In person, John Cusack is a comic-book-hero version of Lloyd Dobler. He is impossibly tall and dark and broad across the shoulders in a way his onscreen persona never quite suggests. His hand is huge, and you thank God he’s decided to use it to shake yours rather than crush it, which he easily could. The familiar rasp of his voice from 50-plus movies is a little deeper in person, almost Alec Baldwin in register. Naturally, he’s wearing a giant overcoat. In the dim lighting of a Beverly Hills hotel lounge, this all works to give you the sense that he’s preparing to reveal some facet of a secret crime-fighting identity (perhaps a boom box that, when hoisted overhead, plays a mixtape that can devastate an underworld of evildoers). Then he does something even the dandyish Dark Knight himself would never do: He orders a decaf double espresso.
The drink order is a gentle reminder of Super Cusack’s much-loved lighter fare of yesteryear (The Sure Thing, Say Anything…). But today, this imposing figure is here to talk about his role in the drama Grace Is Gone, in which he plays a father of two who is widowed when his wife, an Army sergeant, dies fighting in Iraq. (Read the review) The film, which scooped up two awards at Sundance this year, is more about the personal toll of war than the politics of it.
”I wanted to make a film about Iraq, and I didn’t want to make a film that was about polemics,” says the 41-year-old Chicago native, occasionally sipping from a cup that looks like it came from a little girl’s tea set when resting in his mammoth claw. ”Because when you do polemics you sort of preach to the converted and alienate people. And I think there’s a place for it — I like throwing bricks through windows, don’t get me wrong — but I thought in this one you could just tell the story…. I want the movie to transcend my views.”
Indeed, the views of Cusack’s character, Stanley Phillips, are 180 degrees from his own well-documented antiwar stance. For a glimpse into Cusack’s beliefs, check out his Huffington Post blog (huffingtonpost.com/john-cusack), where his latest postings have been conversations with The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein. The Canadian journalist’s assertions — that a war on terror is advantageous for a certain few because it creates new pockets of industry and wealth around it — inform much of his next film, the political dark comedy War, Inc. Costarring his sister Joan and Hilary Duff, this is Cusack’s first screenplay credit since 2000’s High Fidelity, and he says it’s worlds away from the family-oriented Grace.
”They’re sort of two films that are on the North and South Pole: On the North Pole there are the good people making the ultimate sacrifice on the day-to-day level, so Grace Is Gone is about them,” he says. ”Then on the other pole is the ideological war profiteers. They really couldn’t be further apart.”
Grace comes on the heels of last month’s in-and-out-of-theaters feel-good feature Martian Child, in which Cusack played a father of another sort: a foster dad to a kid who has convinced himself that he’s from the Red Planet. Naturally, Cusack’s character was a science-fiction writer with special insights into this child’s delusions. ”Martian Child was just a movie the studio [New Line Cinema] offered me and it was the best job I could get at the time,” Cusack explains, perhaps offering a hint as to his project-choosing process. (He has also just signed on for the thriller The Factory, directed by Project Greenlight Australia winner Morgan O’Neill.) ”It was about a relationship between a guy and another kid, and I thought that was good. It was a sweet movie. They offered it to me and that was the extent of that.” Then he creates some distance between that movie and his current project, reiterating: ”Grace Is Gone was something I really wanted to do.”
Passion also played a part in Cusack’s role in Julien Temple’s documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, another Sundance darling. The star-studded valentine to the late punk legend and Cusack’s personal hero (Strummer contributed the score to Grosse Pointe Blank) received a limited release last month. Cusack credits Strummer, along with Klein and his activist mother, Nancy (his father, Dick, a filmmaker, passed away in 2003), with helping to shape his politics. He perks up considerably when the movie is mentioned. ”I think the greatest thing Strummer did was fuse the anger and outrage toward transcendence,” he says, straightening his posture and widening his eyes. ”He took all that stuff, all that energy, and said, ‘Yeah, you can feel that and you should, and that’s what being human is, but if you want to play with the big boys, the price of admission is intelligence.”’
One area of politics the actor has little interest in, however, is an Oscar campaign for Grace.
”I don’t care so much. A lot of it is very fatty and political,” Cusack says. ”It’s kind of hard to be upset you didn’t win office when you didn’t run.”
Stumping on his behalf is Harvey Weinstein, the perennial Academy campaigner whose company is distributing the film. ”I’ve adored Grace Is Gone since I first saw it at Sundance,” he says via e-mail, adding: ”There aren’t too many other actors that can successfully pull off knockout performances in romantic comedies, horror films, and independent dramas.”
By now you might be wondering what this serious, highly decaffeinated, and still-cloaked-in-overcoat figure has done with your beloved John Cusack, he of Better Off Dead and High Fidelity and, for chrissakes, Serendipity! Did his highly profitable stay in room 1408 this summer — which eventually took in north of $70 million — permanently shake the guy of his sense of humor? A test: Show him that he made it into PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive issue in its ”red-hot retrospective of cinematic hunks,” a 20-year look at the sexiest movie characters. 1989 is all Lloyd Dobler.
He takes the torn-out magazine page and studies it for a moment, quietly, then focuses in on the entry for 2003. ”I don’t know,” he deadpans, shaking his head. ”I still like McConaughey in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Much sexier.”
Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, and the Ocean’s gang all have their crews. So where does Cusack fit in?
You seem like a natural to belong to one of the reigning Hollywood groups. Would you want to? ”Yeah, I would love to get in. I’ve never been invited. I’ve worked with my own kind of ensemble of people too. I mean, I’ve worked with my sister Joan a lot (10 movies, including Sixteen Candles), I worked with Jeremy Piven a lot (nine movies, including Grosse Pointe Blank). I used to work with Tim Robbins a bunch (six movies, including Bob Roberts, but we haven’t for a while. So I’ve had a sort of ensemble of people I’ve gotten to work with too. But it’d be great. My favorite thing is to find somebody I’d like to work with and do it again. So tell one of those people to invite me to their party. Or I’ll start a new one.”