About a boy
Actor John Cusack has forged a commendably wayward path, from 1980s pin-up via Con Airand Being John Malkovich,to famous Huffington Post blogger. And he’s still as boyish as ever. He talks to TARA BRADY
NEVER MIND death and taxes, if we can be certain of anything it’s that John Cusack will always be boyish. The height helps, of course. Standing at 193cm – or 6ft 4ins in queenspeak – he retains something of the air of a growth-spurt adolescent, though at 45, he’s too grown up to describe as gangly.
But he springs about the hotel room and keeps on going. Is this John Cusack on transatlantic jetlag? It’s sort of heartening that, in person, the older, wiser John Cusack still looks precisely like the teen idol John Cusack. Stick him on your wall with Peter Gabriel on the boom box and you’ll swear it’s 1989.
Age, evidently, shall not weary the guy who still wears black, smokes cigars, rides motorbikes, never gets hitched and holds a level-six black belt in Ukidokan kickboxing.
There have been famous girlfriends – Minnie Driver, Claire Forlani, Neve Campbell – but no woman has tamed him yet.
His boyishness may be a quirk of good genetics but it has come to define his screen career; the moment in Gross Pointe Blankwhen his baby-faced assassin and a baby behold one another intently; the moment when his womanising geek-boy plumps for commitment in High Fidelity; the moment in 2012when his deadbeat sci-fi writer takes on a tsunami to save his family.
In any movie, with any actor, the guy who goes puppy-eyed and suddenly decides to put away childish things is having a John Cusack moment.
Boys, as we know, will have boyish enthusiasms and today Cusack is, in his softly spoken way, beating a drum for Edgar Allan Poe. He might easily be counting down a much-pondered top 10.
“You have to read King Pest.It has that Dickensian idea of cities as a new state of hell ravaged by different plagues. And one of them, like in The Masque of the Red Death, literally comes to dinner, to this last supper of crazed dead people and cannibals and lepers. Or Hop Frogabout an alcoholic dwarf jester who for the amusement of the king must remain drunk so he can dance.”
He bemoans Poe’s surprisingly low standing in the official history of American letters. The collected works make for an extraordinary body of work, he says, and a nexus for all kinds of traditions: “But he’s been lumped in with a more Germanic tradition like the Brothers Grimm, written out of American literary history.”
Cusack has done his Poe homework for The Raven, a new historical murder mystery mash-up from V For Vendettadirector James McTeigue. In a movie named for Poe’s most-quoted work, Cusack’s Poe joins forces with a Baltimore police detective (Luke Evans) to hunt down a serial killer acting out choice moments from Poe’s fiction.
“It was a crazy, great adventure,” says Cusack. “I was grateful James wanted me and I figured he didn’t want me to do it and not bring something to it. We both agreed we had an obligation to approximate Poe’s command of the English language. You’re dealing with someone with a range of language to match Henry Miller’s. The dialogue needed to sound as textured and complex as he was.
“There are troves in his work. It was a question of adapting something he said about Wordsworth or one of his editors and put it into what he says to Brendan Gleeson or shouting it out during that bar brawl scene – when he walks in knowing that as an alcoholic he’s going to get stomped.”
Did he warm to his historical equivalent?
“Oh yeah. But I don’t think he would have liked me. In all the reading I did I came across maybe two male friends. He got on great with women, but he was too competitive with other men to stop himself from getting into fights with them. He was a total, brilliant lunatic.”
Born into a classic five-a-side Irish Catholic family in Evanston, Illinois, Cusack is the youngest in an unconventional film dynasty that includes dad, the civic-minded documentary-maker Dick Cusack, and thespian siblings Ann and Joan.
“They were that certain breed of progressive Irish Catholic, coming on the back of Vatican II and Dorothy Day and the anti-war movement, and all those kinds of influences,” explains the actor. “There was always an emphasis placed on social activism and consciousness.”
Growing up, Cusack joined the Piven Workshop Theatre, a troupe headed up by Byrne Piven, father of Entourage’sJeremy. The two remain friends and, like sister Joan, have wandered in and out of one another’s movies ever since; all three appear in Say Anythingand Grosse Pointe Blankand “sack pack” spots have formed the basis of a geeky drinking game since the days of VHS.
John had already found work in commercials before leaving high school, but he first came properly to prominence in the teen sector at its most 1980s-tastic. His first Hollywood gig was the Rob Lowe sex comedy Class, though the Cusack brand we know and love – earnest but edgy – was sparked into life under director John Hughes with the movies Sixteen Candlesand Say Anything.
Despite the period successes, the Cusacks were never quite Brat Pack material or down with the usual Hollywood celebutantes. They were John Hughes, but not Breakfast Club.They were young guns, but, crucially, not Young Guns.
“There is no Hollywood,” he says. “I live in Chicago a lot of the time, but I have a place in LA and I’ve never really seen a Hollywood. The movie business is weird. The studios are weird. They’re just conglomerates that make financial deals with other conglomerates who are mostly overseas. I guess there’s a community but I don’t really know where it is. And I interact with it only sporadically.”
Cusack’s outsider status has enabled him to forge a commendably wayward career. For film fans, there’s a certain class of fantastic curveball movie that simply couldn’t exist without him. Who else could have ventured through the neural portal in Being John Malkovich?Or swaggered through the Middle East in the criminally overlooked War, Inc? Or lectured the young Hitler in the equally neglected Max? He’s spoken over the years about friends attempting to nudge him toward this blockbuster or that, to no avail.
The star of Con Airand 2012is hardly adverse to the larger motion picture, but he’s apt to turn down a blank cheque from Gargantuan Productions in favour of a lo-fi Joe Strummer or Hunter S Thompson documentary. Across a career spanning almost three decades, Cusack has passed on Platoon, Apollo 13and the title role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
Still, he couldn’t sound less like a man with regrets: “My father used to say if you live your life right you can look at any man and tell him to go to hell. I’m in no position to tell everyone to go to hell. And I wouldn’t want to. But I’ve lived well enough to tell the people who deserve it to go to hell.”
In this commendable spirit, Cusack has drifted more and more toward the political frontline. In recent years if a movie is old- world, left-leaning Democrat in tone – Cradle Will Rock, Grace is Gone– odds are, Cusack is in the credit list.
“I was raised as an FDR Democrat but there are no more FDR Democrats,” says Cusack. “Barack Obama is somewhere to the left of Richard Nixon. He might argue that that is the way the country has moved and that this is how we do things now. But that’s not my opinion. That’s a fact.”
Cusack has been one of the Huffington Post’s most famous bloggers since 2005. A vocal opponent of the Bush Administration, the war in Iraq, and the recent downgrading of human rights, Cusack wrote missives that made him a favourite target of Hollyweird-Liberal bashers. In 2010, Fox News, in response to a Cusack tweet, took the time to explain in a public statement: “And while the US constitution protects Cusack’s right to speak his mind, some critics say he should be more careful about what he says, since he has more than 200,000 Twitter followers.”
In 2008, Cusack appeared in a MoveOn.orgadvertisement outlining the similarities between the governing policies of George W Bush and John McCain. Today, he’s far more concerned about McCain’s former presidential rival.
“There’s a fantastic hypocrisy around progressives in the United States,” says Cusack. “Bush is gone. It’s okay we don’t have to close Guantanamo. It was a crime when Bush was doing it. But Obama is our guy.
“So it’s okay that you have not one prosecution for the Wall Street collapse and you have no prosecutions for torture. Wars have been extended. Privatisation has been extended. He has entrenched what Bush did before and added some new stuff with drone attacks in Pakistan and using the National Defence Authority Act to stop government whistleblowers.”
Suffice it to say, he won’t be campaigning on Obama’s behalf come November: “Can you vote for a constitutional law professor who stands over this? Can you vote for a constitutional law professor who has decided that habeas corpus is done and that due process is over? I can’t. I can’t vote for him. He sucks.”
Where now? Wall Street? “I think that movement now has much more hope attached to it for sure,” he says. “There’s no more faith in political institutions. We need to move away from bullshit rock star messiah politics. We need to look at local models of government. We have to move somewhere. It’s the only place to go.”