John Cusack in "The Raven"
Relativity John Cusack in "The Raven"

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."

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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.

"Whatever we make of him in the movie, we certainly treat him as a genius."

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?