we use their stories as a part of our authenticity. You know, it could be just work crew which were, most of them were day laborers that we hired downtown. And we weren't just looking for people say what was in the script but we were looking for people that had depth and brought their own concepts, stories and dialogue to our project.

GREENE: Nicolas Cage, what do you hope people take from this movie?

CAGE: Well, 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, it's 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 can 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.

GREENE: Nicolas Cage, David Gordon Green, thank you both so much for taking the time to talk about the film. We appreciate it.

CAGE: Thank you.

GREEN: Good talking to you.

GREENE: The movie "Joe" starring Nicolas Cage, directed by David Gordon Green, opens tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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