For the past few years, John Cusack, who got his start by charming his way into the hearts of millions in a string of defining ’80s comedies (“Say Anything,” “Better Off Dead”), has been playing it relatively safe. He popped up to save his family in Roland Emmerich’s limp blockbuster “2012” and went back in time via a hot tub in the gross-out comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine.”
But this Friday marks the return of the chance-taking Cusack we know and love. In “The Raven,” Cusack stars as 19th century writer Edgar Allan Poe, an author with a dark and troubled past remembered for horror stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” as well as for spearheading the detective fiction genre. Cusack’s no-holds-barred turn as Poe recalls his adventurous roles in “Being John Malkovich” and “High Fidelity,” unpredictable performances miles away from his recent work.
The film, helmed by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”), takes Poe’s mysterious death as a jumping off point for a fictionalized account of the writer’s last days, during which Poe is tasked with helping track down a serial killer whose gruesome murders mirrors those in Poe’s own stories.
Indiewire sat down with Cusack to discuss playing a real-life figure in a work of fiction, and his upcoming turn in Lee Daniel’s anticpated follow-up to “Precious,” “The Paperboy.”
Given that this is a fictionalized take on Poe’s life, what kind of prep work did you do?
Well, you’ve got his letters, all these biographies and this literature to go through. People didn’t use phones, so there are a lot of letters. Those are very revealing.
So you prepared for the role the same way you would as if it was a standard biopic?
Yeah, because you’re doing a version of Poe, and you’re melding fantasy and legend and facts. This is Poe, so it’s pulpy and lurid; it’s horror. “Amadeus” didn’t happen, but you still learn a lot about Mozart. It’s a mashup.
It’s quite the revisionist take.
I think it’s more meta. A lot of the things that come out of Poe’s mouth were actually things that he had wrote. They were in his letters. You’d have a proxy character. The stuff he says about his own work are things that he wrote. So by going into his imagination and the stories, you’re going into Poe himself, because so many of those stories are someone’s confessional, someone dealing with their worst fears, their addiction, their own craziness.
He’s always talking about that twilight space between waking and dreaming, life and death. He was always searching for that; drawn to it. A story where Poe becomes a character in his own movie allows you to have Poe deconstruct Poe. And you have all that in writing. I thought it was really clever.
But there’s probably a straight old-fashioned biopic that would be a really cool movie too. You never can sum up somebody in one movie or one book.
What do you think he would have thought of this take on his life?
I think he liked being famous and renowned. Whatever we make of him in the movie, we certainly treat him as a genius. I don’t know really; who knows?
You bring such a sense of ease to your performance, despite it no doubt requiring a lot of you. Is there a little bit of Poe in you?
I think there’s a bit of him in anybody who is creative. Carl Jung said everyone has a shadow that’s like a living archetype of them, which is where all of your creativity, your sexuality, your anger, fear and shame are housed. That’s the portal you’re creative from. Poe became that shadow archetype for the whole culture. He gave voice or vision to all of their collective shame, anguish and torment. He was like the patron saint of the doomed.
Later, in different cultures, you see Kurt Cobain and he’s so tortured. All of a sudden, everyone flocks to him. He’s not a happy guy, Kurt. But it’s because we can all relate to him. So of course I can relate to him. I can relate to the abyss and all that.
We all know we’re damaged and fucked up. We’re human. Some artists just admit it in a more graphic way, and we’re grateful to them.
It sounds like you really took to Poe.
It’s nice to be able to talk about trying to figure out ideas like this. The source material is so deep that you can think about it a lot. We thought about it a lot when we made it. But you’re still getting to play around with brilliant material that’s so loaded and juicy. So it’s a lot easier than making a movie and saying, “I wanted to be really good when I jumped over that bus.”
It’s more enjoyable for me to talk about getting into that head space than it is to talk about myself.
I can see this happening again when you do the press rounds after playing Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels upcoming “The Butler.”
It’s a smaller role. The main role is the butler who worked in five different administrations. Nixon is one of them. But it will be fun.
You signed on to “The Butler” after working with Daniels in “The Paperboy,” which just got into Cannes. What’s Lee like as director?
He didn’t take his foot off the gas pedal. He’s an intense director. We had a really great time. It was sort of like the Poe thing. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was exhilarating. It was nasty. My character inflicts a lot of damage on people.
“The Raven” bring up a debate still relevant to today: whether an artist should be held responsible if their art inspires acts of violence. Where do you stand on that?
I think “The Raven” prophesizes the obsession with crime, the obsession with celebrity, the obsession with fame. But I think a real artist — and I think Poe was a real artist — has to explore his vision purely. Even though he was calculated when he was writing that stuff, he created all these new genres. I think used the language of the subconscious and he was putting that into his stories. The language of the subconscious is violence, grotesque, lurid and sexual. I don’t think you can ask artists to censor their expression.
Did playing Poe take a toll on you?
When I got back I was real thin and real fucked up.
What did you do to ger ovet it?
Ate and stopped thinking about doom. It was good to get out of Serbia.