It's late afternoon East Coast time, early afternoon California time and just about dawn Nicolas Cage time.

The porcupine-tufted actor, his face framed by a permanent five-o'clock shadow, breezes into his publicist's office, having navigated Los Angeles' freeway system in his '67 Corvette, nicknamed the Blue Shakr.

He's pumped up, a rarity this early in his day. But then, Cage hasn't felt this good about a movie role since 1987's Moonstruck."Wild at Heart's Sailor Ripley was exactly the character I was looking for, even though I didn't know it," Cage says, plucking the phone receiver from his publicist's hand to talk to a reporter. "When I read the character, I felt for him. I connected with him. We were the same in spirit."

Sailor Ripley is the missing link in the evolution of Cage's ever-so slightly demented characters. he's off-center but not over the edge like Cage's cockroach-chomping bloodsucker in last year's "Vampire's Kiss." He's murderous but less malevolent than "Mad Dog Dwyer," the psychotic gangland killer in 1984's "The Cotton Club." He's crazy in love, yet not in the loopy way Charlie Bodell was in "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986).

Cage checks his tendency toward excess with Sailor, an Elvis-inspired chain-smoking manslaughterer plying the roadways of the Deep South with his girlfriend, Lula (Laura Dern). Cage is the movie's heart, wild as it is, and a hefty chunk of its soul.

Cage says it was liberating to work with Lynch, the director of "Blue Velvet," "Eraserhead" and television's Twin Peaks series.

"It's like a circus. Very playful," says Cage, 26, comparing the movie's set with the three movies he made for his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, as well as 1987's "Raising Arizona" for the Coen Brothers, "Moonstruck" for Norman Jewison and 1984's "Birdy" for Alan Parker.

"David says having fun is necessary. He keeps it fresh and alive. Lines change. Thoughts and ideas change. Entire scenes end up different than they were in the script," Cage says. "You just float and go with it. You don't have a lot of time to analyze or overthink something."

The extent of Cage's research for "Wild at Heart" was limited to a road trip with co-star Laura Dern.

"We just opened up . . . cultivated that trust thing. By the time we were ready to start shooting, it was pretty charged," he says of their L.A.-to-Vegas sojourn in the Blue Shark.

Cage also bought a golden snakeskin jacket which "I knew I wanted to wear it in a movie, but I didn't know what movie. It was so wonderfully ugly that it seemed to evoke mythic warriors in my mind."

When Cage arrived at rehearsal, he discovered Lynch had written his jacket into the script.

Cage's voice deepens with an Elvisy growl as he impersonates Sailor, "This snakeskin jacket is a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom."

He laughs, recalling how Lynch built an entire scene around that line, basing it on Cage's recollection of how he once made a man apologize to his date for insulting her.

"It's amazing how these things come up with David," he says with admiration. "We talk about different episodes in our lives. Then, a couple days later, it's in the script."

Cage, who was born Nicolas Coppola, has made a dozen movies in 10 short years. All but one - last summer's "Top Gun"-inspired "Fire Birds" - have been moderately quirky to outright strange.

His first appearance, in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," ended up on the cutting room floor. His next was a small part in Uncle Francis' 1982 "Rumblefish." A year later, Martha Coolidge cast him as a Los Angeles punk rcker who falls in love with a Val in her highly regarded "Valley Girl." That was followed by 1984's "Racing With the Moon," "Birdy," then "The Cotton Club" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" for Coppola.

Nearly all his characters are playful twists on reality. Most project a certain duality: good and evil, loving and loathing, tender and violent. They make distinct, though apparently short-lived, impressions on audiences who keep rediscovering Nicolas Cage.

His hound-dog eyes and slack jaw don't project the sex appeal of Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson, yet he is consistently cast in romantic leads. Shot from a distance, he looks big and lanky, sort of oafish, yet he conjures brooding intensity.

He overacts: Most notablyin "Vampire's Kiss" (amazingly his favorite performance), "Moonstruck" ("My hand . . . MY HAND!!") and "Peggy Sue Got Married" in which he portrays a small-town Crazy Eddie who cheats on his wife, played by Kathleen Turner.

Cage recalls how Turner tried to have him booted from the project and how Uncle Francis cooked a lavish pasta dinner to placate Tri-Star's executives when they flew in with Cage's pink slip.

"You can understand," Cage says. "Here she is, playing a romantic lead to a guy who acts like the Nutty Professor. He was written like a suave romantic guy."

The movie whisks Turner from her 25-year high school reunion to her prom queen days so she can correct the mistakes that have made her adult life so miserable. For the `60s sequences, Cage plays a goofy, insecure, but believeably confused teen sporting a Fabin pompadour.

"No one knew at the time," Cage confides, "that I was playing Pokey the horse from The Gumby Show."

"Peggy Sue Got Married" required him to play a teen and an appliance salesman twice his actual age. He portrayed a baker, several years his senior, who falls in love with Cher in "Moonstruck."