As we mentioned in our review of Renfield (which you can read here), Nicolas Cage is too perfect a casting addition as the legendary Count Dracula. And it would seem that was the enticing reason Ben Schwartz took on the film as well; “How in the world would I pass on a movie where Nic Cage is playing Dracula?”
As the vampiric comedy arrives in Australian cinemas this week, Peter Gray spoke with Schwartz about working with the iconic actor, stepping out of his comedic comfort zone to take on action choreography, and who in his professional career he has learned the most from.
First of all, the fact that your character’s full name is Tedward is one of the best, most telling jokes in itself…
Oh, my God. I’ll tell you, as we kept going, (first) it was Teddy Lobo. Then it was Teddy Eddie Lobo. Robert Kirkman kept changing it, and then it was Tedward Edward Teddy Lobo, and now it’s Tedward Teddy Lobo. I am on the same page as you, I love that I think the name is so stupid. It’s insane. I love it.
And Teddy’s relationship with Dracula is one that gives him power, metaphorically and literally. With that role as a mentor to your character, is there anyone that you have worked with that you have personally looked up to in the same manner?
Oh, Garry Shandling. Do you remember Garry Shandling? He’s kind of a brilliant guy. I was lucky enough to be in a basketball league at his house for every week for about 7 or 8 years. Every time I went there I just learned about, not even work stuff, I just loved his brain and talking to him. I found a lot of inspiration from him. I found a lot of inspiration from working with Billy Crystal, and Amy Poehler started the Comedy Theatre where I learned how to do comedy. And Don Cheadle. He’s one of the best actors in the universe, and he’s a good, kind dude. I love watching how he treats himself and how he treats his friends and family. You kind of take a little bit from everybody.
I feel very lucky that I’ve had a lot of people I look up to, and if I have a question about life or business I can call somebody and chat with them and try to figure out how this person did it. But Shandling, man. If you haven’t seen The Larry Sanders Show... it’s one of the best shows ever made. I think it’s one of the best comedies every made.
On that of taking a little bit from everybody, how did that translate for you on Renfield? How was the atmosphere on set?
So, from (Nicolas) Cage what I took is the 110% commitment. When he came in to play Dracula, the dude was Dracula the second he walks in the room. He’s pumping himself up before he gets on camera, and you’re like “Oh, my God, I’m watching Nic Cage pump himself up!” It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. I really try my best to pick three things when it comes to making movies. Either the words are so good that I want to say them, the director is so talented that I just want to work with them, or there’s an actor or actress that I really want to play with and learn from. I’m always trying to learn different aspects, so, you know, the words and director for this one were unbelievable. (But then) Nicholas Hoult, Awkwafina and Nic Cage? How in the world would I pass on a movie where Nic Cage is playing Dracula?
With the character of Teddy, how much of what we see is on the page and how much is improvised? Did Chris McKay encourage improvisation?
So, Robert Kirkman came up with the idea, then he gave the script to Ryan Ridley. The words were already awesome. I knew how to play this, and I knew when talking to McKay that I wanted to add a little more comedy. There’s a moment I come into a restaurant for one of the scenes and I’m holding everybody up, and I’m playing it as this cocky mob boss and I put a gun right next to Awkwafina’s head, and I tell her that I’m going to shoot her. She’s like “Do it,” and you can see my character get terrified. He’s never shot or hurt someone before, and I loved the idea of that, and then McKay had a great moment where my character actually makes the decision to go a little crazy and take somebody’s life. I loved playing with those little things. And then being insane and running around throwing cocaine at cops, (so) it’s fun to play all the different levels.
On that mention of the restaurant scene, how was shooting the action sequences for you?
It was very funny for someone who hasn’t done a lot of action stuff to do it. Like, the first thing was I had to do gun training first. I’ve shot a couple of guns in (film) before, but this is like…I’m a maniac in this one. It’s very funny if you saw me on the first day of gun training, where I was, like, “Woah, these puppies are loud!”
In the same vein is when I started to do my training for fighting. As a kid, and I think we all did it, where you’d do all the sound effects, and the guy’s literally stopping me. “No, you don’t, you can’t make noises when you’re punching people!” This is a real movie (laughs), so I jad to un-train those little things. But it was fun. It was like for After Party (where) I got to learn how to sing and dance for a musical number I did in that show, so I’m learning all these fun little skill sets that I can take with me. And because of that musical number I now get offered musical (projects), so maybe because I’m doing this action stuff I can be Keanu Reeves’s Jewish best friend in John Wick 5. We’ll see what happens. Isn’t that a great idea for a movie? He’s lost his dog, so he has to find a new best friend. And his new best friend is a really hip, nerdy Jewish guy with an improv background.
New Orleans is an improv city in its essence, and I was wondering how was it for you to film there? And, of course, it’s where Nic Cage lives. Was there anything about him that you learned that surprised you? His presence is just next level!
You know he has a pet crow, right? The craziest part about (filming) is that when you sign up for a vampire movie, you don’t think beforehand that you’re going to shoot every day at night. You’re never going to see daytime. Because vampires only exist at night, so it was a lot of barely getting any sleep during the day (because) I explored the culinary treats of New Orleans. I think if you watch this film from beginning to end, Teddy is probably 8 pounds heavier when he dies than when he started the movie. That’s how I spent (my time).
Then my Nic Cage moments? They were mostly on set. The coolest part is that when they yell “Cut”, and him and I go to our chairs, he’s still dressed as Dracula, but I’m like “I loved Adaptation, man. I went twice in a row.” I’m just talking to him about Raising Arizona and grilling him on all his movies. It was just being around him. He has more stories than anybody. He also knows everybody. You randomly forget he’s a Coppola. There’s just a treasure trove – a museum of wonders – inside Nic Cage’s head.
Renfield is screening in Australian theatres from May 25th, 2023.