The Total Film Interview - John Cusack

A zealously private man, Cusack hides behind a smokescreen of easy charm, casually deflecting any personal enquiries with a near-bionic wit and a lazy, lopsided grin. He often talks in riddles and half-glimpsed truths (“There’s some kind of alchemy with film: part intellect, part psychiatrist, part cheerleader, part jilted lover… All these different things you bring to bear”). He’s wry, sarcastic, screwy, cool, charismatic, goofy and bright – ferociously, shockingly bright – his synapses sparking and his nerve-endings crackling as his words spill out in edgy, arrhythmic sentences: fast and jumbled, careful and halting. He is, in fact, much like the losers, misfits and screw-ups he portrays on screen, the morally ambiguous yet intensely likeable everymen who hover between vice and virtue, identities in crisis. Pauline Kael called him, “The man with question marks in his eyes.” Cusack himself says he’s drawn to characters who “knew it was wrong but did it anyway.” Think his sweet-but-horny college kid in The Sure Thing, his nickel-and-dime conman in The Grifters, his assassin undergoing an existential meltdown in Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s true of Charlie in The Ice Harvest, too, Cusack’s 46th movie in 22 years seeing him essay a “pathetic, spiritually numb” lawyer who skims a cool $2 million off the Mob… with tortuous consequences. A stylised noir, it’s also an indictment of the American Dream. “You get more money and more girls, but in the absence of love and meaning you’re gonna feel nothing,” he states, squinting in the LA sunshine. “Arthur Miller said, ‘An era can be considered over when its illusions have been exhausted.’”

Tantalisingly, Cusack admits he at first turned the role down because it was “too bleak”, saying “sometimes, if you’re going through a hard time, you don’t wanna commit to an exploration of darkness…” He won’t expand, but those half-glimpsed truths keep popping up: “It was easy for me to get in that frame of mind – actors are acquainted with sleaziness more than we’d like to admit”; “I’m not an existentialist myself, but I have romantic leanings that way”; and “Sometimes I think life makes sense, but it’s complicated. It’s not a soundbite answer.”

Dressed in blue jeans and grey zip-up top, a shock of Bible-black hair topping off his surprisingly lofty frame (6’ 3”), Cusack’s an elusive, fascinating subject, as hard to grasp as the cigarette smoke that plumes from his mouth. During the course of our lengthy chat, his stop-start conversation veers from movies to politics to psychology to philosophy to religion to music to books and back to movies again, his hand flitting between mouth and hair, rubbing and tugging. And while he never quite reveals the location of that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, he quietly, excitedly, jokingly, reluctantly, sarcastically and soulfully leaves a trail of clues…

Forty-odd films. You’re one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood...
Weirdly, I don’t do that many films. I mean, I started when I was 17, so I can have big stretches where I don’t make a film. Two years, sometimes. I guess if I could get my films going, the ones that I’m writing and developing – if I could get disciplined enough, if I could get my game going – I’d work more. Currently I get one of mine done every two or three years.

Scorsese says he does one for the studio, one for himself. Do you do Con Air so you can later do Max?
Yeah. As an actor, I have three separate careers that I try to leverage off each other. There’s the stuff that I write and produce, ready for me to then appear in as an actor. There’s the purely artistic things that I get to do as an actor. And then there’s the ‘movie star’, and it’s the movie star thing that helps to finance the other two. So yeah, I absolutely do that: one for them, one for me.

It seems that your heart is more in movies like Being John Malkovich and Eight Men Out rather than Pushing Tin or America’s Sweethearts...
Absolutely. [Pause] I enjoyed doing America’s Sweethearts and the director, Joe Roth, is a friend of mine. He’s a great, great guy and a great director – he made Freedomland – and he also runs studios. He ran Disney and he now runs Revolution. Mostly I wanted to work with him ’cos I like him a lot and I’m also really loyal: he financed High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, y’know? But if he wasn’t involved, it’s not something I would have rushed to do.

Looking back at your career, you seem drawn to playing shades of grey. Is this a conscious decision?
I’ve never thought the hero/villain thing is conducive to good acting. There are certainly good guys and bad guys in myths, and it’s fine to play those kind of characters if the movie is about something else, like action, or to have archetypes in the great old Westerns. But there’s not a great deal of complexity to them. If you look at people, they’re filled with good and bad; even the worst guy has instincts to be true, to seek redemption. I’ve seen a couple of bar fights and I’ve seen the regret flash into eyes right away. Human beings are endlessly fascinating, so I always yearn for more.

Isn’t there a speck of duality in there? If an actor’s doing their job, shouldn’t a bit of themselves poke through the performance?
Without question.

So which parts of you poke through? You seem to be someone who’s prone to examining things intently...
Yeah. I’ve probably used that to comic effect because I can think too much and get lost in my own head. I think I’ve always been like that. [Considers] Actors should embody someone who is real, meaning their own qualities should come out. Good actors can access themselves – possibilities, possible versions of what they could become. Like all actors, I really just reveal my shadow every time I work. And the shadow is all the pain, shame, anger and rage, the creativity and sexuality.

So is acting therapeutic?
Art by definition is therapeutic. Anybody who’s creative… [Pauses] I mean, when you go back and write this up, just the act of you thinking and writing and creating will be healing. What would you be like if you couldn’t create? I just do it on a level that’s very public.

Aren’t all creative people messed up, assaulted by demons?
Yeah [laughs]. A good friend of mine said, “If you wanna be an actor, you have to have a problem. If you wanna be a good actor, you have to deal with your problem!”

Your attitudes are refreshing because you’re not a slave to the Hollywood game: the pre-packaged movies and the soundbite interviews. Is it fair to say you don’t judge success like most people in your profession?
I remember when I was 26. I was doing an interview and this guy said, “Don’t you feel that lesser actors are passing you by? Are you avoiding success, are you afraid of success? What’s wrong with you?” And I thought, “My God, I’ve just worked with John Sayles, Woody Allen and Stephen Frears!” He wanted to know why I wasn’t Tom Cruise. Well, because I don’t really wanna be. This journalist was a smart guy writing for a good magazine, but he was so indoctrinated. I thought I was winning, y’know? I don’t have anything against Tom Cruise – he’s made great films and worked with great people – but he wants to produce Mission: Impossible 2 and 3. That’s his deal, what he gets off on.

You’ve always felt like this. Even when you were making teen flicks like The Sure Thing and Say Anything, you distanced yourself from the Brat Pack. You wanted longevity, right?
I think I was lucky because I worked with Rob [Reiner] and Cameron [Crowe] but… I had heroes in film and I realised I had a long way to go if I was to be considered good, let alone great. I wasn’t gonna get that by appearing in some charming, self-consciously hip, light-comedy teen movie; that wasn’t making me Al Pacino in The Godfather. I strove for that. [Pause] I just never bought the hype, I guess. I knew I hadn’t really done anything.

Talking of Rob Reiner, he says that you and Tim Robbins were live wires back then...
[Groans] Er, yeeaaah. I don’t think when you’re 17 the rules of cause-and-effect apply. We liked to tear it up.

You also came up with the shotgunning-a-can-of-beer trick in The Sure Thing. Rob said it was your favourite party piece!
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s just say it was a little bit of improv!

You mentioned John Sayles, Woody Allen and Stephen Frears earlier. Is your primary goal to work with artists?
To work with artists and ideas, and the two go hand-in-hand. Work with an artist and you’ll work with ideas about human nature, power, politics, society, class, sexuality.

You were brought up in a questioning environment. Your parents were political people who encouraged you to challenge...
My parents were friends with [peace protesters] the Berrigans, people who kept going to prison because they actually took the Gospels literally: “Thou shalt not kill.” My parents are political and provocative. I’m just lucky to have been born with parents who are really smart.

They raised you as a Catholic, right?
I grew up Irish-Catholic, but the lefty Jesuit version, not the Conservative version.

You’re not that guilty then?
I am – I just have to think it through first [laughs].

At 16, you junked most of the spiritual package you were handed. Does it still linger?
Yeah, it does, it does. There’s a lot about Christianity I like. Not the dogma and the institutions, but what Jesus actually said. What he believed is actually pretty fantastic. He was so rebellious – the fact that his teachings would ever be connected with Conservatism is a great joke. He’s the most radical, progressive… [Tails off, long pause] I don’t know where in the Gospels it says you can bomb another country.

Let’s return to your movies. Is it true you feel you’ve never been involved in a work of art?
Sure. That’s what drives me, but it might just be this great white buffalo, y’know? One of the great things about film is that whatever the hype machine might say, whatever DreamWorks might spend on advertising, you can’t make anyone like a film in five years’ time. And, conversely, no one can stop a film made 10 years ago from being good, even if it didn’t get any hype at the time. Films have a life of their own, y’know? I’m interested in seeing how my films will do down the line ’cos a few of them have a pulse. Max, I think, could be a piece of art.

There must be other films you’re at least proud of. Can you give us a Top Five John Cusack Movies list, à la Rob in High Fidelity?
Yeah, I can do that. Let’s see… Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity… Max… The Thin Red Line and The Grifters. I can actually give you some more, if you want them. Being John Malkovich. I think Bullets Over Broadway is a really good film. Eight Men Out, obviously. And Say Anything, I think, is good; I’m proud of that character. Nine good movies, that’s not bad. I’m proud of that.

Tell us about the famous boombox scene in Say Anything. Didn’t you have Fishbone playing but Cameron Crowe dubbed over it with Peter Gabriel?
Yeah, but I knew he was gonna do it. I had Fishbone’s ‘Turn The Other Way’ playing, a dark, emotional song, but he put in Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’. It worked perfectly to the beats I was playing, and is a good example of our collaboration. Cameron came up with this fantastic character who he described as “revolutionary optimistic”, meaning he’s optimistic in the face of the real world. I said, “That’s fine, but you gotta make him a lot darker.” I was the guardian of bringing the shadow, he looked after the light. In our arrogance, we called it the Lennon- McCartney collaboration!

It’s an iconic scene, but it’s the angry defiance that makes it so memorable...
Yeah. Cameron talks about this a lot. It wasn’t a weepy, emotional moment. It wasn’t “please, please, come to the window”. It was, like you said, an act of defiance. Jesus, I loved working on that movie.

Say Anything sees an early example of the Cusack persona: crazy, scruffy, motor-mouthed. It was still evident in this year’s Must Love Dogs...
[Grinning] I don’t know what “persona” means. I don’t cultivate a persona. Unless I’m full of shit and I do.

Your charm in movies like these comes from an adolescent place. Can you continue to carry it off as you prepare to enter your 40s?
Well, in a movie like Must Have Dogs, you create a character. It’s a “persona” type of movie.

But your character wears a Ramones T-shirt. Don’t you worry there’ll come a time when you can’t get away with that?
Maybe. But why not wear a Ramones T-shirt in Must Love Dogs? The character’s 36 years old. Why can’t he be into the same music as I am? If I had on a Chuck Mangione T-shirt, would that be better?

Let’s talk about a movie that means a great deal to you, Grosse Pointe Blank. Stephen Frears said you fitted that role at that point in your life. He also said it changed you, smoothed out some of your angst...
He said that? I don’t know. I mean, he’s so bright that he’s probably right and I just haven’t seen it. I think that once you get to express something in you, once you get it out, then you feel better. I know that as a lapsed Catholic I’m very capable of mulling over lazy notions of collective guilt. To me, Grosse Pointe Blank was a metaphor for the people in the Bush White House. How can they do those things and then go back to their families? What is that? It’s schizophrenic.

You attended your own high-school reunion during filming...
Everyone was exactly the same. They’d just swelled!

Presumably no one came up to you and said, “Hey John, what are you up to now?”
[Laughs] No, they didn’t! What was weird was that everyone immediately fell back into their old cliques, irrespective of what they’d done since school. I immediately felt like the same freak outsider I’d always been at school, but now I was a different kind of freak ’cos I was the weird guy who’d gone off to Hollywood to make movies. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere! [Frowns] The girls were so bitchy to each other. Some were married and had a huge rock on, like they’d married the state of Maine. [Holds out his ring finger and affects a female voice] “Hi, meet Iowa.” There was this whole hierarchy: who was married, who wasn’t; who had a career, who didn’t. You could see all the competition. But then you could look at it another way and it was just a bunch of people drinking and dancing and having a good time. It was simple for a moment. Innocent.

You ogling the baby is the defining moment of Grosse Pointe Blank. Do you want to go down that road, to get married and have kids?
Theoretically. Yeah, sure. It’s genetics, y’know? The instinct for home, family, safety.

It must be hard to meet someone outside of your profession, though. Surely you can’t even go out to buy your groceries?
Sometimes I do… and sometimes I have other people do it for me!

And how is it when you venture out? Do people gawp?
I like being famous because you can get access to really amazing people and you can get reservations at any restaurant. It has perks. But you don’t get Tuesdays off. And sure, you’re a walking zoo. People point at you and abstract; they’re looking at “Oh my God...” But hey, look, I don’t wanna bitch about it. It’s a high-class problem.

Let’s go back to the ladies. Are you ever tempted to exploit your fame, to pick up the phone and call Nicole Kidman for a date?
Yeah, do you have her number?

It’s puerile, sure, but for a lot of guys that would probably be the biggest plus...
I gotta take a bathroom break. [A couple of minutes pass. Cusack re-enters grasping a bottle of water]. What was the last thing we were talking about?

You were about to swerve answering a question about your love life...
Yeah, that sounds about right! [Deliberates, runs a hand through his hair] It’s definitely… a different reality. It’s also not all good. It has its downsides too. A lot of women who meet me aren’t meeting me, they’re meeting their ambition or they’re meeting their relationship to celebrity. A lot of times when I’m meeting women, I’m waiting for them to start having a conversation with me. I’m thinking, “Are you done yet? Let me know when you’re done and then maybe you can start talking to me.”

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, New Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Jack Shepherd. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.