Why Nicolas Cage Takes on 'Eclectic' Roles 'Even Though I Might Fall on My Face'

"I see myself very much as a student of film performance and I'm always looking to learn something," he tells PEOPLE.

When it comes to selecting new roles, Nicolas Cage is famous for being fearless.

The actor, who won an Oscar in 1987 for Raising Arizona before going on to become one of the biggest box office stars of the 90s thanks to blockbusters like Con Air and Face/Off, has reinvented himself in recent years with a return to independent films. The artier fare has allowed him to explore his eccentric side.

“I see myself very much as a student of film performance and I’m always looking to learn something,” Cage, 54, tells PEOPLE. “That’s why if you look at my filmography, it’s so eclectic. I’m always trying to challenge myself and take those risks and go for the triple axel, even though I might fall on my face. It’s still exciting to go for it and you still get points for trying.”

Cage recently attended the Sundance Film Festival for the first time in nearly 40 years to promote the action-thriller Mandy, executive produced by Elijah Wood.

With his latest small budget release, The Humanity Bureau, Cage got explore his love for science fiction. Based in the not-so-distant future, the film offers a vision of the American Midwest ravaged by the effects of climate change. In a desperate attempt to control the population in the midst of an economic crisis, a government agency dubbed the Humanity Bureau banishes society’s so-called unproductive members to a colony known as New Eden.

“I think science fiction is one of the great places where you can exercise freedom of speech,” says Cage, who plays a Humanity Bureau agent gone rogue. The genre, the actor adds, allows filmmakers to “take current events that are highly sensitive” and “put them on a different planet or in a different time. Then you can say what you want.”

Still, Cage is careful not to label the film a message movie. “I don’t like to make message movies per say, but I do like to reflect and hold a mirror up to current events and society so that people can make their own decisions about what they do and do not believe,” he explains. ‘Hopefully [the film] is thought provoking and stimulating, but not in a way that’s sanctimonious or preachy.”

As to why he’s gravitated towards independent films in recent years, Cage says, “The main thing is that there are less cooks in the kitchen.” He adds, “There are fewer people with opinions sort of impinging on what the director’s vision is, and I feel freer to be able to come up with ideas and work with the filmmakers and the other actors, rather than having to hit a specific trailer moment or marketing ploy to help sell the movie, which occurs more often when the dollar numbers go up.”

Mindseye Pictures

Nicolas Cage in The Humanity Bureau.

Earlier in his career, he says, “I found that I was making a lot of movies where it felt like the trailer was more important than the movie itself.” Making independently spirited films, he adds, reminds him of making films as a kid on a Super 8 camera, when he made “movies simply because the movie is so much fun to make and you love it so much, and not because you get paid a ton of money, not because of winning awards, but because you love the movie itself.”

It’s a feeling he says was more difficult to achieve “making mammoth blockbuster movies, which I did quite a bit back in the 90s. Not that I wouldn’t do it again, I would and I found my own way of enjoying that as well, but I’m very thankful that I still have the independent roots as my base.”

The Humanity Bureau hits theaters April 6.

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