October 28, 2002 01:10 PM

After playing on the overseas film-festival circuit, Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut, the movie “Sonny,” came home to America Saturday night with its premiere at the 15th Annual Virginia Film Festival, PEOPLE reports.

“If any of you need anything during the screening, I’ll be in the back having a panic attack and probably lying on a gurney because I just quit smoking,” the “Leaving Las Vegas” Oscar winner, 38, told the crowd when he introduced the film.

Cage arrived at the University of Virginia’s Culbreth Theatre with new wife Lisa Marie Presley, 34, by his side.

Presley wore a subdued black suit and spike-heeled boots, while Cage sported a black and white pinstriped suit, accented by an enormous Elvis-style green pinkie ring.

Cage said that he and his uncle, experienced director Francis Ford Coppola, share only one similarity: “I remember seeing my uncle on set and hearing him say, ‘ACT … tion,’ letting the ‘tion’ roll off his tongue much later, and I found myself adopting that style.”

The movie, whose leading man is James Franco (Harry Osborn in “Spider-Man”), revolves around a male hustler who joins the Army in order to get out of the gigolo business.

Submitting to a post-premiere grilling session with Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, Cage said he “was a little bit of a nervous wreck because it’s the first time I’ve seen (‘Sonny’) with a live audience.”

Cage explained that it was “the combination of the threat of a writers strike and the screen actors walkout that made me think I would have to shift gears creatively” and try his hand at directing.

“I see myself very much as a student as an actor and now as a director. I think you have to not be afraid not to fall on your face to be a true artist,” he said.

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