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.
What he doesn’t know is that the romance has already blossomed and that Emily (played by Alice Eve) is already in love.
It’s an unlikely role for Gleeson because for most of The Raven he plays an upper class bully. That means banking down his own personal charisma and playing against type, which he does so successfully you’ll be hard placed to remember that this is the same actor that we know from his recent hit The Guard. So with Gleeson stymied by his dry as dust character, it falls to Cusack to provide comic relief.
“People didn’t know how funny Poe was or how he often wrote satires on different styles of writing,” Cusack explains. “He wrote beautiful love poetry. Sometimes he just wrote pulp fiction for the Saturday evening papers. He was very calculating in that way and very good at it.”
Cusack, who was born in Chicago, comes from a big family of Irish American actors (his sister Joan is the next best known face). With the exception of his mother, who is a schoolteacher, the Cusacks are all still involved in show business.
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Cusack himself came to prominence in the 1980’s starring in classic teenage hits like Sixteen Candles and Say Anything. But he’s never taken the expected route, saying no to comedies and romantic leads in every safe but dull project that’s come along.
Instead he’s crafted a totally unique career path, and has become one of the most respected actors of his generation in the process.
“All of Poe’s work has to do with loss,” Cusack explains. “It comes from his feeling of being an orphan in the world. He lost his mother, he lost his stepmother, and he lost his wife too. He suffered quite a bit circumstantially.
“I think he was also personally too highly strung, he wasn’t wired right. He’s an addict, he an aristocrat, he’s a pauper, he’s charming, and he’s weird. We learn all that about him early on in the film.”
Mark Chapman once claimed he was inspired by J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher In The Rye to shoot John Lennon. Is Cusack worried that The Raven might inspire some murderous nut in reality the way it does on screen?
“If the guy who shot John Lennon had been inspired by my work that would probably make me think about what I did, but I don’t think artists can or should ever censor themselves ever,” he says.
It a serious answer, and Cusack will always give one if asked. It’s why he was the perfect choice for the role.
The Raven opens nationwide on April 27.
Here's the trailer: