BEVERLY HILLS - Nicolas Cage feels safe at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
The lodging off Sunset Boulevard is something of a paparazzi shield for the actor. It's a little quieter, a little more secluded than some of the junket-happy hotels that play host to the stars, and the accommodations allow Cage to eat without a photographer in his face.
But it's the century-old landmark's reluctance to change aesthetics that lures him when he visits from his Las Vegas home.
"They re-did almost everything," he says, waving at the lobby as he walks into the hotel's Polo Lounge for breakfast. "But you can't tell. Everything looks just like it always did. I like that. It makes me comfortable."
Comfort is a tricky proposition for Cage. He changed his name and moved from Los Angeles to Nevada because he found press attention intolerable - and acknowledges that, in retrospect, he might have been hasty in dropping the family name "Coppola" in favor of a last name inspired in part by a comic-book character.
But discomfort has served his career well. Cage, 49, an Academy Award winner known for taking odd roles and playing odder characters, says he shaped his career with off-hand advice he got from rocker David Bowie.
"I asked him once how he managed to do all the things he's done," Cage says. "He said, 'Whatever makes you feel uncomfortable, try that. It's the only thing to test you, keep you fresh.' I've tried to do that in most of my movies. I want my movies to be a reflection of where I am at this very moment."
Cage must be in daddy mode. He provides the voice of Grug in The Croods, a 3-D animated story told through the eyes of a prehistoric family, which opens Friday.
The Croods Clip: Shoes
Analysts say the film could join Oz the Great and Powerfulas one of the year's first family hits, and expect it to earn at least $100 million. "With few family movies opening in the coming weeks, The Croods could have some decent legs," predicts Edward Douglas of ComingSoon.net. He sees an opening of at least $38 million and a total run of $125 million, which could be enough to make the film franchise-worthy.
Cage hopes so. He plays a fretting father, a man afraid of change and determined to connect with his (literally) fast-evolving kids.
And while Cage says he couldn't really connect with the first character trait, he had the second down pat. He brought his 7-year-old son Kal-El (taken from Superman's birth name) to The Croods' premiere last week. It was the boy's first film.
"I've been known to take my share of chances in my life," Cage says over a meal of six hard-boiled eggs and a side of blueberries. "But I have to say, that made me a little nervous. He's a connoisseur of animation. He's growing up on Looney Tunes and Felix the Cat. When he said he liked it, I could rest easy."
Well, as easy as Cage rests. He says his motive for doing The Croods was twofold: to star in a movie his son could watch, and to create a franchise-friendly animated character to offset any regret for turning down the role of Shrek. He dismisses media reports that he said no because he thought Shrek was too ugly.
"I'm not afraid to play ugly - look at Adaptation," he says of the 2002 comedy in which he played overweight twin brothers. "I looked like a turd that a cat had coughed up."
Two years earlier, when Cage was considering the Shrek role that ultimately went to Mike Myers, "I couldn't see my voice coming out of that face," he says of the ogre mug he considered too frightening for young kids.
He laughs now at the decision to turn down a character who has anchored four films that have done more than $2.5 billion worldwide.
"I'm a bit more mature now; I can see how kids relate to well-written animation," Cage says. "So that's where I am, right now. I have to go for what's speaking to me."
Trailer: The Croods
It's figuring out what speaks to Cage that's tricky. The guy has no discernible career arc.
He's been a critical darling in plenty of films, including Adaptation, the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy Raising Arizona and the 1995 drama Leaving Las Vegas, which won him a best-actor Academy Award.
But he has followed that with head-scratching flops such as 2011's Drive Angry, which flat-lined at $11 million, and the cheesy $45 million thriller Bangkok Dangerous, which sputtered at $15 million in 2008.
Even Cage says there's no master plan to a career that spans more than 70 films and has grossed $4.2 billion worldwide. His odd path has taken him from 1997'sFace/Off($112 million) to the two National Treasure films ($393 million), for which he says he is most recognized.
"My decisions are visceral," he says of his roles, which often embody beleaguered outsiders. "I don't want to be put into a category. I've always enjoyed hopscotching."
That includes his own identity. Born Nicolas Kim Coppola, Cage is the nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola and actress Talia Shire and cousin of Sofia Coppola.
But after landing a role in 1982'sFast Times at Ridgemont High, Cage worried that cast members "might look at me differently because of my last name," and that the media would have a field day accusing him of benefiting from nepotism. So he changed his last name to one that was partly inspired by the Marvel Comics hero Luke Cage.
"I didn't want my name to be an issue," he says. "If I had it to do over again, I might not have changed it. But I believe in going with your heart, and that's what I felt at the time."
He'll drop a passion just as quickly. Cage recently announced that he's done with the comic-book based Ghost Rider series, whose films in 2007 and 2011 earned $362 million worldwide.
The decision stunned comic-book fans, who consider Cage a legitimate fanboy. For the Ghost Rider series, filmmakers had to digitally remove the Ghost Rider's flaming skull from Cage's bicep, where he had the iconic image tattooed.
But it was that burning face, Cage says, that he saw as an exit sign from the series.
"I had always just loved that image," he says. "It's the main reason I wanted to do the movies in the first place. Then I got tired of it and wanted to try something new."
Fortunately for Croods directors Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, that something was family fare.
De Micco (Space Chimps) and Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) say they had Cage in mind when writing the role of Grug. The film also stars Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone as early humans struggling with evolution, wild beasts and tectonic shifting.
And while Cage has done voice work for animated films such as 2006'sThe Ant Bully and 2009'sAstro Boy, the directors turned to Cage's live-action films for inspiration.
"We would watch scenes of him in movies like (2003's) Matchstick Men or (2005's)The Weather Man," De Micco says. "There's such sweetness in his desperation. He evokes such sympathy, which is what we wanted" for Grug, a caveman losing the evolutionary battle to smaller, quicker-witted humans.
Sanders, though, says that it was Cage who occasionally was too quick-witted.
"Nic is a fan of words and has immaculate enunciation," he says. "You never had to ask him to repeat a line."
If anything, Sanders says, some of Cage's lines were too intelligent for someone with a sloped brow. He says that filmmakers, who followed Cage to England, New Orleans, the Bahamas, New York and Los Angeles to capture his voice, typically gave the actor multiple takes to ad-lib.
"He would pause and take a step away from the mike," he says. "That's when we knew something good was coming."
In one improvisation, Sanders recalls, Cage spit "You scourge of a woman!"
"We loved that line and played it over and over," he says. "But we couldn't keep it. It was too smart for a caveman."
Cage turns caveman for The Croods
Cage says he was drawn not only to the family-friendly subject matter, but to the family vibe on the set, particularly with Reynolds, who played the title character in 2011's Green Lantern.
"It was nice talking shop," Cage says of the superhero conversations. "Ghost Rider and Green Lantern had coffee together so, you know, top that Avengers!"
Reynolds, in turn, says he felt Cage's excitement over doing a movie that kids could enjoy.
"It changed how I viewed the whole project," says Reynolds, who plays Guy, a primeval adventurer who has mastered fire.
"I only heard a small amount of his dialogue early in the process," Reynolds says. "But after hearing Nic, I knew I'd be crying at the premiere."
Enjoy the tender moment, Cage says. He can't guarantee he'll stick with a genre. Cage next stars as an ex-con in the drama Joe, scheduled for release later this year.
"I'm in the mood for something small and independent," Cage says of upcoming roles. "That's how I started my career, and it feels like it's time to go back.''
And then, after a pause: "At least for now."