With Nicolas Cage back in the fold, again playing Ben Gates in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” the story centers on some discoveries about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, about searching for missing pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, and about — here’s the hook — the possibility that one of Gates’ ancestors might have been involved with the murder.

It’s always a surprise when a new movie with new characters and a completely original story is released, then goes on to become a blockbuster. Such was the case with “National Treasure.”

The 2004 film, starring Nicolas Cage as freelance treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates, who attempts to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to solve a puzzle, had a budget of $100 million.

Critics were not kind, but the public went for it, eagerly handing over $350 million at the box office. So it’s no surprise that studio heads thought it would be a good idea to try a sequel.
   
With Nic Cage back in the fold, again playing Gates in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” the story centers on some discoveries about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, about searching for missing pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, and about — here’s the hook — the possibility that one of Gates’ ancestors might have been involved with the murder.
   
Cage, who had never done a sequel before, and is usually laid back in interviews, was quite excited to talk about the film.

What got you to play the same character again for the first time?

I wanted to make sure that we would go in a direction that would raise the stakes and also hopefully be more interesting. When they first presented the idea of the Civil War, Confederate gold, John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination, I said, “Well, right off the bat, for me, that’s more interesting, historically and personally.” When you change the treasure, you change the whole story. The actors stay the same; the characters stay the same. But you get new clues that are historically accurate, and you get new locations. So, having been a fan of Basil Rathbone and Sherlock Holmes, I thought, “Why not bring Ben Gates back as a sort of modern version, if you will, a historical version, archeological version, of a detective looking for and unlocking the mysteries of these treasures?”  And there are worse things to do than to inspire, especially the youngsters, to look in their history books.  So I thought, “Let’s go, let’s do it.”  So, I did it.  And I’m happy I did it.

You mentioned kids. It’s likely that younger viewers probably haven’t seen most of your earlier films.

Well, children to me are of the utmost importance and they really are the future, aren’t they? So I want to treat that carefully. I’m one of those people that believes that the power of film is intense and you have to really think about it responsibly. In this case, as I said, [it was] to get them to enjoy themselves with mom and dad or the whole family, and also look in their history books in a way that isn’t like, “Oh, you must read,” or “You must learn.” You wonder, “Wow! Why are there missing pages in the Booth diary?” Then you go see the movie and you can use a little imagination and it makes the ride more enjoyable. So, I’m always thinking about the kids if I make that sort of movie.

Your son Kal-el is now 2 years old. Do you think specifically about him when you’re choosing roles?

Children, especially from 1 to 6, are so impressionable. And the main priority is just to make sure they’re happy as much as possible. Because we know as they get older, things start happening and there are pressures and hormones and all of that. So, in the beginning, you want it to be, just, how happy can you keep them for that wonderful magical period of time, and that means movies that are positive. He loves “Yellow Submarine” and he likes the Beatles and the Wiggles and all of that, and that’s great. There’s plenty of time to discover the other stuff, and I’m sure he will if he is like all the rest of us in my family. But in terms of choices, I try to make movies that will hopefully do some good for the whole family in that way.

Are you at all similar to Ben Gates?

With Ben, I wanted to make it clear — probably because his grandfather knighted him at such an early age, he took it to heart and he really believes in a chivalrous way that everything he is, is on account of his ancestors — that his ancestors are not dead to him.  They’re still there with him and he’s honoring them. I like that about him. And I think I try to embrace that in my own life, and also history.  It’s a quid pro quo where I — probably because of playing Ben Gates — really appreciate history now. I like old architecture and old buildings, and I enjoy being in places where I feel the weight of past events. And if you use a little imagination, you can time travel.

Ben is defined by the people that came before him. Do you relate to that in your acting career?

I think so. It began with [my grandfather] Carmine Coppola. We didn’t come from money. He came here because he could play the flute and he joined Toscanini’s Orchestra as the first chair flautist. As a sidetrack to that, about two years ago, I was sleeping and the TV was on. It was the Arts Channel. And I heard this flute and I woke up and it was my grandfather playing “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” I’m getting chills thinking about it. It was like he was talking to me. It was amazing. But he was the beginning of our history in the arts. And then he married Pennino, my grandmother’s family. And then from there, it just kept going, Francis [Coppola] and Sofia and Taly [Shire], and everybody.

“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” opens Dec. 21.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com.