John Cusack: ‘I’m not a scenester. I’m out for a few months, then I disappear’

Thirty years after making his debut, John Cusack is still a Hollywood outsider. Now 45, the star of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven talks about mortality, his Brat Pack past – and why he wishes he could work a room.

John Cusack

John Cusack, photographed at the Dorchester Hotel, London, 29 February 2012. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

John Cusack is puffing on a fat cigar. It’s incongruous, seeing him dressed all in cool, casual black, sucking on a Cohiba, like a goth who has crashed a Hollywood mogul’s house party. “Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t mention the cigar,” he says. “I don’t want people to think I’m this movie cliche. I’m certainly not a mogul – in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.”

I don’t think there’s any danger of Cusack being mistaken for a movie mogul. But the cigar begins to feel somehow appropriate. The more he smokes it, the more at ease he becomes with it, until he owns that damn cigar and waggles it like a spare, stubby finger. And, it seems to me, that’s Cusack all over. He’s always been the outsider, the one who shouldn’t be there yet somehow owns his space and his career.

He’s been in more than 60 movies since 1983, from blockbusters such as Con Air and 2012 to genre-bending comedies Being John Malkovich and Grosse Pointe Blank as well as teen classics Sixteen Candles and Say Anything. He has worked with directors including Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, John Sayles and Stephen Frears. But he was also in Serendipity and Must Love Dogs.

“I’m still here, desperately groping in the dark,” he says of his career. “Increasingly, I feel it’s about just trying to remain relevant enough to do good work. Sometimes I think I’m in control, but more and more I realise that it’s just a complete farce. It’s true, it used to be that if you did a big, big movie then you could leverage it and make some smaller, cooler ones, and I got away with that for a few years. But now, they just want you to put on tights – if you don’t put on the tights, they just want to get rid of you. And I’m not putting on the tights, so you know…”

Cusack is 45 years old but seems to have been around for ever, at least for someone of my generation. He’s here to talk about Edgar Allan Poe, the author he plays in the silly but entertaining The Raven, in which Poe turns sleuth to figure out why a serial killer is re-enacting the gruesome murders found in his own stories. It’s part Saw, part Sherlock Holmes, part ridiculous romp.

“I don’t mind you find the film funny,” smiles Cusack. “I guess it’s ultimately supposed to be a bit scary, but I admit I personally went for the wit and black humour I’ve always found in Poe. I don’t know if that’s what they wanted from me, but…”

Cusack likes to tail off. He’ll construct a whirling, circular sentence and then not really finish it, other than to punctuate with a cigar puff. “This Poe is both a figment of my imagination and a version of the icon with the black bow and moustache. I didn’t want to do a Halloween mask of Edgar Allan Poe, so I looked at a bunch of pictures and found he was always changing. I know he was admired by Joyce, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, but I like to see him as the progenitor of Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson and Capote.”

Cusack is always funny, in his own way. Even when he shouldn’t be, as when playing a lawyer or a lover. Critic Pauline Kael said he had “question marks in his eyes”, and that’s true of him on screen. His characters always look as if they’d rather be somewhere else but they shrug and deal with whatever situation they’re in and move on to something else. Unlike, say, Nicolas Cage characters, who only exist within the confines of their particular movie, I always think of Cusack’s creations walking out of the screen and carrying on their story elsewhere, as if exiting a portal. The end of the movie is not the end of that character.

He has often played men struggling with taking the next step. Just as Say Anything was one of the most thoughtful of the John Hughes-style 80s teen movies, Grosse Pointe Blank was by far the best of a spate of 90s high-school reunion films, with Cusack playing a hit man on the cusp of 30, returning to his alma mater. In High Fidelity, he embodied the emotionally stunted man approaching his 40s. “My characters often know it’s wrong but do it anyway,” he says.

I’m not so sure. I think they’re stuck in a mess of their own making but secretly enjoy the pain.

“Well, any time you do anything good, it’s man versus himself, right? That’s the art, the challenge. You’re always confronting mortality and what it means to be human – whether you’re 29 and dealing with 30, or you’re nearing 40, the existential crisis is never far away… Maybe I’m the go-to guy for that, which is cool. That’s where the juicy drama is. Sometimes, though, I just feel like doing Beckett – figuring out what are we doing on this rock, spinning around…”

He’s played writers and artists quite often, too. He’s been an idealistic playwright in Bullets Over Broadway, a puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, an art dealer in Max. “I had a run of getting those kind of roles. Call it karma, good fortune, whatever. I don’t know if I sought them out or they found me. Maybe the universe does want to bring you to certain places for certain reasons – in which case, I don’t know what’s going on right now because lately I’ve been doing stuff that has involved me going into the underworld, and I don’t know why. There was Poe, then I did The Paperboy with Nicole Kidman, and then a serial killer film called The Frozen Ground with Nic Cage.”

I notice that Cusack is reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Poe: A Life Cut Short, and he shows me the scribblings he’s made inside. “I’ve read Ackroyd on Dickens and on London, too,” he says. “I like how he isn’t always a slave to historical truth – at least I hope that’s the idea. It’s kind of what we do as actors and film-makers, inhabit a space between. It’s a psychic space, a state of spirit that is deeply part of the human condition and it’s a place Poe inhabited, a mix of high literature and pure pulp … it’s rather awe-inspiring.”

Cusack still looks young. His hairstyle has hardly changed in years and he looks like his characters on screen. He isn’t one for disguises and makeup. Maybe a pair of dark glasses, here, a goatee beard there, but nothing ever gets in the way of what his Say Anything co-star John Mahoney once called “his essential Cusackness”. But what will he do when he gets older, I ask, sounding like a financial adviser.

“Ha, well, that’s funny because, you know, there is no Hollywood any more – there’s just a bunch of banks,” he says. “Cinema is in a weird place. It’s just different streams of money coming in and different ways to distribute it.

“Hollywood is just a bunch of people going around in Learjets to other people asking them if they’ve got any money? Well, they might have if they didn’t spend it all on jets.”

I remind him that Woody Allen said showbusiness wasn’t just dog eat dog, it was worse – it was dog doesn’t return another dog’s phone calls. Our interview coincides with the news that Allen is in fact making a stage version of Bullets Over Broadway, the film in which Cusack did the “Woody role” of David Shayne, the idealistic writer passing off a gangster’s words as his own. “Talking of dogs not returning other dog’s calls, I haven’t heard anything from Woody about Bullets on stage, so there you go,” he grins.

However, I venture, that might be a blessing. These days he might be offered the Jim Broadbent part of Warner Purcell, the actor who’s a compulsive eater. “You know it may happen, my God,” and he looks slightly appalled. “I better start thinking about it, but I tend not to look back or forward really, which may be a mistake.”

Still, I ask him to rewind a little, if only because it throws a reflective light on many of us, too. American films such as Sixteen Candles, The Sure Thing and Say Anything were staples of my own, less glamorous British suburban youth. Cusack was always different from the rest of the Brat Pack and while their careers have had highs and lows, it’s as if he has always been playing versions of those 80s characters. He creates real people who last the distance.

“I was 16 years old,” he says of the 80s. “I don’t remember much. I got a couple of roles by being in the right place at the right time in that I was a teenage actor who had some chops and some training and there was a vogue for movies about kids. And then I parlayed that into a lead in a Rob Reiner movie [The Sure Thing] and suddenly I was doing leads.”

Director Stephen Frears cast him as Roy Dillon in 1990’s The Grifters, my favourite Cusack performance. “He was really relieved I hadn’t seen any of what he called his ‘teen films’,” recalls Frears. “But actually, it was clear to me he was just a very good actor. In truth, it was between him and Robert Downey as to who would get the part and I just had a feeling for John.”

Frears also remembers that, despite his obvious talent, Cusack was still very young. “He was good by about 5pm, so I shot all his scenes around then. Mornings, he was hopeless. John’s dad once told me it was a relief for their family because John had left for Hollywood aged 16 and had got to behave like a teenager in films instead of being moody all around the house.”

Cusack and Frears remained friends and it was the actor who called the director a decade later to persuade him to read a script he’d adapted from a British book, High Fidelity. “I’d read the Nick Hornby novel and thought there was no way it would make a film, especially as they now wanted to do it in Chicago,” says Frears. “But John had really worked out how to get into the book’s interior monologues and it was all rather brilliant. As soon as we began work, I realised how much he’d grown up in the 10 years since The Grifters and was able to take responsibility for that film.”

For Cusack, The Grifters took him away from teen idol status into something more serious, drawn as he was to the darker world of Jim Thompson’s novel. It took him out of the Hollywood glare. “But I was never a joiner,” he tells me. “I tried – I had people I admired and liked and wanted to hang with, but I ended up starting a theatre company and that took me back to Chicago… I guess I wasn’t a scenester in the end. Something must have worked out right as I’m still here – but I’m only a binge socialite. I’ll be out in the world for a couple of months, but then I disappear. If I look back and think about whether I’d have done anything different, I would try and be more networky as some people got very successful that way.”

It’s odd. To me, Cusack is a great success with some terrific films to his name, yet he’s never had an Oscar nomination – even his sister, the fine comic actress Joan, has had two. Cusack looks like he doesn’t care too much, on screen at least, yet one gets the feeling he thinks he could and should do more. Unlike, say, Robert Downey Jr, another fast-talking star who rose to fame in the 80s, Cusack hasn’t got a superhero or detective franchise to keep him going.

In a way, Poe could have been his Holmes, except The Raven rather precludes a sequel and “nevermore” is, after all, the titular poem’s famous refrain. “I’ve loved playing Poe and it’s a lot of fun,” he says. “We could do prequels if it all works out but I kind of like the darker, more absurdist stuff of his, stories like “The Imp of the Perverse”, and it’s simply not the stuff of big movies.”

If he weren’t so tall (6ft 3in), I say, imp of the perverse would be a good label for him. His eyes sparkle with delight. “Oh I like that,” he says. “I don’t know how perverse I am, but I can try.” And there’s just time for another suck on that cigar before it goes out.

The Raven is out now

The Observer, Saturday 17 March 2012

If I could just have him, that would be great and I would be eternally grateful to whomever is responsible, thanks.


Reading Reading.

In the current chapter of Understanding Media that I’m in, “Reversal of the Overheated Medium,” Marshall says something like the following:

The endless reversals or break boundaries passed in the interplay of the structures of bureaucracy and enterprise include the point at which individuals began to be held responsible and accountable for their “private actions.” That was the moment of the collapse of tribal collective authority. Centuries later, when further explosion and expansion had exhausted the powers of private action, corporate enterprise invented the idea of Public Debt, making the individual privately accountable for group action.”

In this whole chapter, he goes on about how society can experience role reversals thanks in part to technological break boundaries. So I’m gonna go ahead and assume that right now, since we are in a period of increasing implosion (technologically speaking), there is soon to be another role reversal, one in which groups of individuals (or rather corporate groups who like to masquerade as “individuals” by demanding the rights of an individual) will become responsible and accountable for their “public actions.”

I Met A Molly

As anticipated, I met Molly Ringwald this past weekend at the 25th Annual Working Women’s Survival Show. She looks so great! She spoke for 50 minutes on her latest book, which covers everything from parenthood, to fashion, to loving your body and making time for yourself, to of course… what it was like being John Hughes’ teen angst poster girl in the 80s. She was pretty friendly, well-spoken and seemed like a sweetheart.

I look silly of course. But she’s so cute!

I did something remarkably silly though… after her talk when I went backstage with the radio station winner and on-air talent. When I walked up to her and introduced myself, I felt like I didn’t make enough eye contact with her. I think I was so nervous, I’m not really certain where I was looking, but I can’t remember what it was like to be face-to-face with her for some reason. I must have turned my eyes off. But my mouth was certainly still on. I just couldn’t control the word vomit. For any of you who have seen Pretty In Pink, you might remember the adorable scene in the high school hallway where Duckie says to Andie: “This is a really volcanic ensemble you’re wearing, it’s really marvelous!”…

I didn’t. No…yes, I did. I said it to her. >_< She had on this really cute outfit, with a cream and black top, black knee-high boots and a bright red skirt, and before I knew what was happening, “that is a truly volcanic ensemble” just spilled right out of my mouth. She chuckled though! I made Molly Ringwald chuckle. Life = complete-ish. 🙂

One other really awesome thing to note? I got to sit front and center during her talk (like literally a foot in front of her podium), and not long into her presentation, a petite man came and sat down right next to me. I tried not to look directly at him (because he was right next to me), but I thought he looked a little familiar…and then my suspicions were confirmed — I was sitting RIGHT NEXT to Molly Ringwald’s husband Panio the entire time!! Every once in a while when her PowerPoint slides weren’t working, she would look down at him and he would just seem confused. I felt all weird and tingly about it. I felt too embarrassed to snap any photos of her with her hubby sitting right next to me, so unfortunately I didn’t get any pics of her speaking. :/

Molly & Panio!

So what’s next? I’m going to obtain a copy of her book, Getting the Pretty Back.

I shall share with you my findings.

Seriously Though, Less Really *Is* More

“Technology millionaires don’t hobnob with celebrities or buy a fancy car. They travel to Thailand, or they fund an incubator. These things are just as expensive, but that’s the classic hacker ethos that prizes the mind, not materials.”

lol, Classic hacker ethos? I’m certainly no talented tech millionaire (yet), but I covet the so-called “classic hacker ethos.”

Over the past year or so, I’ve developed this preoccupation (no, not John Cusack, although there’s that too), but it’s this preoccupation with reducing the amount of personal belongings that I own. After a difficult day at work, I like to come home and take out my frustrations on the objects in my living quarters.

It’s unnervingly satisfying to give up my attachment to these things and see them off to their new lives. They don’t need to stay a part of mine, because I don’t know what I’m doing right now, and I can’t be in charge of things.

Every once in a while, I will get caught in a store and go on a buying binge. I usually hate spending money, but on these occassions, I go in and just do not know where to draw the line. I can’t afford that much, but I dupe myself into thinking it’s OK. And then I go home and feel sick with this incredible urge to purge myself of something else out of shame and guilt. Is there a consumption disorder that exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from hoarding?

I’m becoming a thing-vigilante, and I’m completely serious about it. Constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my possessions for what they are worth and minimizing my stuff (and myself) down to the essentials is pleasurable. My space has been put on a radical diet. I’m overwhelmed in my mind, but I can at least control how overwhelmed I am in my physical space. Yes, part of me does believe that reducing personal possessions is responsible, and what most people should strive to do. But I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their own life, and that’s not really what I’m getting at anyway. The larger percentage of my reasoning for this comes from my constant desire to disappear. I figure, the less objects I have to my name, the less of ‘me’ there is to consider physically, and eventually, the less of me there is to consider at all. That is the crux of it.

Each time I give or throw something away, I’m able to withdraw bits of myself from my environment. I get that you aren’t what you own, but your belongings can act like little extensions of yourself. Little representatives or spokes-things. They reveal things about you to other people when said people come snooping around your space. I don’t want spokes-things. I’m not a corporation. I’m an individual. I need to reel my self-expression back onto 2-dimensional surfaces, and furthermore, back into my head. There’s no reason for me to have representatives. When you die, run away or otherwise vanish, you leave that shit behind and then people sift through it. It reminds them of you and the fact that you were a thing. Eventually, I will get down to a ridiculously small amount of things (clothing included), and it will be like I never even existed. It’s not really a statement against mass consumerism (although I dislike that also), but rather just self-minimizing for therapeutic benefit.

On that note, if you’re one of those people who thinks that we, as relatively privileged world citizens here in Western society, should revel in our ability to consume to excess on the principle that others are forced to live with less, not by choice, but due to economic circumstance, then realize that you are trying to legitimize a set of desires and values that are pretty irrelevant to what I’m talking about. This isn’t some inadvertent making-light of people who struggle on a day-to-day basis to get by with what little things they have. Minimalism may be considered trendy or something, but for fuck’s sake, I’m just sad, not ignorant.

At some point, I expect that all of my misgivings, shortcomings and insecurities will be modestly contained in a single room. I don’t want to let any of that crap unnecessarily seep out into the aether. So here are some books (some spokes-things) to help along the way:

The Joy of Less by Francine Jay; 2010

In The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide, Francine Jay, also known as ‘Miss Minimalist’, explores the philosophy of possession reduction, offers tips on how to detach yourself from belongings and streamline different types of living and working spaces, how to avoid the desire to accumulate shit, and examines the environmental impact and psychological cost that cluttered living can have (she encourages people to buy the Kindle version of her book. I did not do that).

The book is based on her popular blog, where she chronicles her own journey and efforts to reduce. And blah, blah, blah. She also features ‘Real Life Minimalist’ stories submitted to her by various single, married and/or child-rearing minimalists (some having quite a few children, but still maintaining the lifestyle to the best of their ability). I do like her sensible takes on consumerism, gift-giving, making your things pull their weight, and the alternative decorum ideas she comes up with. The only thing I might object to is how she treats unwanted, clutter-causing things as if they are “intruders.” I suppose I don’t like that because I’m one of those delusional people who still secretly thinks that inanimate objects have legit feelings too. But anyway, it’s all sort of interesting:

The Story of Stuff


The 10-Item Wardrobe

The 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno; 2010

A few years ago, Dave Bruno radically reduced his possessions down to 100 things. Then he plopped out a book about it. (He’s similar to that dude who went completely generic, or that other dude whose family radically reduced their carbon footprint to like… almost nothing). It transformed his life or something. What I like about this guy is that he operates his minimalism under the assumption that things themselves aren’t inherently bad. Still, he’s vehemently against consumerism and thinks we’d all be better off if we used more of our brain power toward actual human thoughts, people moments, and productivity, and not so much…ya know, stuff? He’s a little gimmicky about it, but whatever.

I may never make it to 100 things, but I suppose that isn’t the point. Besides, even if I did want to, my Second Life days have primed me for it (no pun intended). When I had an SL apartment on the Manhattan sim, my prim count limit was 250. That was all that I could afford. For those of you unfamiliar with Second Life apartment rentals or prim counts, the amount of Linden dollars you pay your landlord per week determines your allowed number of prims (or objects). Most objects are comprised of more than one prim, but you can find sculpted objects that use up less prims. So if you’re on a budget, you have to be very selective of what you purchase for your place, and as you accumulate more items into your inventory, you have to constantly monitor how many objects you have placed in your space.

It all amounts to vigilance, folks. Don’t be judgmental. Get that shit outta here.

And click on this mystery link.

I’m so excited to start this book.

Kim is loaning it to me for the time being because she knows how much I enjoy transhumanist talk. Props to you, Kim. I think Kurzweil has another book entitled The Age of Intelligent Machines….I might look into that one next.

In other news, in order to relieve a bit of stress, I’d like to share with you a list of things that I find particularly annoying as of late:

1. rainy weather.

2. sudden breakouts all over your face.

3. friends who mean well but can’t give you any meaningful advice.

4. boys who supposedly liked you, but pussied out for petty and/or undisclosed (i.e. petty) reasons.

5. the fact that I have allowed too many of these boys to waste my time.

6. the fact that I can’t readily identify or spend enough time with the ones who actually do care about me.

7. professors who think it’s funny to be obnoxious both in and outside of class.

8. developing a sore on the inside of your ear.

9. having no motivation to do any of your schoolwork.

10. kitties who are determined to wake you up at 7 in the morning with their incessant meowing.

11. becoming hungry at inopportune times (e.g. during class, in the middle of your sleep, while in transit to a non-food-serving place, etc.)

…And what’s great about this list, is that I only have the power to sufficiently control like 4 of these misfortunes….

I’m going to bed.

Even 13-year old me wanted to stay 13.

Today I have the overwhelming urge to set the clock back a good 8 years. At this point, most of my friends and I were middle schoolers. I go into nostalgia mode every several months, followed by a spontaneous reinvention of my present self. I don’t know what will happen this time, but I feel like it’s going to be good.

“My birthday = in 3 days = Sept. 17 = I turn 14 = No, I must stay 13 FOREVER = I am mad = becuz I don’t want to be 14 = becuz I just don’t…I like being young! Don’t take my youth! *clings for life to the number 13* (okay is that a good thing? Or should I be superstitious?)”

-myself, age 13.

If you want to read some of the exploits of my early teen years….I just unearthed a real gem.

That journal contains blog posts from March 2002 through July 2004. It appears that my biggest concerns in life were downloading mp3s of 80s songs, bitching about my parents, and making fun of preppy girls. I also had a potty mouth. I also didn’t know how to spell.

Good times. Really good times.

Hate myself more? Is that possible? Yes. Yes it is.

Today I’m reluctantly crushing on Jane Aldridge and her fucking stupid ass fashionista blog right now. Gosh, I’m really not into fashionistas….but if you haven’t already (which I’m almost certain you have, this blog is 2 years old), take a gander at her and her mum’s blog. Not only is she drop dead stunning, but this slut is only 17 years old and she already has remarkably good taste, a closet full of designer shoes, a $camera$ to prove it, and a colossal Prada wallet to pay for it all, apparently…not to mention a massive global readership that happens to include one Kanye West.

I hate her,  except I’m in love with her and I can’t stay away. *sigh* If only there were an expendable income large enough to feed my obsession with designer shoes and clothing…..>_>  In all honesty, I don’t give a shit about designer anything, but I will pretend to whilst reading her blog for the sake of getting the “full experience”. Her grandmother is a seamstress, her mother used to work in the fashion industry and had her own clothing line, and now apparently little bit has one too? Her and her mum travel the world plucking designer and vintage shit out of the woodworks like my mom plucks eyebrows (my mom has no brows, mind you). She shits so much opulence, it’s unbelievable. Even her “lazy photography” days leave her, at worst, coming off as another one of those trendy, affluent yet refreshingly lo-fi hipsters. God, I so hate trendy lo-fi hipsters.

what a slut$cunt. Love the boots, though.

Oh, and fuck Garance Doré for drawing this.

Illustration by Garace Doré

“Today I am wearing … A mongolian lamb fur vest on loan from mom …”

-Jane Aldridge.