Arts: The sweet blank of success

John Cusack could have been the next Tom Cruise, but he just wasn't interested. The buzz surrounding his first feature, `Grosse Pointe Blank', suggests that he was right to stick to his guns. By Ryan Gilbey

In the early hours of Sunday morning, while you were steeped in your dense syrupy dreams, an operation of military-style proportions was sparking into life. Flights were booked, passports checked. Engagements were juggled. Agents and publicists stayed up exchanging frantic international telephone calls from midnight to sun-rise. The object of their mission? Get Cusack.

Cut to Monday afternoon. While those same movie PRs loiter outside topping up their newfound Pro-Plus addictions with glugs of coffee, John Cusack lounges in his armchair, dragging on a cigarette, looking slick and crisp as a new bank-note in his black suit and black shirt. When he introduced himself to me, he was wearing a baseball cap back-to-front. It felt like a gag. As though he were saying: I am well aware that it is completely uncool to wear a baseball cap back-to-front. I'm not serious. I'm just goofing around.

Everything he does seems to have an intriguing duality of some description. In the course of our conversation, he somehow manages to suggest both absolute sincerity and brittle uninterest in the same casual glance or flippant aside, without condescending to either emotion. He has a dryly handsome, take-me-home-and-tuck-me-up face that exists in a state of permanent soft-focus. He buzzes with charisma. Your mother would love to have him over for tea, or knit him a jersey.

But what makes him a brilliant, intuitive actor rather than just another well-groomed baboon smirking at you from the cover of a men's magazine is the suggestion of something altogether uglier in him and his choice of roles. Something that can't be marketed or quantified. Something that your mother certainly wouldn't approve of.

"If the part doesn't have some dark sides, I can't play it, I can't find myself there," he said last year. These traces of ambiguity were first spotted in the performance that changed his career, and audiences' perceptions of him: as a small-time hustler in The Grifters, where he ended up dead in the arms of his mother (Anjelica Huston) immediately after their shocking, passionate kiss. And it's there, too, in his new film, Grosse Pointe Blank, which he co-wrote and co-produced and in which he plays Martin Q Blank, a contract killer who is having some doubts about his choice of career. This uncertainty coincides with the announcement of Martin's 10-year high- school reunion in the town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He's reluctant to attend, but it works out that he has a Job scheduled there on the same weekend, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

"It's about the American dream, the values we absorb," he explains, baseball cap removed, another cigarette at the ready. "The hit man is used as a comic metaphor. That sort of structured, organised killing is very addictive. That's why wars perpetuate wars - each war raises a generation of warriors. Then we get people like Oliver North, who can basically stand anything but peace. Any person should find that repulsive. Martin is somebody who realised it's repulsive a little too late."

I ask whether he has experienced that unease and restlessness about where his own life was heading? "Oh yeah." How do you deal with that? "Shoot first, ask questions later." And that sadness and nostalgia in Martin Blank, that retrospection, does that come from him, too? "Yeah. I relate to that." When I ask him whether he has obsessed over mistakes made in the past, like the character, he nods: "Definitely. Everybody has. I don't think anyone gets out of this thing without making a few mistakes. Unless they're lying."

The beautifully cringemaking school reunion scenes were, to an even greater extent, fed by his own experience: "Those scenes are basically a transcript of my whole reunion. What happens when you go to those things is you fall back into the old patterns. The same cliques. It's like when you go back to your parents' house and fulfil your old roles. For Martin, it's all about the agony of relating. He's most comfortable when he's killing someone. The real horror is when he has to start talking to people. It's a 1990s thing, I think. American males are very disconnected. Psychotic even. Not all of them. But from what I've observed, or eavesdropped on..."

He shrugs, letting his sentence evaporate. We talk some more about Grosse Pointe Blank. He tells me that it's the first complete screenplay that he has had produced. What does he mean by `complete'?

"I'd contributed to the scripts of stuff I was working on," he says, with the half-proud, half-mischievous smirk of the school swot who's just owned up to helping his pal earn top marks in geography. "I collaborated with Cameron Crowe on my character's dialogue in Say Anything. Just some touches here and there. Embellishing. And on The Grifters, it was Anjelica and I who put in that kiss at the end. Stephen [Frears] was going [adopts clipped English accent] `Urrgghh! My god! It's unbearable!' We just thought that was the way it was heading."

Are directors generally responsive to this kind of collaboration? He smiles. "The more successful I got, the more responsive they became. Then they stopped saying `Who the fuck is this jumped-up kid?' "

Cusack, now 31, has one big enduring hope: that The Clash will reform. His passion for their music has been with him since high school. "They had this confrontational, political world-view and I felt an affinity with that," he recalls. "It was all about saying: we may be on the verge of Armageddon but let's just stomp right through it. That was really appealing." When he started his Chicago theatre company New Crime in 1987 (along with school friends Steve Pink and DV DeVincentis, who co-wrote Grosse Pointe Blank with him), he decided to channel his love of punk into the shows he produced and directed. He would take the money he was earning from movies and invest it in whatever took his fancy. It felt crazy and chaotic and free, and he couldn't get enough of it.

"We would take over this theatre in Chicago and put on some godawful surrealist nightmare or other," he enthuses, his cool, carefully-paced delivery breaking into a verbal sprint. "People loved it. A lot of theatre audiences are just looking for the classics, but I wanted to get the kind of crowd who'd go see Fishbone or The Clash, and get them to come to the theatre. We constructed this kabuki punk rock show. Very emotional and visceral. Very loud. I was always interested in stuff that would blow the back of my head off. Like an acid trip."

This appetite for experimentation might provide some clue as to why John Cusack never became Tom Cruise. God knows, he had the chance. But he wanted something else. "Celebrity is death", he has been known to remark. "It's the worst thing that can happen to an actor." And so it has seemed for a long time now that John Cusack was destined to become famous for not being famous. He is the face you can't place. Didn't he used to be..? Wasn't he in...? Didn't he get...? Yes on all counts. Yes, he used to be the lad who looked as pale and pure as a bottle of this morning's milk in practically any American teen comedy from the mid-1980s that you care to name (including two delightful portraits of optimism gone wild in The Sure Thing and Say Anything).

Yes, he was daring in The Grifters, and droll as the pretentious playwright in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. And yes, on both occasions, Cusack watched as virtually anyone who had any connection with those films, from the caterer upwards, was nominated for Academy Awards while he - the leading man, no less - was left high and dry. Not that life begins and ends on- stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But a guy can get paranoid.

In the past year, Cusack has deliberately chosen more high-profile roles, after earning a reputation as the man who turned down Apollo 13 and Indecent Proposal. And still the situation doesn't seem to have changed. He remains excellent in films that nobody goes to see. And he is equally fine in films that everybody goes to see but in which he is scarcely noticed. Last year, he played sidekick to Al Pacino's grandstanding mayor in City Hall. Cusack was all formality, sullen respect, tarnished idealist - well, what was he going to do, try and upstage a 300mph Pacino? No. He travelled in the opposite direction. He was smart and subtle, but it was a role written to hold the story together, nothing more.

This year, he was the Dostoevsky-quoting FBI agent in Con Air. It was a lovely part that sadly got buried beneath the fireballs and car chases and exploding planes. After resisting the temptations of doing a Hollywood blockbuster all these years, what changed his mind?

"It was a case of the end justifying the means," he admits. "Lately, I've been working with the system a bit more. With Con Air, there were a lot of good actors in it, the part was funny, and it becomes easier now I've done it for studios to put their backing behind me on stuff like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil [which he has just finished shooting under Clint Eastwood's direction].

"Con Air was a popcorn picture. I don't know if I was acting in my own little movie, but I found the whole thing absurdly funny. I thought it offered me a perfect opportunity to get in and get out, without anyone getting hurt. I just thought it had come time for me to be a businessman. You know: get my name above the title, my face on a billboard. Ten years ago, I would have been horrified to hear myself say these things. I would have considered it a complete sell-out. But you get older, and more realistic and then..."

"Well, yeah," he laughs. "There's no getting around what it is, right?"

`Grosse Pointe Blank' is released on Friday

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