John Cusack, whose star is being unveiled today on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is a veteran of more than 50 films, and yet even at 45, the stage-trained actor still exudes the boyish charm that marked his early work with such filmmakers as John Hughes, Rob Reiner and Cameron Crowe.
In a way, his breakthrough role, 1989’s “Say Anything,” also Crowe’s debut as a writer-director, established Cusack’s screen persona, if not his career choices: His Lloyd Dobler is a hopeless romantic and avowed iconoclast, determined to carve out his own path in life. The part has become iconic — on the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, a flash mob of boombox-toting Dobler look-alikes took over Times Square.
It was inevitable that this politically aware talent, active in Chicago theater circles, would gravitate to darker, more complex fare like Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” Stephen Frears’ “The Grifters” and George Armitage’s “Grosse Pointe Blank,” the first release under Cusack’s production company New Crime Productions that also marked his first screenwriting credit.
Cusack explains that his writing emanated from his acting, since he’s never been shy about addressing script problems. “I wanted to write and try to be a writer as well, but writing also came from my experience as an improvisational actor,” Cusack says. “It has to do with having that instinct as an actor for what works and what doesn’t — and then challenging the source material.”
He says he learned early on that “good directors will listen to the actor’s instincts.” The danger in not speaking up, he says, is a movie in which the holes haven’t fixed themselves. “Unfortunately, it’s just a question of survival,” Cusack says.
But he also insists he’s no egotist who questions filmmakers for the sake of being contrarian. Of his upcoming role in Lee Daniel’s “Precious” follow-up, the Cannes-bound “The Paperboy,”Cusack says, “I didn’t improvise two words.”
If it seems incongruous that Cusack will star in “The Paperboy” on the heels of his roles in the big-budget disaster pic “2012” and the fanciful buddy comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine,” it shouldn’t. Directors, Cusack says, tend have longer memories than the public perception.
“When I met with Lee Daniels, he was very affected by ‘The Grifters’ when he was younger,” says Cusack, “so he saw a little deeper into me than whatever last two movies I’ve done,” Cusack says.
In his upcoming work, Cusack will only be going deeper — and darker. He plays an inmate on death row in “The Paperboy” and a serial killer in “Frozen Ground,” based on true events and scheduled for release in December. And then there’s “The Raven,” a murder mystery opening on Friday in which Cusack plays Edgar Allen Poe.
“Sometimes you go a certain direction and sometimes things come to you in waves,” Cusack says. “It’s been an interesting career that way. There’s been three or so in a row where I’ve been down in the underworld, but I’ve been down there before — there’s plenty of drama there.”
As for the Walk of Fame, tribute, Cusack is flattered, he’s also a tad confused, equating the ceremony with a career achievement kudo.
“I feel like I’m definitely in the middle of my career, it’s not anywhere near over, so it’s kind of wild,” Cusack says. “I always figured that’s for Cary Grant or Alfred Hitchcock.”
Cusack says he can’t predict how long he’ll stay in the game, or what’s still to come. “I don’t know,” Cusack says, sounding both confident and genuinely uncertain. “I’ll go wherever it takes me.”
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