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Nicolas Cage Was Actually Drunk in Iconic "Leaving Las Vegas" Scene

The Oscar-winner was "completely off his face," the movie's director said.

Nicolas Cage told The Independent in 1996 that being cast in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas was "an opportunity to get back to a more sensitive style of acting" and fulfill his potential for dramatic roles after a mild early-'90s career slump. But upon reading the script, he worried a lack of personal experience with alcoholism might hinder his depiction of lead character Ben Sanderson. "I didn't have a relationship with alcohol myself," he explained to the outlet. He tried attending 12-step meetings and researching the most devastating effects of alcohol on the body to get into the role. But when neither of those things gave him the confidence he needed, Cage actually got drunk to film a key scene—in fact, he was "completely off his face," according to the film's frustrated director. Read on to find out more.

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Cage hired a "drinking coach" to help him get into character.

In a 2018 look back at his best performances for GQ, Cage reflected on preparing for the role. He recalled studying "all the great alcoholic performances," like Kris Kristofferson's in A Star Is Born, and borrowing inspiration from each. Then a family member suggested he take on an even closer character study.

"My cousin, Roman Coppola, said, 'You should go, hire Tony'—Tony Dingman, who was at that time…very drunk and also a poet," Cage said. "'Hire him and just watch him and have him be your drinking coach.'"

Dingman, a family friend and self-professed "drunk" who had assisted Roman's father, director Francis Ford Coppola, during the filming of 1997's Jack, provided inspiration not just for the "crumbling elegance" Cage hoped to imbue Sanderson with, but also word-for-word inspiration for many of his lines. "He'd say the most poetic, drunken things, like, 'You do not kick the bar, you lean into the bar because it's not 'vino veritas,' it's 'in vino veritas,'" Cage told GQ. "He'd just spout all these things out, and of course, I'd put them all in the movie."

"I had him on the set with me all the time," Cage added. "The poor guy [was] curled up in a fetal position in my trailer while I played bongos because I was trying to get some kind of syncopated rhythm, some sort of music for the character."

The director refused Cage's request to drink on the job.

Nicolas Cage in 1996
Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Having Dingman on set wasn't enough for Cage, however, according to Leaving Las Vegas screenwriter and director Mike Figgis. "He wanted to do the entire film drunk," the filmmaker told The Telegraph in 2022. The film's five-week shooting schedule, among other practical matters, got in the way. "But he did one scene completely off his face," Figgis added.

The scene in question features Cage's character suddenly erupting at a casino Blackjack table after encountering a waitress who perhaps reminds him of the ex-wife who long ago left with his son. Sanderson screams, "I'm his father," flips a table over, and lashes out at bystanders before being taken away by security guards.

"He drank a bottle of vodka before the scene," Figgis said of filming, and Cage admitted as much in a 2003 appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio, per Business Insider. "I never drink when I act, but I wanted to incorporate, in some scenes, actual drinking," he said. "So that scene in the casino when I'm freaking out, I'm really drunk."

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Production almost got thrown out of the casino because a drunken Cage "had gone bonkers."

Nicolas Cage with his Oscar in 1996
Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

The final cut of the scene departs considerably from the original script, which has the character passing out at the table and never bringing up his son. "That was sort of a primal scream that came out of me that wasn't in the script," Cage admitted on Inside the Actor's Studio.

While the scene is striking—and helped Cage win the Best Actor Oscar for his work—Figgis shared that there was some fallout of the drunken improvisation. "I was very angry with him because he didn't tell me," the director told The Independent. "Somebody got injured and he smashed the equipment. The pit boss was furious and was gonna throw us out until the audience…started applauding. We were within a hair's breadth of being thrown out, because Nic had gone bonkers."

Cage used an experience with another substance to fuel a later performance.

That acclaimed performance would not be Cage's last time being inspired by substances while getting into character. Director Werner Herzog recounted worrying the now-59-year-old actor had gone too far while filming the 2009 movie, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. "Nic was so realistic I was frightened," he recalled to Vulture about a scene in which Cage's character digs into a bag of cocaine and starts snorting it.

This may have been because the actor had recently been prescribed actual cocaine to treat a sinus issue—a fairly routine treatment in Australia, he claimed in a press conference for the film, according to OK! Magazine. The effect of the drug gave him inspiration for how his character should react to using it, he explained. "I came out and just started taking notes and I noticed my mouth was getting really dry and I was feeling very invincible and I started improvising the scenes and coming up with ideas and I was swallowing a lot so then I was graphing it in the script—this is coke so this is what he's doing here, there's going to be a lot of swallowing, a lot of lip smacking," he said.

Despite these head-first dives into his roles, Cage says he's not a Method actor. Rather, he gets into character via an approach he's dubbed "nouveau shamanism," he told Insider in 2022. "The process itself is about: How do you augment your imagination in a healthy way? So that you can believe you're these characters," he said.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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