For a Nicolas Cage super fan such as myself, the thought of being anywhere in his vicinity brings on fits of trembling excitement (it’s a medical condition). I once sat two rows directly in front of him at the TIFF premiere of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and I could barely control myself, unable to even look him in the eyes when I shamefully had to go to the bathroom halfway through (if you’re reading this Nic, I’m truly sorry about that).
For Marco Kyris, however, being around Nic Cage was an everyday occurrence. Not only did the 57-year-old Torontonian get up close and personal with the man, the myth, the legend; as his personal stand-in between 1994 and 2004, he was required to mimic Cage’s every move on the sets of some of the icon’s greatest hits. From the Oscar victory for Leaving Las Vegas through the stream of gargantuan Bruckheimer productions and each film in between, Kyris was there every step of the way.
Now he finally steps out of the shadows to tell his own story in Uncaged, the new short documentary premiering at this year’s Hot Docs. In just 10 minutes, directors Blake Johnston and Kelso Steinhoff paint an energetic and endearing portrait of Kyris, from his upbringing in “greasy Greektown” on the Danforth to his days as a struggling actor and finally his ascension to Hollywood royalty through one of the most successful A-listers of the 1990s. To parse through this incredible tale, Kyris and Johnston sat down with me to talk about all things Cage and beyond.
Kyris had wanted to tell his story in one form or another ever since retiring from the stand-in life but it was upon meeting Johnston that things really started getting underway.
“Marco’s nephew and my brother were roommates in university and he had mentioned his uncle had moved back into town and that he was Nic Cage’s stand-in,” Johnston recalls. “He was like, ‘You should go over. He’s looking for help with media related stuff. Helping set up his printer and Internet connection.’ So I went over and sure enough, when you converse with Marco you see how much of a character he is. He mentioned that there was this brand and this story he wanted to tell for about ten years.”
“And then the documentary was kind of an idea that Kelly [Steinhoff, the co-director], Marco and I were spitballing with each other and then it really started to gain traction about a year ago, spring of last year, and then we ramped up pre-production in the summer and we shot over two days.”
The first obvious dilemma is how do you condense a decades worth of Nic Cage interactions down to such a short runtime? “The best part,” Kyris says, “is that I have enough stories to fill up ten movies.”
“We actually shot a lot more than what’s in the film,” Johnston explains. “We were landing in this 20-40 minute range and we thought, ‘We can’t really program this for anything.’ So there are so many stories that didn’t get included. It’s so tight for me and Kelly – I love the length it’s at but there is so much more.”
“We got it,” Kyris adds. “I really hand it to Blake and Kelso 100% on that. I have a serious like for a 15-minute thing. It’s real meat and potatoes.”
After striking out in Hollywood as an actor in the 1980s, Kyris came back to Toronto and signed up with an extras agency that would eventually send him out on his first stand-in job for Cage when he was in town filming the holiday comedy Trapped in Paradise. The actual story about how Kyris came to be offered the gig full time is a truly epic anecdote that I couldn’t spoil here, but it generally came down to the chip-on-his-shoulder attitude that he carried around.
“Canadians are very polite, sweet, mannerly, quiet and because I lived in America and only really worked in America, I had that American vibe,” divulges Kyris. “Everyone else was very Canuck-y. I was never that guy. I would go onto the set and sit on the couch and say, ‘Uh, this doesn’t feel right. I should be sitting like this. It feels uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel right for the character.” And the crew would be like, ‘What character?’ I didn’t know that that was going to make Nic notice me. But it did. And that’s what led to a career, A CAREER, as a stand-in. Not a job. It was a job that turned into a career.”
He was quickly ushered into Cage’s tight-knit entourage, eventually becoming the highest paid stand-in in Hollywood for a moment.
“Who knew?” he exclaims. “I mean, you have your hotels, your cars were paid for, your limousine, the gas, the coffee, everything was taken care of. You were like the star without being the star. And I liked that, because I didn’t really have to perform. That was the best part of it. You see later on when you’re standing there doing the scene and you realize how bad you are. And you look these actors… For example, on Adaptation, you see Meryl Streep and you see Chris Cooper, you see Cage, and you see how they interact and you think, ‘I can’t do that shit.’ I couldn’t coordinate steps and things and Nic is just like a craftsman.”
While many have criticized Cage’s performance style over the years, Kyris constantly witnessed the eclectic star’s professionalism.
“I saw it surprisingly first hand, all the time,” he attests. “Because I was assuming it’s gonna be a mess at some point. He was gonna fuck up, he’ll show up late, he won’t remember his lines, you know, ha ha ha. None of those ha ha ha moments came. It was like oh oh oh. The guy was on it.”
For one such example, take the virtuoso 15-minute unbroken opening shot in Snake Eyes, where Cage’s Rick Santoro winds and weaves his way through multiple interactions in a crowded boxing arena. “Took us three days to set that up,” Kyris reveals. “I will say, that was the probably the hardest three days of my life. I did it for three days before, setting up with the Steadicam operator and 7,000 extras as they move and you’re cutting and going, cutting and going. And Nic went in and nailed it on the first take. And I was like, that’s why he does what he does and that’s why you do what you do.”
For all the emphasis on Nic Cage, the aim was to always keep the focus on Kyris. “That’s the hook, right?” continues Johnston. “Oh, Nic Cage’s stand-in. The first minute, that’s what it’s about and then it’s like okay, who is this guy?”
For Kyris, the music choices in the film played a big role in that, from incorporating traditional Greek folk songs to the disco music that was so important in his young adult years. “That’s the pulse of me,” he says. “This is a representation of me in ten minutes. Because I have that whole Greek thing. I dance Greek, I used to teach Greek dancing and I was a big disco dancer. That was the only thing that kind of kept me going because my upbringing was really difficult to get through with family. Those are serious elements that are still a part of my life today. So I said it’s gotta be a running theme, it’s gotta be the pulse. It can’t be other music; it has to have that beat. That’s what I think also made it so original.”
“Yeah, it’s a documentary about Marco, not about Nic Cage,” Johnston adds.
After owing so much of his success to the stand-in life, Kyris wants to generate a bit more respect for the profession too.
“There was never respect for background workers or stand-ins,” he explains. You just stand under a light; you’re like a pillar to them. You’re not even a failed actor to them; you’re just a zombie guy off the streets. There was never really much respect. We are the backbone of all that stuff and especially when you work for a superstar. You’re setting up for several hours so you really have to know what you’re doing. And you do interact with the actors and you do interact with the cinematographer and the director and they really give you that direction and you gotta know what you’re doing.”
“I was always aware of what was going on,” Kyris continues. “Like Nic was aware of his character stuff, I knew everybody on the film set. There were 300 people, I knew 300 names and that was a challenge in itself because you’re dealing with the electrics, you’re dealing with the grips, transpo guys, the friends of the friends who show up on set. You had to know every hair and makeup person.”
Eventually, I had to ask the million-dollar question: What’s everyone’s favourite Nic Cage movie?
Johnston answers first: “My favourite Cage film is Lord of War just because I think when I was watching it, I just thought it was the coolest movie ever. When I was rewatching movies just because I was doing a lot of research on Marco, that one really stood up.” Speaking for Steinhoff, Johnston guesses, “Kelly’s favourite Nic Cage movie, I feel like it would be Adaptation. Anything Spike Jonze related.”
As for Kyris himself?
“I always get asked that question and I always come up with the same answer. Face/Off was probably one of the most difficult films I ever worked on and I’d say it was the best film I’ve worked on. And I do credit John Woo for that. Face/Off had some kind of a special feel about it. You know, when some things feel special in life? It took five months to film it and it was excruciating for everybody on set but there was some kind of a hippy dippy feeling about being there. You knew you were making a big movie. You had John Travolta, who was a superstar, Nic Cage, another superstar. You had the classic actors of Joan Allen and Nick Cassavetes and you’re on these sets and it’s like, fuck, there’s JT and NC and I’m right in between them both, the whole time. I just thought, how do you explain that to your parents?”
Uncaged screens April 28 and 29 alongside the feature Backstage Action.