John Cusack walks into our meeting and says: "We're shooting nights, so if I sound drunk, that's probably why." It's hard to tell if he looks drunk because, ever since he first started capturing the public's attention as a 17-year-old, back in 1983, the actor has had skin so pasty white that it looks like it's yearning for a day out in the sun. The previous night, Cusack had been at Battersea Power Station filming the climactic scene of the Second World War espionage thriller Shanghai, in which he plays an American expat caught up in shady events in the city in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour. On a night when, for once, it wasn't teeming down, rain machines were out in full force as the director Mikael Hafstrom recreated the classic film-noir iconography of the Forties. "All hell breaks loose," describes Cusack. "There's a gunfight in the rain. The shoot-out has four characters who all have to cut deals with each other, and also have to reveal who they are before they have the shoot-out. My relationship with Anna [Li Gong] is revealed in front of her husband. The Japanese and Chinese warlords have to face each other and it's a great acting sequence, especially when working with these actors. It's as good as it gets."
The Weinstein brothers-produced film stars a who's who of Oriental cinema – Chow Yun-Fat, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, and Babel star Rinko Kikuchi. Cusack describes his character, Paul Soames, as "a classic fish-out- of-water story on some level because he's an American trying to figure out the death of his friend, another US agent who was killed in Shanghai. So he goes there to infiltrate the mob and the Japanese and Chinese resistance to find out what is going on. His cover is that of an irreverent, superficial American. He claims to be a newspaper reporter, and that is how he infiltrates the societies".
The film has already caused controversy in China – the reason the interiors are being shot in London is because the Chinese government refused to grant permission to shoot. The producers argue that any film that deals with this difficult period in Chinese history would run into difficulty, even though there is nothing politically or sexually insensitive in the script. Cusack carefully treads the party line: "I think the politics of the time force the characters to lie to each other and deceive each other. Politics affect human relationships in a complex political environment, even when the film is not about those issues. The sad part is that the characters are forced to have so many different agendas to protect themselves," he says.
Cusack is much less boisterous about politics than he had been a few months previously, when I met him to discuss an Iraq War movie he had produced, Grace is Gone, and in which he played a widower having to cope with telling his two daughters that their soldier-mother has been killed in action in the Gulf. Back then, he was slamming the US government and the response to the war by the Democrats: "People said that we should have said more before the last election against Bush, but the cement is wet right now. It's good to talk about problems in America because it's very dark days."
He has been disappointed by the way the Democrats haven't been aggressively fighting the Bush administration at every corner, and there is a definite sense of disillusionment. It's when Cusack says, "I'm not obedient. I'm not going to be swayed by John Wayne iconography or by the argument that the right wing say they own the flag. Dissent is very patriotic, too", that I'm reminded as to why Cusack was my generation's favourite star from the mid-Eighties on.
Part of Cusack's charm was that he was not as classically handsome as, say, Rob Lowe or Tom Cruise. He's 6ft 3in tall, but ungainly and has a rounded rather than a square jaw. He didn't run around with his top off, showing off his abs – indeed, he played the anti-jock, the regular guy. His shtick was to play awkward teenagers who won the girl through willpower. He was a rebel without a cause, with a dark untrusting vision of the universe. It was him against the world. He was a teenager like one of us. He had issues and problems and no real understanding of how to deal with them, and got little victories by getting the girl.
He was also tremendously funny. His roles in The Sure Thing, Better off Dead, and his most famous turn as the eternal romantic Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, were defining moments of Eighties culture. Such was his affiliation with the era that it's no surprise that only he could have masterminded the perfect Eighties movie homage, the high-school reunion (and hitman) comedy Grosse Point Blank.
His first venture into adult roles, in The Grifters in 1990, promised a career on the top of the A-list. But it seems that his fans and Hollywood didn't want him to grow up, and there were several barren years, in which Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway was the only highlight. He formed a Chicago-based theatre group, The New Criminals, and produced political and avant-garde stage work. He grew increasingly interested in the ability of art to comment on life: "The whole political world is fought in the artistic world, talking heads, propaganda and music, the images come first, the money and guns follow later. I think films and writing have a huge impact."
The success of Grosse Point Blank in 1997 seemed to reinvigorate Cusack. He played an alternative sandal-wearing action hero in Con Air, and a magazine reporter investigating a murder in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil that same year. The following year, he was a soldier in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, and in 1999 a puppetmaster in Being John Malkovich, as well as the perfect geek in 2000's High Fidelity, the American remake of Nick Hornby's novel.
Cusack says: "I started making different choices; the stuff in Hollywood is more straight lead-man stuff. But Being John Malkovich and Max [in which he plays an art dealer who befriends Hitler] are are character-based films, and by characters I mean pretty flawed people." It's when Cusack plays flawed characters that he excels – his failures have come when he has tried to fit into a Hollywood stereotype. He's also taken on more fluffy paydays: he's the voice of the eponymous hero of Igor, the forthcoming animation about a hunchbacked evil scientist's assistant.
Having made more than 50 films in just over two decades, Cusack seemed especially hard on himself when promoting 1408 – the first time he worked with Shanghai director Mikael Hafstrom – when he told a German reporter that he'd only done 10 great films. He claims that the much-repeated statement was a misquote: "He made it sound like I said 40 of my films sucked. I thought I was saying something positive. I said I've been in 10 or 15 really top-quality films. Of the others, some are good, others bad. I think that's a pretty good ratio."
The major surprise is that an actor of Cusack's calibre, who has been in so many good films, has never received more awards recognition. Partly this is because he refuses to play some of the games actors need to play to support their performances. He quips about the Weinstein's famous Oscar pushes: "I'd be happy for Harvey to push me for awards as long as doesn't expect me to go to all the parties. There are some actors who will go to a nursing home for retirees to get 10 votes here and there, and I won't go that far."
Cusack has fulfilled all my childhood dreams. He seems exactly how I remember him in the movies, not terribly attractive but definitely endearing. He makes quips to spice up his commentary, but they're as likely to be bad as good. And he's tremendously opinionated, with a force of character and an undeniable belief that he's doing the right thing and not selling his soul. All that is missing is the ghetto blaster being held aloft above his head.
'Igor' opens on 17 October; 'Shanghai' will be released next year
The Sure Thing (1985)
John Cusack's first starring role sees him woo a generation by playing a goofy teenager who, having failed to impress the girl of his dreams, decides to travel cross-country to meet a girl guaranteed to sleep with him.
Say Anything (1989)
Here Cusack plays the perfect loser, the only man in the world who believes that he can win school beauty Diane Court. It all goes wrong – until he decides to serenade her with his stereo and a Peter Gabriel tune.
Grosse Point Blank (1997)
Cusack co-produced, co-wrote and starred in this homage to 1980s high-school movies. He plays a professional assassin who still hasn't got over missing his high-school prom. Finding himself nearby on a mission, he decides to go to the school's 10-year reunion.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
John Malkovich's name may be in the title, but this is very much Cusack's movie, as he plays a dysfunctional puppeteer who discovers a portal that leads him straight into the mind of the mighty Malkovich.
High Fidelity (2000)
Those who said that you couldn't translate Nick Hornby's particularly London prose into American reckoned without Cusack's charm. He is at his surly, alienated best as the owner of a record store who can't get over his break-up with his girlfriend.
Grace is Gone (2007)
Produced by Cusack, who also stars in it, this film shows how the Iraq War affected the lives of those living in America, and the rifts that the controversial military action caused.