NEW YORK (AP) — For the haunted, hard-living Texas ex-con of "Joe," David Gordon Green was looking for a modern-day Robert Mitchum, someone with an old-fashioned kind of rugged masculinity with an underlying innocence. He thought of Nicolas Cage.
Green wrote Cage a letter, sending along the screenplay, not knowing if or when he'd hear back. Three days later, Cage called. He had read not just the script, but the novel. Twice. The next day he took a plane to Austin, Texas, to meet with Green.
"When I read 'Joe,' I understood him," Cage said in a recent interview by phone. "I thought, 'Yeah, I don't think I'm going to have to act so much in this part. I don't think I'm going to have to try experimenting with performance style. I think I can really just be and feel these lines and resonate with these lines from my memories."
"Joe," which opens in theaters Friday, makes a fitting pairing of Cage and Green. Both have made a habit of confounding moviegoers by shifting unpredictably between art house and popcorn fare, leaving some fans scratching their heads by pursuing such frightful things as action movies and comedy.
After his Oscar-winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas," Cage turned to blockbusters like "The Rock" and "Con Air." More recently, he's been increasingly theatrical (and parodied for it) in movies like "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" and "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance." Cage says he was trying to be "break the mold of naturalistic film performance" with what he calls "Western kabuki."
"When people say things like over-the-top, I say to them, 'Well, you show me where the top is and I'll tell you whether or not I'm over it,'" says Cage. "I don't think anyone can answer where the top is."
In Green, Cage found a director who also can stretch from intimate to broad. Green's naturalistic acclaimed debut "George Washington" endeared him to the indie faithful, an association he later upended with a string of studio comedies: "Pineapple Express," ''Your Highness" (a box-office flop that Green gleefully notes is a comedy without a single joke) and "The Sitter."
"One of the things that's difficult about being a movie star, or a director for that matter, is that it's hard to be a character actor," says Green. "It's hard to not brand yourself because your name is at a pretty powerful point in the presentation of a film. So sometimes it can be difficult to disappear and challenge people's perceptions."
Larry Brown's novel "Joe," about a violent man trying to stay out of trouble and help a teenage kid in need (played by Tye Sheridan), had long had a pull on Green. His first filmmaking experience was working as a production assistant (along with "Mud" director Jeff Nichols) on a documentary about Brown, who, Green says, "wrote about characters I could touch, in worlds that I could recognize."
After Green moved to Austin, he was exploring the ramshackle towns outside the city, where he also set his last film, the road workmen drama "Prince Avalanche." Green, who was raised in Texas, shifted the Mississippi story there to make it a contemporary Western, one about a man with his own moral code and little patience for the law.
"If you just would swap out his GMC (truck) for a black horse, you'd have this man searching for redemption, this samurai looking for the perfect death," says Green.
Green, too, has chafed at the supposed rules. His first job in Los Angeles was working for a movie marketing firm that conducted test screenings for films like "American Pie" and "Ed TV." He watched the idiosyncrasies of movies get stripped away, and resolved to make films that embraced their quirks and rough edges. "Joe" features several non-professional actors.
"Sometimes I just think: Let me go make something that nobody is making," says Green. "Let me go dig up something from my guts and not concern myself with a lot of the more commercial attributes."
"Joe" became something personal for Cage, too. Though he declines to go into detail about the memories he drew from for the part, Cage had a notable run-in with some of the film's subjects — alcoholism, domestic violence — in 2011. Cage, whose wife is Alice Kim, was arrested in New Orleans for suspicion of domestic abuse battery, disturbing the peace and public intoxication. Charges were later dropped.
"Joe" has already earned both Cage and Green their best reviews in years. It's been labeled a return-to-form for both, though neither accepts a default "form."
"If anything, I think 'Joe' might remind them," says Cage of his critics. "I'm the same actor in 'Joe' as the actor in 'Spirit of Vengeance.'"
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle