John Cusack: Still pale and interesting

From goofy teen star in 'Say Anything' to eccentric Hollywood hero in 'Con Air', John Cusack makes any role seem just that little bit edgy. Kaleem Aftab meets the actor during filming in London, and discovers that he's as sharp as ever

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

Quintessential Cusack

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?