John Cusack has been a Hollywood outsider all his life. More interested in playing unconventional heroes and signing on to original scripts, he’s sidestepped the usual screen hunk route and instead navigated a film career that makes Johnny Depp’s look conservative by comparison.
This month Cusack, 45, is starring in the gothic thriller The Raven, in what just might be the role of his lifetime. Playing whacked-out literary superstar Edgar Allen Poe, Cusack has to transform from a celebrated 19th century writer into a homicide detective when a killer starts using his poems as the deadly inspiration for his brutal crimes.
Poe’s darkest imaginings inspiring a madman’s killing spree is an idea that works onscreen, and Cusack walks the line between the historical writer and the fictional detective very persuasively in
The Raven, giving one of his most spirited performances in years.
The Raven’s publicists have selected the shadowy New York cavern club that is The Vault at Pfaff’s to host our interview. With a history that dates back to the 1850s, the original vault was once a popular gathering place for Poe’s counterparts, including the poet Walt Whitman.
Today, though, it’s a nearly pitch black bar and restaurant, a place so dark and gloomy you’d almost need a seeing-eye dog to navigate it successfully. It’s probably the perfect place to discuss this gothic thriller.
“It’s fun right?” Cusack asks the Irish Voice. “That’s Poe’s deal, we’re all attracted to the deep abyss in our own natures. It’s poetic, in fact it’s Poe-etic.
“I understand why we’re attracted to it because we have Halloween, we have Day of the Dead, when everyone gets into the supernatural and the ghoulish and the underworld. It’s just interesting me, this character and his headspace. It’s not somewhere I want to stay in, but it’s a fun place to visit once or twice a year.”
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Sitting opposite me, Cusack is the first person I have ever seen smoke an electronic cigarette. It looks like any filtered brand on the market, but the red glow at the tip is an LED light, not burning tobacco. He takes a deep pull on it and blows some smoke.
In person he’s so softly spoken you have to lean forward to hear what he’s saying. He’s polite, intelligent and, it has to be said, a lot more serious than you might have anticipated. Right now he’s talking about filming at night.
Shooting The Raven during the winter in Serbia and Budapest (as stand-ins for 19th century Baltimore), Cusack had the opportunity to walk around the cobblestone streets at night, and all the film’s horse drawn carriages and Oscar worthy costumes definitely puts him in the mood. He felt like he was having a really, really good dream and at times a bad dream.
It was an appropriate setting for the new thriller. Poe’s work inhabits a twilight space halfway between life and death, between dream and reality, sanity and madness.
The Raven is set in that same world too, so colors on screen are muted or washed out, fog rolls in at night, dark shadows fall over everything.
“Not many writers think about what their worst nightmare is,” says Cusack. “Most people want to get away from them or wake up. Only a couple of them ever want to go deeper in. Poe was one of those people.
“That’s just an interesting mind, you know. He wanted to embrace his own nightmares. In his own life it was as if he had to do the wrong thing, or the most destructive thing, so his romance with his own destruction makes him incredibly courageous and tragic and somehow sympathetic.
“We all have a bit of that in us. I thought it was great fun to do, but just for a limited time.”
Cusack wanted to avoid going the usual biopic route where his character would have been poor and troubled and it would have been boring.
“He’d be getting really drunk, getting into fights, and you still wouldn’t get into his imagination, the thing that made him outstanding. By having Poe become part of one of his own stories and having to unravel it from the inside out you get to hear him,” says Cusack.
“It also plays into his idea that all we are have seen or are seeing is but a dream within a dream – or a nightmare.”
Ireland’s Brendon Gleeson plays Captain Charles Hamilton, the disapproving father of Poe’s lover Emily Hamilton, and the one man standing in the way of the poet’s happiness. Hamilton doesn’t trust Poe, nor will he accept him as a potential suitor for his daughter.
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