LOS ANGELES -- Can Nicolas Cage play a normal guy?

"I don't think so," muses the star of David Lynch's new film, "Wild at Heart," a twisted take on a romantic adventure. "I just think it's in me to do something a little more offbeat. It's not like I'm trying to be offbeat. I guess I am offbeat."

He has gone to some extremes for his work. After all, this is the man who chewed a cockroach in "Vampire's Kiss." And it was his idea. And he did two takes. "Originally I was supposed to eat raw eggs. I thought, 'Well, but that's been done.' We saw Stallone do that. I wanted to come up with something that would work with the vampire mythology and also create a visceral experience for the audience where it almost broke the fourth wall down. And people would go, 'Oh, man, that's really happening.' "

He washed his mouth out with vodka before and after, and he still couldn't eat for three days. "I couldn't really sleep very well, either," he says.

"I think he's struggling for magical things," says Lynch. "I call him the jazz musician of actors. He's looking for complicated notes in his acting. And if you don't channel him or ride herd on him, it could become frightening music."

It's not just that Cage is intense and crazed on screen -- or that in two of his movies ("Wild at Heart" and "Raising Arizona") he finds himself in jail within the first five minutes. What is so interesting to watch is how he pulls off being dangerously moody and goofy at the same time. In "Moonstruck," he was the passionate baker who lost the love of his life when he lost his hand in a bread slicer -- and then seduced Cher. He was the hapless baby kidnapper of "Raising Arizona" whose perpetually disheveled hair mirrored the confusion of his life. In his uncle Francis Ford Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married," he was the Fabian manque' with a pompadour and a cartoon voice. On this one he drew criticism for going too far over the top. Nonetheless, it's one of Cage's favorites in his 17-film repertoire.

Perhaps his best and riskiest performance was as the effete Manhattan snob in "Vampire's Kiss" who gradually goes crazy thinking he's become a vampire. There's a great parody of all yuppies in the scene wherehe's standing on a street corner, vampire teeth crammed in his mouth, whining pathetically into a phone to his shrink, trying to get an earlier appointment.

"They are always a little bit absurd and a little bit extreme," Cage says of his characters.

Cage did take a stab at normal -- playing the military hero of "Fire Birds," which came out earlier this year. It was the most commercial film he's made. "I had bought this house and I got over my head and I realized I was in serious need of money," he explains. "I wasn't being true to my instincts, but I felt like I wanted to do a role which was this straight American character."

It was a disaster.

"As I began making the movie I realized that there were things about what the character was doing that were kind of insane -- this passionate need to blow things up. And I started playing it like he had a few problems. I don't think that went over too well with the producers of the movie."

He chuckles ruefully. "I mean, I just seem to find the weirdness in a character."

So the idea of Cage working with David Lynch, popular meister of the bizarre, seems a match made in heaven. Or hell. Cage waxes fondly about his experience making "Wild at Heart," in which he and Laura Dern play the wacky, star-crossed Sailor and Lula. "Marilyn and Elvis on the road to hell -- spiced with moments of pure luv," Cage affectionately drawls.

For Cage, the work is in making the ridiculous real. "In 'Wild at Heart' the preposterous choice that I made was to adopt some of Elvis Presley's mannerisms. Because that's such a tired character rip-off. To do that and actually put a heart beating behind an Elvis rhythm monologue was the challenge I had. I think David and I found it together."

"He's a wild man," says Lynch admiringly. "And he can sing like Elvis."

As depraved and violent as the setting is in "Wild at Heart," Cage finds a warmth at the core of Sailor and Lula's relationship. But his next film, "Adios," based on Emile Zola's "Therese Raquin," "is sort of an exploration of sexuality, but the dark side of it. That interests me. 'Wild at Heart' was such a happy side to that, I thought. Whereas in 'Adios,' it's almost like a religion to this character. He takes it too far. He's an obsessive, a psychotic adulterer." He lets out a low chuckle. "It results in death."

On screen, Cage is a striking combination of long dark hair, dark elegant eyebrows and blue-gray eyes. In "Vampire's Kiss" and "Raising Arizona," there's something so arch about his expressions that they're reminiscent of silent film actors' exaggerated facial gestures. In fact, he is a devotee of horror films, was captivated by Max Schreck in the silent Dracula film "Nosferatu" and used him as an inspiration in "Vampire's Kiss."

"After I went through my method phase, which was like Brando and Dean and De Niro, I discovered these Old World actors," he says, "and they were using these larger-than-life gestures to make up for lack of sound. I thought, 'Wow, that's really wonderfully abstract and poetic,' and I wanted to incorporate them into modern filmmaking. The problem with that was that people wouldn't get it. Unless the character was insane." Enter Peter Loew, young literary agent-turned-vampire.

Sitting in a quiet office in Westwood, stripped of the edginess of his film persona, Cage looks different. There's a benign quality to his face -- he's less angular, rounder and more boyish, more a 26-year-old. "Maybe because I'm not working," he offers.

Tall and strapping, he wears a white T-shirt, black jeans with black cowboy boots, a dashing burgundy fedora with a gold spider and fly pin, and an antique watch. (He collects them.) He smokes Marlboro Lights. "I don't think I know an actor who doesn't smoke," he comments. "I'll stop when I'm ready -- which is what everyone says."

There's a languidness to his demeanor and a tone of amusement when he talks about himself. His looks are eccentric, imperfect -- as befits an offbeat leading man. He slides easily into goofy-looking, and he uses it to his best advantage. In "Moonstruck," when he's imploring Cher to stop fighting her feelings for him, he delivers, in a combination of despair and exultation, one of the most dottily romantic monologues in recent film memory: "Love don't make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect... . We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and to love the wrong people... ."

"I find myself making movies where the character is either pursuing love or lacking love or something to do with love," Cage says. "Love is the emotion that makes people feel the whole spectrum of feelings."

This month Cage snappily graces the cover of GQ in a Hugo Boss suit you probably wouldn't find in his closet -- although recently, brooding over his troubled love life, he went shopping for suit jackets.

He dispels rumors that he had his long beak of a nose fixed. "That Spy magazine thing? Do I honestly look like I've had a nose job?" he asks with a smirk. "I like my big nose. I wouldn't want to make it smaller or change it."

What he does change a lot is his voice. In "Wild at Heart," he really did sing like Elvis. "We used one of Elvis's side players," Lynch recalls, "and he was knocked out."

In "Vampire's Kiss," Cage made up an affected continental accent -- "somewhere between an English actor and a snooty surfer." The real Nick Cage voice is husky with a little twang and an occasional hint of that rounded Southern California sound most often derided as Valley talk. He suffers nagging sniffles, which make his voice sound thicker and send him apologetically running off for Kleenex.

"I've got really bad sinus problems," he laments.

He lives in a penthouse apartment in L.A.'s funky, fashionable Hancock Park with his Burmese cat, Louis, and he owns a house in San Francisco's elegant Pacific Heights area.

Penthouse. A cat. Bad sinuses. Is film's premier prince of darkness just a regular guy?

There is that moment when, sitting in a Westwood office, he's had enough of the ceaselessly ringing phone console. In the middle of talking, he suddenly stands, reaches for the thing and grumbles, "Let me just figure out a way... ."

Oh, no! Will he throw it against the wall like the time he threw a bottle of ketchup across the room at a West Hollywood diner to impress a woman? Or will he smash it to bits the way he trashed furniture in a trailer on the set of Coppola's "Cotton Club" because he wanted to get more into his character? Alas, he just yanks the cord out and sets the phone down on the table.

As he says with a sly smile toward the end of the interview, "I like to cultivate some mystery."

Actress Kristina Fulton lived with Cage for three years and is now six months pregnant with his baby. In a phone interview, she talked about their relationship. "Being with him is like being in a movie -- a constantly surreal movie," she said, laughing. "If you're not onstage with him, go play somewhere else."

When the two of them would make bets with each other, she said, the loser paid by doing something -- "something humiliating," Fulton explained. "I lost a bet and he made me march down Haight Street in San Francisco screaming at the top of my lungs, for 2 1/2 blocks, in the middle of the street." She had to yell, "Round and round and round I go, down and down and down I go." She remembers the incident with amusement: "People were clapping and laughing."

Fulton, 23, plays Nico, a singer with the Velvet Underground in Oliver Stone's movie "The Doors," due out late this year. Cage, she said, "inspired me completely with my own acting. The reason I got the role in 'The Doors' is because of living with him... . Being around him, I started understanding about acting. I didn't go to any classes. He just taught me a lot. By the time I got to Oliver Stone I was so on fire, I was really out there."

She said proudly, "I feel like I'm a female Nick Cage."

They haven't lived together for six months. But Cage, who knows that she's expecting his baby, says, "I am looking forward to it." But he worries about his past relationship problems. "I have to be much more cautious and careful this time and realize that I'm not Cary Grant," he says.

Nicolas Cage grew up Nicolas Coppola, the son of August Coppola, now a dean at San Francisco State University, and the nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola. He was 8 when "The Godfather" made his uncle famous.

As a child growing up in Long Beach he was fascinated by television. Cage took his first acting lessons -- in comedy and juggling -- at 14 to pass the summer. It wasn't until he was 15 and saw James Dean in "East of Eden" that he became smitten with acting as a vocation.

His family had moved back to Los Angeles during his high school years, and he attended Beverly Hills High School, where he became good friends with Crispin Glover, another actor known for his eccentricities. The friendship has lasted, though neither stayed very long in high school. Cage quit in his junior year, miffed over getting only a tiny part in the school production of "West Side Story." He decided he'd go out and get real work.

He was 16 when he got a part as a surfer-muscleman on a television show, "The Best of Times." His film debut was a tiny part in the 1982 "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." His first substantial part came in his uncle's 1983 "Rumble Fish." He was reading opposite actors auditioning for the film when he was told, much to his surprise, he says, that he himself would have a part.

The same year he appeared in Martha Coolidge's "Valley Girl," but he had created a new name for himself -- Cage. He didn't intend to slight his uncle -- "I feel very fortunate working with Francis" -- but he wanted to shake some unwanted attention.

"My grandmother said it was a stupid thing," he confesses. "I started working when I was 16. If I had started later I probably would not have changed my name. But young actors at 16 can be very cruel. And I worked with people, like Eric Stoltz, who just would not let up -- you know, on 'Fast Times,' hanging outside my trailer constantly quoting lines from 'Apocalypse Now,' 'Godfather.' It was just like, 'C'mon, let me do my work. Get off my back.' "

Making money has been important to him. Coming of age, he watched with some envy as his uncle's family grew wealthy.

"My father is an educator," Cage says. "That is not the most lucrative business. Nor does he care. He's not a capitalist."

But it was different for Cage, who lived with his family on the modest edges of Beverly Hills during his high school years. "I was always in these weird circumstances. Like going to Beverly Hills High School but living on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and La Cienega and then basically having these football players throw their Porsches in my face and taking girls out on dates when I was riding the bus to school, because my father thought it was such a good school. And it was." His voice is low and quiet, almost matter-of-fact. "But I'd finally had enough. And I left. I suppose I always wanted that sports car." He chuckles softly.

Today he owns a black Mercedes and a '67 Corvette. A convertible is next on his wish list. "I have a passion for vintage muscle cars," he says.

For his next role, he's got his eye on a Washington political drama, "Investigation," written by Paul Schrader. The character who attracts him is a murderous presidential aide hamstrung by deceitful people around him.

"Unfortunately I may have blown it," he says in a sheepish grumble. "I may have asked for too much money." Meanwhile he hangs out with friends like Glover and Tom Waits and Charlie Sheen. He threatens to learn to surf but he hasn't even bought a board. "So I'm just a hypocrite," he purrs naughtily. "We're all looking for a healthy way to get high. Am I ever gonna do it? I don't know. It sounds good, doesn't it?"