Interview & Profile: John Cusack
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: John Cusack stars in The Ice Harvest.
These movies made Cusack a bit of a cult figure, but it was Cameron Crowe who made him a star. “To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him,” went the tag line to Say Anything (1989). “Diane Court is about to know Lloyd Dobler.” All America got to know John Cusack's endearing screw-up when he won over high-school valedictorian Ione Skye by standing in front of her house holding a boom box above his head, blasting Peter Gabriel's “In Your Eyes.” With that, Cusack became an underachieving Generation X hero.
By this time, though, Cusack wasn't a teenager anymore. With grown-up roles as a disgraced third baseman in John Sayles' retelling of the Chicago Black Sox scandal Eight Men Out (1988), and as a con artist Stephen Frears' noir The Grifters (1990), Cusack successfully broke out of the Eighties teen genre—unlike most of his contemporaries. The Nineties saw Cusack establish a steady though unspectacular career in a wide range of roles—as a struggling playwright in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (1994), as an idealistic aide to mayor Al Pacino in City Hall (1996), as a courageous FBI agent in the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Con Air (1997), and as an investigative journalist in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).
Despite these films, Cusack has remained tagged with his Eighties persona—a charming underachiever, a romantic underdog, an emotionally immature but basically good guy. Instead of being a hindrance, this persona began to serve Cusack well. In 1997, Cusack referenced his Eighties roles in Grosse Point Blanke (which he co-wrote), starring as a hit man—a nice one—who returns home for his ten-year high school reunion to find the girl he left behind. Again Cusack returned to type in High Fidelity (2000), playing a commitment-phobic thirty-something record-store owner still living the life of a teenager. Pushing Tin (1999), Serendipity (2001), Must Love Dogs (2005), and America's Sweethearts (2001)—wherein the erstwhile romantic underdog was matched with Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anjelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, and Diane Lane—contained elements of Cusack's well-established persona as well.
Less discussed but equally evident in the aforementioned films are Cusack's fine comic talents as a straight man. The quintessential Cusack moment is when, in the face of a bizarre event, Cusack unflappably allows it to wash over him, deadpans a line, and drolly moves on. Watch how Cusack plays off more obviously comic characters like Jack Black in High Fidelity, Jeremy Piven in Serendipity, and Curtis Armstrong in Better Off Dead—the comedy is based as much in Cusack's reactions as it is in the other actors' eccentric behavior.
As he established himself as a romantic leading man and an A-list actor, Cusack did not abandoned more offbeat material, earning critical acclaim for playing a bitter puppeteer who discovers a door into John Malkovich's mind in the Charlie Kaufman-penned, Spike Jonze-directed Being John Malkovich (1999), and also starring as a Jewish art patron to a young artist named Adolf Hitler in Max (2002). Lately Cusack has returned to the film noir genre, as well, offering us anti-heroes in Identity (2003) and Runaway Jury (2003). Now he stars in Harold Ramis's bleakly comic noir The Ice Harvest, also featuring his Pushing Tin co-star Billy Bob Thornton, Gladiator's Connie Nielsen, and the ubiquitous Oliver Platt. Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, consigliere to the Mob in wintry Wichita, Kansas, who decides to run off with the boss's money. Probably not a good idea.
In Los Angeles, Cusack talked to reporters about making The Ice Harvest, playing ambiguous characters, and how he doesn't really believe in genre labels.
Question: You've been in several neo-noirs, some of them with a comic element like The Ice Harvest, others more serious. What is your attraction to noir?
Cusack: Somebody wrote about [the film] in the LA Times today and said, “This is stark.” I think the guy liked the film quite a bit, but he was like, “It's as stark and as grim as anything you'll ever see.” Yesterday I came in [for interviews] and [people said], “This is one of the best comedies since Bad Santa. This is so funny.” I think that guy had seen it alone, and the other people had seen it at some festivals, where Harold [Ramis] says it gets laughs as big as any comedy he's ever done, which is saying something extraordinary.
I think we relate to these characters. It's obviously a crime story, but we relate to these characters. It's about the illusions of the American dream and fitting into that, and guys at the end of their rope. I don't think we [make films] because we go, “Okay, let's blend this genre with this, or let's do this with this.” You get inspired by the characters. You think, “Oh man, that's a piece of writing that is so true. This is interesting.” Then later we put labels on it to sell it, or to do these [interviews].
[The Ice Harvest] does come in a tradition of those films—the noir films—but it was these portraits of white male-hood in America that are just so disastrous [that appeal to people]. I thought Charlie had this great comic, quiet desperation to him. And I thought there were some other themes that were interesting. There were no outward polemics to the movie. It doesn't talk about Left and Right. I'm sure neither of these guys care who's President. It's not about that at all, but there are these subtle jabs at consumerism. These guys went into some version of the American Dream about get the house, get the money, get the trophy wife, get the girl on the side, get the material possessions, get the great car. Get more women. Get more drink. And none of it's making them happy. None of it's fulfilling them.
I remember Arthur Miller said an era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. And I thought of that; I thought, “Yeah, these guys are just exhausted. None of it's working.” So they trade in that American Dream and then go, “All right, we'll do the outlaw dream where we make the big last score and hit the open road.” And that's pathetic and funny too. So these guys are lost in this dream world, or Charlie is.
So, why we respond to something, I don't know. Is it because it's a noir? Is it the genre? No, we just see these characters and we go, “Oh no, my god, they're so fascinating.”
Question: Terrific answer.
Cusack: Thanks. As you start to do these things [interviews], you guys force us to actually think about why we do what we do.
Question: You shot The Ice Harvest in Canada, didn't you? Did you ever make it to Wichita?
Cusack: No, it was more of a Wichita of the mind. [laughter] And you know, there are no boondocks anymore anyway. There are no small towns. It's the same restaurants, the same fast foods, the same Targets, the same Wal-Marts, the same strip clubs, the same churches.
Question: Being from Chicago, this cold was nothing to you, I imagine.
Cusack: No, no. It was spring, so some nights it was actually kind of warm.
Question: Being from Chicago, do you have any tricks for staying warm in the cold?
Cusack: Yeah, well, one thing is you gain weight. You can't be too thin. Charlie was such a mess I just let myself go a little, ate salty food. They bring pizza around the set. Usually we're vain actors, and we want to look good, but I was just like, “Yeah, give me the pizza.”
Question: What's it like working with Billy Bob Thornton?
Cusack: He's great. I really love working with him. Love it. He'll go anywhere, do anything. There's nothing he wouldn't try on a movie set. Not that you'd do it all the time, but the freedom of knowing somebody's going to go with you anywhere you want to go— And he's so funny and so talented, so sensitive, such a smart man.
Question: Did you guys improvise anything, or was it all scripted?
Cusack: You know, [Robert] Benton and [Richard] Russo wrote the script, and it was so precise in the characterizations, even the bartender who's breaking guys' thumbs and thinking violence might not be the answer. It was so precise that it was one of these movies where you actually didn't want to improvise. We did a bit. We played with language a bit but Benton and Russo are great writers.
Question: Were you at all surprised to see the names Benton and Russo on the script?
Cusack: Well, I didn't know. That's one of the reasons I opened it. You see The Ice Harvest and then you see Benton and Russo and you go, “Oh.” You know you want to read it. One of these guys [Russo] is a Pulitzer Prize Winner and the other guy [Benton], I don't know how many Academy Awards he's won for writing and directing. He wrote Bonnie and Clyde, didn't he? This is a great writer—a great filmmaker so you know you'll want to see what they're going to do with this. [Ed. note—Benton won three Oscars, for writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer and writing Places in the Heart.]
Question: How did you respond when you read it?
Cusack: It might have been just where I was in my life, but I started reading it and I went, “Oh, man, I don't want to do this. This is too dark.” I didn't realize it was a comedy because it was so real. It was so gritty. But then I started to understand there were some elements of satirical Americana in there. And then I thought it was funny. As soon as I realized it was going to be funny and grim, then I thought, “Oh man, this is something to do.” And I wanted to work with Harold.
Question: What was that like?
Cusack: He's a great director. Amazingly bright man. He's been around a lot of these seminal things in comedy and film and TV for a long time. Animal House, Second City Television, Lampoon, those were as groundbreaking to me in terms of thinking about comedy and film as Monty Python was. These were the real stars, subversive and intelligent and countercultural and disgusting, yet sophisticated. He's been around some of these really important things to me.
Question: How did he steer you? What is his touch as a director?
Cusack: Well, in this kind of a film as opposed to something else, there's specific things that you know are going to be funny, like with Oliver [Platt] and this Falstaff character he does—this great fool that he does. And there's pratfalls that you know, “Okay, this is going to be funnier if you do this.” But in this kind of movie, he didn't really talk that way. He was just trying to realize the characters, then all the laughs come out of that. We weren't really going for laughs. We were just trying to make the scene work, and then it would be funny in a very real way.
Question: You often do some script work, at least on your own character. Was there any room for that on this?
Cusack: Nah. Didn't need it.
AboutFilm: Charlie seems to evolve along two different tracks. On the one hand, he has to learn to be more altruistic—toward Oliver Platt's character, maybe toward his kids. On the other hand, he has to learn to be strong and actually kill somebody. Did you think about that, about how to reconcile the two parts of the character?
Cusack: No, I just thought that seemed really interesting. I think these characters, if you look at character the right way, they just seem endlessly fascinating. When a character's written with that kind of precision by these terrific writers, they leap off the page and you want to do them. They're filled with contradictions. I remember the last time I was at a bar, I saw a bar fight. Some guy made some racial epithet and all of a sudden it went bad. Then it broke out in this very animalistic way, how fights sometimes do. All of a sudden everybody gets triggered. I saw this guy go and punch this other guy. He could've been like Schwarzenegger from some movie. He was just pure animal, and he did it. And as soon as he finished it, you could see regret, shame, all these things wash across his face, just for a minute. And they're totally contradictory things. One was absolutely animal and macho alpha-male predator. The next minute he looked like a little baby about to cry. What we really see of a character is what's so interesting.
So, [if you look at] the contradictory natures of some of these characters, I thought that was what was so real. Most people view themselves as good guys, but I don't think anybody views themselves as a bad guy. I think we rationalize things and we get put in bizarre situations. These guys are definitely custodians of their own realities. They made their mess; they're responsible for it. But in another sense, no matter how low you get, I think people always want to be redeemed, and they want to be free, and they want to be loved. They find themselves in these horrible situations, and then they have these impulses to be better than that. I don't know, that's how I see them.
Question: What are some of your favorite film noirs?
Cusack: Gosh, probably the same ones that are yours. The Killers I thought was great. I think Asphalt Jungle. What else? Double Indemnity. Chinatown, right? You could go on. There are so many great ones.
Question: How delicate is the dividing line between noir and black comedy?
Cusack: I don't know. That's what we were [talking about] before. We try to put [films] into a genre box and I think— I don't know. I just know that this one feels funnier than most noir films. I don't know, maybe it's some hybrid genre, but I just think the characters are very real.
Question: Did you have discussions about nuance?
Cusack: Oh yeah, all the time. But the movie takes on its own rhythms and has its own laws once you set the tone. It's not going to be some arch-satirical tone. It's going to be played in real time, in reality, emotionally real. You're going to try to reveal as much as you can about these characters. We tried not to make it stylized in any way, so then the film kind of becomes what it is. Now we're trying to give it a genre label now. I think Harold said it's a film noir with a lot of laughs.
Question: Have you ever been in a situation where you've had to do that kind of last minute Christmas shopping?
Cusack: Nothing, no. I've never gone to a convenience store drunk. Wait, that's not true. But not for Christmas presents.
Question: What are you doing next?
Cusack: I did two. I did one called The Martian Child with Menno Meyjes as the director. Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, my sister Joanie, Sophie Okonedo, a young actor named Bobby Coleman. Then I did The Contract with Morgan Freeman and [director] Bruce Beresford in Bulgaria.
Question: So you're working with Oliver again?
Cusack: Yeah, I got to work with him twice.
Question: Was is that relationship like?
Cusack: We had a great time. Very similar to Billy Bob. I'm just a great admirer of both. I love working with them.
Question: What did you think of your sister [Joan Cusack] as the ugly duckling in Chicken Little?
Cusack: I haven't seen it.
AboutFilm: I know you're out of time, but I'd like to ask you about something totally unrelated. What do you remember about Better Off Dead? What is your take on the movie today?
Cusack: It was so long ago. People say stuff from that movie and I go, “What are you talking about?” It was just a gig that I got when I was seventeen, so I don't have any kind of connection to it. But I will say that movie was like what Harold did with SCTV. It was teen comedy but it was trying to do this absurdist take on it. I think seeing things like SCTV and some of the weird stuff they did, I was attracted to it, in that there was some kind of idea, or fresh version of that. It was some kind of absurdist black teen comedy, I thought. I never thought those were executed well, so I don't think about them now.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Ice Harvest]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Connie Nielsen]
Article and interviews © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
ICE HARVEST images © 2005 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.
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