Sept. 5, 2008— -- Nicolas Cage likes to make people happy.
And judging by his box office draw, he's doing a good job.
Now starring in "Bangkok Dangerous," out nationwide today, Cage says he picks his roles based on the challenge and the entertainment value for both him and his audience. (The film was not screened for critics.)
After being in the business for more than 30 years, he's trying to keep things interesting by "coming in with this new idea to think more globally, more internationally in my life and in my work."
In "Bangkok Dangerous," identical Chinese brothers Danny and Oxide Pang directed Cage, 44, in Thailand.
Sitting down with "Popcorn With Peter Travers" on ABC News Now, Cage noted that his wife, Alice Kim, whom he married in 2004, is Korean and he'd recently done films with Australian and German directors.
"I think it's always fascinating when you see different races and different cultures interacting on film," he said.
In "Bangkok Dangerous," Cage plays a hired assassin who falls for a woman while on the job. It's a character, he said, with a lot of "karmic weight" thanks to his less-than-upstanding career.
Cage said he has seen some of 1999's original "Bangkok Dangerous," which was also shot by the Pang brothers, adding that he wanted the new version to be different, more fresh, more complex.
If he wanted complex, he got it -- on set, anyway.
"I think the Pang brothers really had some inside fun with me because I couldn't tell them apart," he said, with a laugh.
They would switch turns in the director's chair each day, asking "Who am I?," Cage said.
It was his second time working with a pair of brothers; Joel and Ethan Coen directed him in 1987's "Raising Arizona." While the Coens aren't twins, they do share some kind of brotherly telepathy. Cage remembered watching one brother, without saying a word, hand a cigarette behind him just as the other was reaching for it. He dubbed Ethan Coen the "funny" one.
Cage got his start as an actor struggling against his famous last name: Coppola. Nephew of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, he found that potential directors and producers were turned off by his last name, figuring his place in the movie would amount to nothing more than Hollywood nepotism.
He opted to change his last name to find work on his own merit, picking the last name of a comic book character, Luke Cage. But that was only after a few false starts.
"I was Nicolas Blue, I was Nicolas Faust, whatever that means," he said, laughing.
In the early days, he said, "I was really someone fighting for my survival. I didn't know where I was going to live. I was living out of my car."
After falling ill and landing in the hospital, Cage promised himself that he would go on one last audition, and if that didn't work out, he'd become a fisherman, or something like it.
He got the part.
As a child growing up in Southern California, Cage said he would imagine himself on set, walking to school visualizing crane shots in his head. It was a product of his imagination rather than his family ties.
"I had no idea what my uncle did," he said.
Once he became a working actor, Cage asked Coppola what made a good actor.
"He said, 'Just the sheer personality of the person, of the performer,'" Cage said. "And he's right."
Cage said it finally sunk in that he could really do it, really make it as an actor when director Martha Coolidge cast him in 1983's "Valley Girl" without knowing his heritage, he said.
The same thing happened for 1984's "Birdy," though Cage said director Alan Parker later told him that he would not have hired him if he knew about the Francis Ford Coppola connection.
Despite making a name for himself on his own, he has shot movies with his uncle, including 1983's "Rumble Fish."
He smiled, remembering how his uncle forced him do 53 takes of a scene in which he simply looked at his watch.
"It's been 30 years," he said, "and rarely do I go past 10."
Cage said he has a rule about trying to step outside the boundaries of a character. When he signed on to do Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married," he didn't want the role. Only after his uncle promised him he could voice the character like Pokey -- of Gumby fame -- did he agree. And then nearly got fired for doing so.
His ideas about how a character should sound nearly got him booted off the set of "Moonstruck" a few years later, Cage recalled.
Cage has acted in and received acclaim in a wide range of movies, from action thrillers and adventures to smaller, thoughtful indies. He nabbed a best actor Oscar for his turn as an alcoholic in 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas." He was nominated again for 2002's critical darling "Adaptation."
And while the reviews haven't all been glowing, Cage has a theory on bad critiques.
The first reason for them, he said, is because the movie or performance is genuinely bad. And the other?
"Because it's so good they haven't caught up with it yet," he said.
Not that less-than-stellar reviews don't sting.
"Do I want to believe I don't care? Yeah," Cage said. "But I think we all care."
Cage, who abhors sarcasm, said there's too much criticism now, singling out "American Idol's" Simon Cowel for making it "popular to put people down."
But his trend of accepting roles in varying genres has the effect of pleasing his fans and "pissing everybody off" who want to see him in only one type of movie.
"Why not be eclectic and why not test your range?" he said.
He added, "I like making people happy ... I like to make you think, I like to make you uncomfortable."
The well-received 1997 John Woo blockbuster "Face/Off" could have gone either way, Cage said.
"It was original," he said. "It could have really fallen on its face."
But it didn't. And that's why, Cage said, he prefers to delve into the process rather than dwell on the results.