Unmistakable Lessons: The Psychology of ‘Massive Talent’s Fictional Nicolas Cage

Drea Letamendi

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent unleashes the ever-fascinating Nicolas Cage onscreen playing himself as a man who is (comedically) dealing with quite a lot of issues. What does this movie tell us about what motivates this onscreen version of the iconic actor, here called Nick Cage? We reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi to find out…

Note: Spoilers follow for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a self-aware Nicolas Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself, “Nick Cage” (sic), an intense but lovable washed-up actor who’s become fixated on landing the perfect comeback role. Like the real man, this Cage has been dealing with some box office flops and judgment over several direct-to-DVD projects. Like the real Cage, this Cage finds his name in the headlines for disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and bizarre antics. This Cage, too, is affably eccentric, oddly charismatic, affecting. His piercing gaze, booming voice, and disrupting freneticism need everyone’s attention, for better or worse. And it’s no secret that this fictional Cage is in the deep end. His debt, divorce, and family neglect are not only pretty public, but also surprising to no one, given his unusual lifestyle.

Unfulfilled and adrift, Nick sets all his hope on one perfect role that would turn the tide of years of professional disappointments. When he loses the role he’s hinged his last acting breath on, Nick officially calls it off, informing his agent he’s retiring for good. And when he agrees to take one last (albeit strange) job in Majorca, Spain, to fulfill a super rich super-fan’s birthday wish, Nick unknowingly becomes entangled in a CIA mission to rescue an anti-crime politician’s daughter from her arms-dealing kidnappers.

This on-screen alternate reality is dialed only a few degrees from Cage’s real life, and, in playing himself, this is the Cagest Cage has Caged. The real Nicolas Cage is all in, channeling the dozens of over-the-top characters he’s played, actualizing the practice of letting whatever feral spirit that’s possessing him to surface—and yet this self-parody manages to gives us an unexpected groundedness, a firm and unwavering autobiography, a resolute sense of self that’s anything but shallow and superficial. This is not character acting. It’s an ambitious leap into the absurd with a far-reaching, lasting impact.

The Unquenchable
Thirst for Attention

Nick Cage’s over-the-top personality comes off as a constant self-conscious performance, as if he’s acutely aware that he’s being observed. To ensure he’s not under-appreciated, Nick puts his boldest foot forward. Is he feeling manic? Run with it. Miserable? Misery, take the wheel. Dejected? Let it consume all of him. Indulging in bringing what’s inside out, Nick can pour over the boring edges and let his impulses drive, as long as he can be the center of attention. As such, Nick rarely shows interest or curiosity about others’ desires or opinions—the moment a conversation drifts away from him and his craft, he finds ways to reposition himself as central to the interaction.

Nick’s constant need for attention is oddly captivating, endearing even. Perhaps it is because he seems to lack the part of self-awareness that links intent to impact (intent is how we think or feel; impact is how our actions create another person feel). Nick can’t help himself. There’s a seemingly natural reactivity about him that appears outside his control. So, when he suddenly begins hollering, breaking into character, reciting lines, altering the gravity in the room to reconfigure the pull, individuals step aside. At his daughter Addy’s sixteenth birthday party, Nick finds the shortest distance to the piano and wastes no time to charm the room full of teenagers, singing a song he sincerely claims he wrote when Addy was younger. Any other actor would come across as overly vain, narcissistic, offensive or gross here. But Nick is remarkably captivating, kicking into Father of the Year; albeit cringeworthy. His talent is mediocre, his humility subatomic, his attractiveness average. But his devotion to his craft is worth the toll of the ticket.

Nick’s self-centeredness is not narcissism (though they exist on the same continuum). A self-centered trait is merely a feature of one’s identity, and can only develop into pathological narcissism when it involves a level of harm, dysfunction, and significant interference. To be clear, a narcissist lacks empathy, feels entitled, and isn’t capable of self-reflection. Cage doesn’t feel the urge to control others, manipulate or antagonize. Surely, Nick is a self-absorbed person who can only use himself as a frame of reference (how does this impact me, my career, my success?). His preoccupation with his own needs undoubtedly led to his divorce, the chasm between him and his family, and the tension between him and his agent.

The Understimulated
Brain and Psychodrama

Nicolas Cage (“Nick Cage”, left), Lily Sheen (“Addy”, center) and Sharon Horgan (“Olivia”, right) in 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'

Taken together, this onscreen Nick’s troubles with maintaining focus, his constant need to control the narrative, his frequent irritability, and his rapid, unstable, and unpatterned thoughts point to a high likelihood he has a neurodivergent brain. Neurodivergence is a term to refer to individuals whose brains operate a little (or a lot) differently than what is believed standard or typical. The most common type of neurodivergence is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), an executive operate dysregulation disorder, which, in more easy terms is when a person has difficulty managing and organizing their thoughts, attention, and emotions.

Like Nick, persons with ADHD may be restless, appear disinterested in others, and display inappropriate behavior when consumed with emotions. They swing dramatically from being overly energetic (hyperactive) to painfully bored (understimulated). They tend to daydream frequently, are very imaginative, and can obtain missing in their own thoughts. When talking to others, individuals with ADHD may let their mind wander and find it difficult to course what the other person is saying. Their attention problems are persistent and can negatively impact relationships, work, and personal goals. They often have problems with money – usually characterized by impulsive buys, overspending, difficulty budgeting, and regrets surrounding purchases. Additionally, due to frequent and unpredictable temper swings, persons with ADHD have emotional fatigue and sometimes turn to negative coping such as self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to dull or numb the noise. As others can attest, their fidgeting and quirks can come off as odd or offbeat – hence the enduring strangeness of Nick Cage.

For some, acting is a conduit to resolve the energy and overwhelm of neurodivergence in the brain. First, there’s the allowance of movement. When syncing our ADHD brains to our bodies through physical activity—anything from pacing to gesticulating to shifting—we self-regulate alertness, which in turn improves focus, concentration and mood.

Imagination is another therapeutic component of acting. When a performer imagines different outcomes or experiences (vis a vis their character), they’re engaging in something called counterfactual thinking, which is a cognitive and experiential process of entertaining the “what if”. Playing out those scenarios—especially as performances that involve the whole body—can assist a person to work through anxieties, turmoil, and even traumatic emphasize that sits in their body.

“I don’t act. I feel and I visualize and I channel.” –Nicolas Cage in a 2017 Variety interview

Famous psychiatrist (and author of The Body Keeps the Score) Dr. Bessel van der Kolk attests to the therapeutic benefits of psychodrama, sharing that by playing out different roles, individuals obtain the feeling of what it is like to embody the experience of a different person and thereby more fully activate critical emotions they’re otherwise unable to process—and for Nick, that includes feeling what it’s like to be the action heroes and dysregulated defeatists he’s psychologically appropriated. The golden-hearted ex-convict Cameron Poe from Con Air; the diabolical antagonist Castor Troy and FBI agent Sean Archer from Face/Off; the depressive alcoholic Ben Sanderson from Leaving Las Vegas; and the spiraling publishing exec Peter Loew from Vampire’s Kiss, to name a few—Nick’s roles allow him to be reckless, self-destructive, powerful, psychotic, dangerous, etc.

Psychodrama can help people, especially those who have understimulated brains, to be engaged, to offload excess energy, to stay focused, and to regulate emotions.  We notice during periods when Nick isn’t working (between roles, for instance), he falls into depression, drinking, and self-hatred. His brain is a ball of noise, and he’s tormented by intrusive thoughts, manifesting as a self-referential figure from his past. It isn’t until he begins creating and co-writing a script with newfound buddy Javi Gutierrez (played by Pedro Pascal) that he reignites his focus, meaning, and drive.

Using drama as a curative modality isn’t a new concept. Like numerous interventions, it’s self-directed, action-oriented, vulnerable, and experiential. Shame, anxiety, and turbulence festers inside of us, and keeping matters bottled is unhealthy. The reason we do any kind of psychotherapy is for us to find worth for our experienced reality – often we veneration our realities are not acceptable to the individuals around us. Drama therapy allows patients to tell stories the way they experience them, to express their feelings openly and without judgment, and to accomplish curative through catharsis.

The Uncanniness
of Nouveau Shamanic Acting

Pedro Pascal as ’Javi Gutierrez’ (left) and Nicolas Cage as ’Nick Cage’ create a big leap in 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'

The parallels between Nicolas Cage’s real-life identity and Nick Cage’s journey are purely intentional. The real Cage carries with him an enduring, often accurate reputation for not fitting the mold of his Hollywood predecessors. He lets his physicality override theory and thought. A key characteristic of Nicolas Cage’s performance style is that he accesses all the energy swirling around inside his entire physical being. He lets his body tell the story.

Similarly, the fictional Nick refers to Nouveau Shamanic as the method of acting he’s used in all his films. Shamans, as he has explained, were also actors. Their mind-body practice included acting out, expressing, and physically articulating whatever emotional issues their patients were suffering. This trance-like, imaginative exercise taps into a wide variety of human mental states—angst, psychache, despair, ecstasy. As such, Nick’s actual roles may not be so enduring or award-winning, but can be valuable and uniquely artistic, in the mome

“You’re always trying. …That’s the saddest part.” – Addy Cage, to her father in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

In an attempt to bond with his daughter, Addy, Nick shares his love of the art of performance. He shows her the German silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a quintessential work of cinematic horror known for its madhouse visual style and social commentary on subjective reality.

Nick is accused by his daughter of centering his own interests by insisting she watch this 100-year old movie (eye-roll), while he is simply trying to connect with her over what he considers an important part of his identity—the beauty of acting is its shadows, its wildness, its distortive perspective, its visible seams. He sees a connection between Caligari and his craft. He, too, is creating radical cadence. He makes no attempt to create his characters stable and continuous. He subverts the boundary between the insane and the sane. And he is the outsider; his expressionist acting style doesn’t fit the traditional and impeccable realism of the American acting “method.” Though Nick’s attempt to reach common ground with his daughter falls flat (it isn’t received well) he’s too wrapped up in himself to notice her pain.

The Unruly
“Nicky” Cage

“Nicky Cage” is Nick’s imaginary alter ego, a younger, rebellious and outspoken personality who represents Nick’s uncensored thoughts and appears whenever Nick is brushing against rock bottom. Nicky is the ego-boosted self-talk, the grandiose and overpowered stud to the festering and fidgeting grump. Nicky’s long hair, leather jacket, “Wild at Heart” t-shirt, and de-aged face emits a vigorous, fresh, nothing-to-lose attitude. His appearance inside and out is almost identical to the real Nicolas Cage seen in the dizzying, bizarre interview on Wogan in 1990, during which his unboundaried and berserk behavior caught the attention of a captive audience.

“I have always looked out for you” – Nicky Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicky’s pestering lectures, often unwanted but stirring nonetheless, are wound up and hyperbolic for a reason. Nicky showcases the parts of Nick that made him different from his industry peers, he’s a reminder that in both acting and in life, Nick must let his feelings drive action, not the other way around. If Nick were to follow his visceral self, his impulses, then the talent—and the groundbreaking roles—will come through. This self-confidence is what’s missing in Nick’s most recent days, what’s been drained from him in the vampirism of current-day Hollywood.

The plot is not meant to be psychotic; though Nick is seeing a flesh and blood Nicky, hearing his melodramatic voice, and feeling his forceful mouth on his own mouth (yes, they kiss; let’s obtain into that momentarily), the scenes with Nicky are histrionic, hyperreal exchanges between two parts of the self, the missing Cage and the driven Cage.

Talking to ourselves can actually be an effective way to cope with difficult times, especially when we sense internal conflict. Having a real out-loud conversation with ourselves is a way to find out how we feel and what we need—what makes us more relaxed and what revs us up. Nicky, however absurd, is sowever a part of Nick’s psyche, his Id, an embodiment of the matters he believes makes him uniquely daring, captivating, arresting, and better as an actor. Each of us has this inner loudness within us, especially high-achieving perfectionists on an limitless chase for success.

Though he’s a part of Nick, Nicky Cage is in numerous ways, ego-dystonic. He brings thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are dissonant, or in conflict, with Nick’s actual self-image. Nick often reacts to Nicky with disdain and frustration, and attempts to shut him out. The physicality of Nicky is meant to shock Nick’s system, and more importantly, invigoratehis bodily senses, jump-start and revive the energy within him that seems to be depleted. But the slaps and kisses are discomforting, abusive, nonconsensual. More than anything, when Nicky materializes, he reveals the farcicality and gimmickry of Nick’s early life choices.

Nicky reminds Cage of his worst fear: being dull. Disappearing into the background. Nicky is the ghost of Nick’s past, the constant reminder that he’s losing his spark and that his best work is behind him. But Nicky doesn’t have the responsibilities—the financial, familial, and personal attachments—that are a part of older Nick’s life.

The Undeniable
Power of the Positive 

It causes Nick good disappointment when he decidedly leaves the movie industry, and he views his days in Majorca as an early retirement, which he non-jokingly compares to dying. When he’s not acting, the dissonance is palpable. His first few days on the Spanish island are tense and restless, wandering. Naturally, Nick’s miserable when he’s not doing what he loves. He believes that his vocation is his calling, a source of identity, the core meaning of his life, and this is an idea that numerous of us can’t help but embrace. Is Nick’s enduring enthusiasm about his work that bad?

“I’m one of those fortunate individuals who like my job, sir.” – Nicolas Cage as Stanley Goodspeed, The Rock.

In moments when he’s commanded by CIA operatives to collect intel on the arms dealers he is staying with, Nick finds that he’s able to access his own confidence and agility by switching his mind over to acting mode. His attitude completely transforms him. Positive valence (feeling good) could very well be the key to doing our jobs better, no matter the career type. Scientists who explore positive emotions like gratitude, awe, pride, optimism, and humor have found that these sensations are linked to perseverance and resilience—thus, genuinely loving what we do for a living is the pathway toward happiness. Positivity about work can even buffer burnout, exhaustion and depersonalization (feeling foggy, uncertain, and disconnected from one’s career goals).

“The greatest weapon we have against emphasize is our ability to select one thought over another.” – William James

The Unhappy
Outcome of Workism 

Nick Cage faces off with his past in 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'

The “Great Resignation” is a socioeconomic, cultural movement that emerged during the COVID pandemic, characterized by a big shifting of work values. This massive moment of reflection caused numerous to begin rethinking their career satisfaction levels—as work conditions got worse, dangerous even, employees began to understand the true nature of their replaceability and depersonalization of their job. This confrontation led some to recognize that if our jobs are meant to be more than a source of income, and should provide personal fulfillment, and if neither were trustworthy outcomes, it is time to walk away.

What if, despite how hard we work, the “do what you love” dream turns out to be a scam, a con, an empty promise?  What are the consequences of hitching our happiness to our work? Nick’s mind, for instance, is almost always consumed with acting. His fixation on his success often results in his family feeling neglected, even estranged. And when not attached to a role, Nick loses his way, disappearing into a delicate self. Who is he when not the movie star Nick Cage? What happens when you identify so closely with your work that hating your job means…hating yourself? This existential crisis is a likelihood when a person builds their entire idea of themselves around their career.

The term enmeshment describes a condition where boundaries between work and personal life are so blurred, one defines the other. Enmeshment may be more common in particular fields, but it truly prevents development of a stable, independent self outside of one’s professional identity. Furthermore, especially in performance arts and consolation industries, the confluence of high achievement, intense hours, and the culture of celebrity creates a perfect self-rewarding cycle of enmeshment, euphoria, exhaustion, burnout, and depression.

One of the reasons we sympathize with Nick Cage is because so numerous of us understand what it’s like to enmesh with a high-pressure job that leads to mental health struggles. Nick’s fears of failure and languishing drives him to double down on work, to grip more tightly to his career as central to his identity.

Workism is the idea of viewing work not simply as the way to earn a living but a personal calling, an identity production. In recent mid-pandemic surveys, an overwhelming majority of Americans reported that our jobs are more important to identity than marriage or children. The culture of workism is noted in Cage’s glaring neglect of his family, his poor choices, his self-destruction as a way to further his career—and yet, we see some of our own lives in his. We sometimes, too, believe in the delusion that our jobs are going to fulfill us, that our next big “role” in our profession is going to spring us into long standing happiness, and that, when we truly reflect on our lived realities, we find that work is more than anything, exhausting us.

Nick’s signs of mental breakdown in Majorca are strangely familiar—staying in bed all day with the covers over his head, overconsumption of alcohol, trying to drown out his disappointments. Stress with work cannot be escaped, and avoidance can lead to bigger issues like chronic anxiety, sleep disturbances, and loneliness. Nick is stunned when he learns that in-movie ex-wife Sharon and daughter Addy are invited to the island by the well-intentioned Javi. They, too, become entangled in the high-stakes drama, culminating in their lives being threatened, blurring the lines between work and life, and symbolizing the toxicity that can “leak” into our personal lives when our work is overburdensome and intrusive.

The Unmatchable
Feeling of Joy

Nick’s designed retreat shifts full throttle into a fast-paced, action-packed rescue mission, not too unlike the adrenaline-fueled flicks he’s starred in. He heroically rescues his family, as well as his love of his craft—inspired by their escapades, Nick and Javi co-write a movie that earns box-office success. In this happy ending, Nick has discovered purpose and fulfillment as a father, husband, and friend; roles that are enduring and far more important than any he’s played. Nick’s shift in perspective is evidenced by quality time with his family, exorcizing Nicky, his lightheartedness about work, and self-depreciating digs about The Wicker Man (“Not the bees!”). A part of Nick’s curative is his ability to see his acting “self” as decentered and dialed down, humbled and humorful, even backgrounded.

It’s no easy feat to create us relate to any part of Nicolas Cage’s psychology, but it’s the portrayal of Nick Cage in Massive Talent that offers a breath of fresh air, an inexplicit permission to embrace what we love, and above all, to value the feeling of joy at its most instinctive level. Outright, Nick’s self-indulgence and hard fight can actually re-energize our feelings about our own lives and what we’re currently getting out of them. Call it a parody, fantasy, or illusion, Nick’s portrayal is invigorating in that it reignites something we’ve forgotten to do: Savor what we have. So whatever unbearable weight we’ve been shouldering, our call to action is curative through laughter, togetherness, and passion. Nick’s story attests that the language of art can speak to us deeply or superficially—whether it’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Paddington 2as long as it moves us.

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.