John Cusack is the kind of unassuming actor who can take on any genre, rarely repeating himself. Two decades after firmly establishing himself in the Cameron Crowe classic "Say Anything", Cusack, whose early films included such seminal classics as "The Sure Thing" and "Sixteen Candles", continues to push himself in uncharted territory.
He stars in the Roland Emmerich disaster epic "2012" as a divorced father of two who becomes closer to his ex-wife and kids as the Earth becomes destroyed and as they head for a futuristic Noah’s Ark. It’s quite the change of pace for the quietly spoken actor who discussed the film with Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview in hotel room in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Question: When you read a script like this where it has Los Angeles destroyed, or whatever the description is – is it difficult for you to imagine what a movie like this is like? And how do you judge a script, which is so dependent on visual clues?
Cusack: You just judge it as a screenplay and as a piece of writing, you know? And if it’s written well, it conjures up images. It gets your imagination going, and you think, "Well, I don't know how they’re going to do that, but I kind of think I know what he’s talking about here. The coast of California’s—I don't know exactly what it’s going to look like." How do you fill that frame? I guess you look at a map, and I mean, where will they go? You don’t quite know, but you have a sense of it. But then the film either just sweeps you along, and you get involved with the characters, and you start to follow it and you want to see what happens next, or you don’t. So, it just either works as a piece of writing, or it doesn't.
Question: Is there a fine line in a script like this with dealing with characterization and special effects? I mean, do you look very carefully to make sure that there is enough character depth and an arc for you to be able to work with?
Cusack: I think one of the reasons that Roland wanted me to do it, or that he wants certain kinds of actors to do it, is because they bring their perspective about that to the movie. So, you know, you don’t feel like you have to fight for it. You feel like that’s sort of why they brought you in, was to try to help do that. And the script was really good. I mean, it was all on the page. I mean, there were things we worked on, but I think that’s why they bring Oliver Platt in, and Chiwetel and me and Amanda. And it’s maybe not the kind of action movie actors who do a certain kind of thing. We’re used to doing a different thing, but that’s why they hired us, and so apparently that’s what they wanted. They wanted people to approach it from that way. Just from how to make the characters work, not, how do I make the action work?
Question: Did you feel that you needed to do any physical preparation for this before embarking on this?
Cusack: Just, like, the heightened normal stuff that you do for anything that’s got a lot of physical stuff. Like, I’ve done action movies before, because I’ve done all sorts of different movies, but this was a marathon. You’ve got to do it for 100 days, so, I mean, you’ve got to go to the gym after work each night. You’ve got to stretch. Otherwise your body wouldn't hold up. You’ve got to eat well. You just have to.
Question: There are a lot of moments where it’s pure reaction where there’s a lot of reactive work involved. Do you find the reactive nature of this type of movie more difficult than the participatory?
Cusack: Yeah. I mean, that’s the hardest thing. When you think there’s a tidal wave coming at you, to react, obviously. It’s like – “Wait, how do I do this? Or, am I just making faces here?”
Question: But doesn't it remind you, in some ways, of why you became an actor? In that it’s all part of this notion of make-believe?
Cusack: Yeah. I mean, in some sense, there’s no difference between that and any other scene. Like you walk into a kitchen and you get a phone call, getting some horrible news and you have to sort of pull it out of nowhere. So, it does feel familiar. Like it’s not that big a stretch to do that stuff.
Question: Do you hope that people don’t take 2012 seriously, and don’t treat this as some kind of forewarning about the future on an environmental level?
Cusack: Well, if it adds to the sense that we have to change or we’re in trouble, I think that’s probably good. I don't think it has any politics to the film. I mean, you could argue that everything is politics, but I think this is much more just escapist, but also a release valve for anxieties and fears. And it serves the function that tragedy does, or at least myths do, which is they give you a tragedy, and they let you experience vicariously through fantasy, and then we remember the feeling after tragedy, when we cut through all the bullshit. We drop all of our illusions, and we pretend there’s no more divisions among races or people or sexes or genders, or anything. And everybody either gets in the same boat and survives, or they’re all doomed. And everybody wants to believe that that’s how people react, when faced with their extinction. That people will be good. Do the right thing. So, I think these movies give us a sense of that feeling that people want to feel, when the worst is realized and we hear all the stories of heroism that come out of war, the acts of brotherhood and heroism that spring from tragedies. These movies just give you a vehicle to experience that, a sense of that feeling.
Question: But you didn't go out of your way to try to do any research on the 2012 mythology, did you?
Cusack: Yeah, I checked it all out. It’s all there. You know, it’s all right – it’s everywhere. So, it’s great.
Question: You said something very interesting earlier, that sort of struck me, something about you being grateful to be hired for any job. And I found that curious. I mean, you’ve been at this for a long time. You’re very successful. Do you feel that sense of gratitude, that people are still interested in hiring you? I mean, where does that come from? It seems like it’s an actor’s insecurity, a perpetual actor’s insecurity.
Cusack: Maybe. But I’m just aware, also, that I’m a lucky person. There are a lot of talented people that aren’t working right now as actors, and there are a lot of people who aren’t really working just in the world right now and there’s a lot of suffering around the world. So I’m a pretty lucky person, being able to be making art, and being paid to do it. So I just try to remember that. And it is true. You know, you scratch for roles. and sometimes you want to get roles and they go to other people, and it’s very nice to get a phone call saying, “We want you to do this movie. You’re the person we want for it,” you know?” “We sort of had you in mind, and will you come do it?” It’s very flattering. It’s very nice. Doesn’t always happen, you know? Sometimes you’ve got to scratch, or you’re the fourth or fifth choice. You know, Hollywood can be a nasty business.
Question: You don’t seem to take “Hollywood” seriously, do you?
Cusack: No, you don’t take it seriously, but you have to be in it.
Question: You have to work hard at it.
Cusack: You have to, like – that’s where they make the movies. So, you have to participate in it.
Question: Do you enjoy that process, or do you find it a pain in the ass?
Cusack: I find it a pain in the ass, yeah. Sure.
Question: Is your criteria for picking something, now, different to what it was maybe ten years ago?
Cusack: I think so, yeah. I mean, I’m pretty much more clear about what to pick, and why, because I know if you want to do the films that you want to do, you have to be in box office successes, to leverage those. So there’s no other way it works, because you’re dealing with banks. They look at your foreign box office potential, and your US box office, and then they pick a number, and then that’s the number that they’ll lend against, that you can get for your money. And then you have to fight for distributors, and – you know, it’s the same deal. And so if you’re in movies that are successful, then you get to make more movies that you want to make, that wouldn't have gotten made.
Question: And clearly that’s part of the reason why you select certain movies over other movies.
Cusack: I think you try to do the best things you can, that also serve the above cause. You know, which is, I have to keep in popular films to make art movies, then they both have to feed each other, because I can't just do one without the other. So, then if you can be in a movie like this, that you think is good, that’s also going to be some of the biggest of the year – that’s why I’m saying I’m grateful for the phone call. I’m not dumb, and Roland’s one of the most successful director’s in the world, and Sony’s one of the most stable film company’s and this is going to be their big movie. And they’re saying, “Come do this,” and they’ll tailor the part for you. They wrote it for you. That’s pretty nice.
Question: And of course "Shanghai" is a different film again
Cusack: That’s another perfect mix of a great movie, that also – nothing’s as big as this, but it was a large-scale movie, that’s as good as you’re going to get, for adult drama.
Question: Who do you play in that?
Cusack: I play a spy.
Question: So, is it set during the Japanese take-over?
Cusack: It’s set in Shanghai on right before World War Two. It’s great. It’s a really cool film.
Question: You shot on location in China, obviously.
Cusack: We didn't. The Chinese revoked our permits.
Question: Oh, really?
Cusack: So the film got delayed for a few months, and the wide shoots took a little bit of a beating. But they regrouped, and they shot it in Bangkok and London, and then I think they shot a couple things in China. And they’re waiting for the Chinese to approve the film to open in China, and then we’ll come out in the States after that.
Question: Is it a spy thriller?
Cusack: It’s a bit of an epic romance thriller, I guess.
Question: Who’s your leading lady in it?
Cusack: Gong Li, one of the great, heavyweight actresses and she’s one of the great actresses alive. To me.
Question: That’s cool, that you were able to do that.
Cusack: Yeah. And Chow Yun-Fat, Ken Watanabe. An amazing all-star international cast, and Chinese cast. So, that was another movie where – that, to me, you’re not going to get a better chance than those types of things, in the movie business. So. You do commercial movies, then you can do a little art-house independent movies. You know, be able to do the art types of movies. And then if you can still be successful enough to get the very best adult dramas that they’re going to make for a decent budget – you know, to me, that’s why I say I’m lucky.
Question: I can't believe you’ve been doing this for something like 20-odd years. I mean, you started out in some iconic films of the ‘80s.
Cusack: More than 20.
Question: So when you do a movie like Hot Tub Time Machine, which is set in the 8p0s, did you reflect on your own experiences during that decade?
Cusack: Well, part of the joke was, it is – I mean, I won't ruin the movie. The movie’s not a parody movie, but it definitely goes back and makes fun of that period, and myself, and some of the iconography of the ‘80s, for sure. The offer was – the title, I thought, was so insane, I thought, “That’s the stupidest, greatest title I’ve ever heard.” I mean, it’s a perfect kind of title.
Question: Who directed?
Cusack: Steve Pink, who I wrote Gross Pointe Blank -and High Fidelity with. So, he was my partner for years, and then he went off and started directing.
Question: Was it nice working with him again?
Cusack: Oh, wonderful, really good. And we made five films together as producers and writers, and so he came back, and they came to me and said, “Well, you can do this movie. It’s called "Hot Tub Time Machine". It’s with Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson,” all three of those guys, I really love. And there was about 50 percent, 60 percent of the script, really funny premise. But they said, “The deal is, we have to shoot in a ski lodge so, you have to start in seven weeks. And you have to finish writing it as you go.” So I said, “That is in insane idea.” I said, “Well, the only way I could do it is if I had somebody like – if I do it with Steve. We have that shorthand. But I can't start a relationship with some new guy that I don’t know. So, I would have to – it’s either”—so I said, “Well, yeah, I’ll do it with Steve, you know, if you want to have Steve direct it, we’ll do it.” And they said, “Yes.” And so we’re like, “Oh. We can do that.” And then I thought – me and my partner, Grace, said – so, my company produced it, and we just jimmied it up, with MGM’s support. But we had to start shooting, because some of it takes place in a ski lodge for a long time, so before the snow melted in the spring, we had to start shooting the exteriors. It was one of those crazy kind of ass-backwards things, where we were in a real rush to get it made.
Question: How much improv is there?
Cusack: A lot. A lot. It’s got Chevy Chase in it, Crispin Glover.
Question: Does it really show off a kind of comedic side of you that you don’t often get a chance to –
Cusack: Yeah. Yeah. This is pretty much balls-out strange comedy. So I’m even lucky that way, because I get to do different types of genres.
Question: Do you know what you’re going to be doing next?
Cusack: I just finish getting this film out, which is like a job, until November 20th. So, I’m sort of on the road talking about this movie.