Second City Slickers

As In & Out reminds us, we all have mentors. For Grosse Pointe Blank costars John Cusack, 31, and his big sister Joan (34, who also costars in In), their first were Joyce and Byrne Piven, whose Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., also nurtured Aidan Quinn, Lili Taylor, and the Pivens’ son, Ellen regular Jeremy. For the Cusacks, acting was a childhood love that became a life’s work.

”They literally grew up on stage,” says Joyce. ”They were brilliant improvisers from the beginning.” She recalls Joan as a ”quiet girl” who nevertheless had a built-in BS detector when it came to the theater games the classes played. ”She has such a strong sense of truth,” says Joyce, ”that if the game was wrong, she’d do nothing. But if the game was right, she’d be brilliantly funny. She always had comic charisma.”

John, she says, had a different gift. ”That optimal distance. They call it cool, but it’s just being very present — without pushing, without artifice.”

Byrne remembers John’s teenage performance in J.D. Salinger’s ”Just Before the War With the Eskimos.” John played ”this kid who couldn’t go into the Army because of his bad heart. He’s looking out a window and he says, ‘Nobody should go into the army under 60.’ I saw him looking out that imaginary window, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ That comes with a lot more living than he could possibly have done.”

The Pivens don’t claim to hold the secret of their students’ success: Joan, with her 1988 Oscar nomination for Working Girl, and some of her best reviews as the desperately funny fiancée in In & Out; John climbing the A list with upcoming roles in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Terrence Malick’s to-die-for-if-you’re-an-actor The Thin Red Line.

”It’s awesome,” Joyce says of watching their careers take off. ”You think, ‘Oh, wow! Look where they’re going!”’