John Cusack for “America’s Sweethearts”

John Cusack is every bit the anti-star: Shy, introspective, rather quiet and at odds at dealing with the press courting him. An ironic dilemma, given the fact that in the hit comedy America’s Sweethearts, Cusack’s character – an ego-inflated star – has to attend the proverbial press junket for the fictitious film his character and sparring ex-wife are promoting.

Shooting that film, Cusack, muses, did not alter his perception of that peculiar facet of the movie business. “I always had a perception of press junkets before doing that movie”, Cusack abruptly responds. Enough said. In America’s Sweethearts, directed by new studio chief Joe Roth. Cusack and Zeta-Jones play a movie-star husband and wife forced to promote a film they shot together, even though they’ve since bitterly parted. A broad romantic farce that pokes fun at the marketing of Hollywood cinema, it was one of two biggies ready for release, the other being the old-fashioned romantic comedy Serendipity, which will be feted at this month’s Toronto Film Festival, prior to its October launch.  But ask Cusack to discuss these projects, and he seems remarkably ill at ease, and strangely monosyllabic.

After all, it seems that 2001 was a big year for Cusack, maybe his biggest to date, yes? “I don’t know, no I don’t think so. I mean, America’s Sweethearts did well, here in the States, and if Serendipity does very well, it’ll be my biggest year for movies that make money.” That’s the point, of course. Cusack is uncomfortable talking about the commercialism of his work; and concedes that this is certainly his most mainstream year to date. “That’s probably a good estimate.”

Cusack’s career has been defined by an off-centeredness to his work, playing characters on the fringe of mainstream America, from his earliest work in Say Anything, through to the likes of Being John Malkovich, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity [the latter two co-written by the actor].  So it seems at odds with Cusack’s previous work that he ends up starring not in one, but two, very mainstream Hollywood films. Contemplating the dilemma in which he finds himself, Cusack’s honest defence is that “doing these bigger movies merely help you to do movies that are more sort of, off centre”, he quietly explains.

Born into an Irish Catholic family in the Chicago suburb of Evanston in 1966, Cusack’s father, Dick, was an actor and documentary maker and his mother, Nancy, a teacher. His sisters, Joan and Susie are actors and Joan – or ‘Joanie’ as he calls her – has appeared in a few of brother John’s films, including High Fidelity. Cusack describes his childhood as being  “unconventional and free-thinking,” which may explain why he turned to acting via Chicago’s Piven Theatre Workshop, run by the parents of one of his friends, Jeremy, who has appeared in many of Cusack’s movies, Serendipity amongst them.

Bit parts in commercials lead to bigger and bigger film roles in the likes of Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing, and John Sayles’ Eight Men Out until Cusack hit the 1990s big with Steven Frears’ The Grifters. Cusack became passionate about lending a unique voice to film, and thus founded his own production company New Crime Productions, which produced Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. “I just wanted to make my own movies, and that was the perfect way to go about doing that.”

Over a decade on, in searching for the perfect role, Cusack says “it’s easier to find a good character, because you tend to make so mistakes that it becomes a process of elimination, and you end up mistrusting what interests you.” Referring to, he adds, “particular moments in a script, a scene or a point of view. After you’ve done this for a while, you are less likely to be swayed by someone else’s opinion. If your gut tells you, it’s better to do it THIS way, you just listen to yourself.”

This is what he did before tackling Serendipity, another conventional Hollywood romance, but one that appealed to Cusack. “It had a fairy tale quality about it that I loved.” Cusack and Beckinsale meet by chance in a New York department store one Christmas Eve, spend a magical evening together in a sea of idyllic anonymity then inadvertently part. She believes in Fate. If they are destined to be together then so be it. A few years later, even as their lives have changed, that Xmas Eve comes back to haunt them and maybe Fate will bring them together. “This was a script that needed a lot of work, and the writer and director agreed. There were a number of scenes in particular that we knew could be really special and that I’m very proud of.”

Cusack says that in terms of why this project, “I hadn’t done a big, commercial date movie, and it gave me a chance to be in a more ‘popular’ movie,” unlike what the actor sees as “the more subversive movie I tend to be drawn to.” Serendipity, he adds, “is a straight fairytale that your girlfriends would want to see.” America’s Sweethearts, he says, “Was the same kind of movie in a way, in that it’s a much more mainstream, commercial movie”, and Cusack enjoyed the way “the film held up a mirror to what is supercilious about Hollywood which was fun. I also couldn’t resist working with Catherine [Zeta-Jones] again and Julia Roberts, who’s the biggest star in the world after all.”

Now that Cusack has turned mainstream, at least for a short while, he says that he’ll be back more subversive than ever, and that’s the way he likes it. The actor is currently co-writing a new screenplay, Et Tu Babe, which is based on a book “which I thought was really funny. There’s this author called Mark Leyner, who wrote a sort of incendiary, post- post-modern, stream-of-consciousness, megalomania, kind of, delusional autobiography.” Sounds pure Cusack. And as subversive actor, he’s soon off to London to star in the Indie film, Hoffman, “which is about a painter who loses an arm in WWI, and becomes an art dealer because he can’t paint anymore, as well as this kind of bohemian. Then an ex-WWI soldier comes in to sell his watercolours, and he turns out to be Adolf Hitler. It’s about the relationship between these two men.” For the record, Hitler will be played by Aussie Noah Taylor. “He’s an exciting young actor whom I’m dying to work with.”

Neither of the above sounds all too mainstream. He smiles faintly and knowingly at the prospect of turning his back on commercial Hollywood – at least for now.