Interview By: Michael Dance
John Cusack is a versatile actor, but if he has a common persona, it’s of the fast-talking heartbreaker – seen as both a teenager (Lloyd Dobler, Say Anything) and an adult (Rob Gordon, High Fidelity), a dope (Craig Schwartz, Being John Malkovich) and a wiseacre (Martin Blank, Grosse Pointe Blank).
But never, not once in his fifty-six acting credits, has he played a father. Until now, in his new movie Martian Child.
“I have ultimate respect for the weight of parenthood,” the unattached Cusack says, noting that he isn’t ruling out ever becoming a parent for real. “I would never take it lightly. Total selflessness. It’s pretty incredible. I watched a lot of my friends and family do it and stuff. I’ve been watching. So hopefully when I do it I’ll be ready.”
In the film, Cusack adopts a quiet eight-year-old boy who claims he’s from Mars, played by unknown Bobby Coleman. “Bobby’s an amazing kid, he’s really amazing. He’s eerily professional — pretty accomplished, you know? So he came in, and he had his own point of view, you’d talk to him and he’d go, no Dennis wouldn’t do this. He had it all mapped out, in a way. Never was in a bad mood, he never got tired – he was amazing. I mean, a couple of times I saw him and he was a kid and he was tired, sleeping on his father’s shoulder. I’d think, my God, the kid’s eight or nine years old.”
Cusack has nothing but respect for his own parents – sadly, there are no dark tales of abuse or neglect or even divorce. “They said, it’s not important to make everybody like you. So I don’t know how we became actors,” Cusack laughs. “But their mantra was that Joseph Campbell thing about: follow your bliss. It’s worked
So what’s the trick to working with kids? “I think being vulnerable is the whole deal in movies,” he says. “It’s hard to do, but you know, a friend of mine, the terrific actor and one of my dear friends John McGinley [Dr. Cox on Scrubs] has a son with special needs, and I’ve watched that over the last eight years change his life, and watched how selfless he’s become. You realize, we goff and do our things and we want to do our stuff and be heroic in these traditional ways, and then you see parents being heroic in their way every day. It really is amazing.”
Of course, now that he’s played a father once, the floodgates have opened: this December, he’ll star in Grace is Gone, about a widow who doesn’t know how to tell his two daughters that his wife was killed in Iraq. A hit at Sundance, the film was snatched up by the Weinstein Company, and the reviews have consistently raved about Cusack’s performance.
“It’s nice that it’s got that swirl around it,” he says of the buzz. “Whatever that awards gauntlet is, that’s how the Weinstein Company gets it out, because I know they don’t spend as much money.” So he’d take a nomination? “Sure,” he scoffs: of course I’d take it. “Why not?”
Of course, there’s more to the film than awards buzz. For one thing, the movie has the potential to get grouped in as one of this fall’s “political films,” like Rendition and Lions for Lambs, thanks to its war-related storyline and Cusack’s own outspoken politics. “I can understand how people might not want to flock to
Cusack tries to stay out of that box and only talks about current events as it applies to his films. When pressed, however, he’ll reveal his disdain for pundits who say Hollywood should stay out of politics — “They talk in front of cameras. They wear makeup. Sometimes they say other peoples’ lines, sometimes they write their own. Who does that sound like?” — and expresses mostly just sadness about the Iraq War.
“My own personal belief is that we’ve sort of been in denial over this whole thing,” he says. “I think it’s natural because we’re not being asked to sacrifice anything. People are making sacrifices, the military, their families, the people over there who are dying, but we’re just told to go shopping, make the next movie, root for the Cubs this year for the pennant, and it just becomes so abstract. I think if there’s a draft, you’ll see people on the streets. People can vent on the internet, but there’s no substantitive change happening. And whatever reform or movements or whatever political juice is out there, is just stopping right dead in the doors of the democrats, who are just cowing to the republicans, and terror, and, they’re just cowed. There’s no other way to explain it.” He stops himself. “ButGrace is Gone is about the servicemen and women and the people who are making the ultimate sacrifice. In that movie, my opinions don’t
The film he has after Grace is Gone might not be able to avoid courting political controversy, though – entitled War, Inc., it’s about war profiteering in the Middle East. (“What I want to question,” he says at one point, “is, how are [things like Blackwater] even fundamentally legal?”) Made mostly independently, it’ll be release in early 2008. “To get that movie made in the climate, we had to go on a totally independent, shoestring budget,” he says. “It’s got Marisa [Tomei], and Dan Akroyd, and Joanie [Cusack], and Sir Ben Kingsley, and Hilary Duff. So if you’ve got a movie with Sir Ben Kingsley and Hilary Duff that’s about war profiteering, to me, that’s a win. See, but I think that’s why the studios think I’m insane.”
Even in that case, however, his focus is more on the characters than the politics. As in Grosse Pointe Blank, he plays a hitman. “I’m interested in mercenaries and the concept of that. And people’s perception of who they are and what they actually do,” he says. “In my own weird, dumb way, I think everybody feels like this, they do stuff to get ahead that isn’t what they purely believe. I just think it’s interesting – what’s your level of compromise? It takes it to an absurd degree, but it’s, what’s the line you won’t cross? I just think it’s interesting stuff.”