2018 Film Essays

You Gotta Act: John Cusack’s Passionate and Pragmatic Approach to His Craft

“You Gotta Act” is a Vague Visages column on acting by Manuela Lazic.

When asked to define what the craft they teach really is all about, acting instructors will often tell you that, simply, “acting is doing.” A performer is never fully static and gets to be truthful, or natural, when he or she focuses their attention on the scene’s physical reality, and reacts to it through the filter of an emotional state, like you and I react to the world around us every day. This elementary definition could be extended to the acting profession as a whole: acting is doing what an actor does, which is being in films. John Cusack seems to have followed this approach throughout his 35-year film career. With over 80 films under his belt, the Illinois-born actor (who just turned 52) has always kept busy, even if this has often meant appearing in less than impressive films. And given the rather poor visibility of many of his weaker movies, Cusack clearly isn’t in it only for the money. Maybe he’s just doing it to do it — maybe he’s just acting.

Throughout such a long and rich career, Cusack has had the chance — and, clearly, the will — to do a lot of different things. While younger cinema-goers may only see him as the wild, strange-looking star of B-movies who also gets passionately political on Twitter, those who witnessed his early days may still struggle to shake off the roles of sweet and kind boys that first made him a star. Looking at Cusack’s entire body of work helps one realise that, with age and experience, he has built an increasingly complex and multifaceted persona, playing off his image in order to counter expectations and, probably, to remain excited by his job.

The Cusacks are an artistic family, with John’s father Richard as well as his siblings Joan, Ann, Bill and Susie having all worked as actors. It therefore wasn’t that surprising for John to start appearing in films as a teenager, starting off with a small part in the comedy Class (1983) and another in the classic John Hughes coming-of-age film Sixteen Candles the following year.

Yet Cusack only started to fully sink his teeth into the teen genre in 1985, with a lead role in the underrated, hilarious and touching Rob Reiner film The Sure Thing. In a moment when teenagers were finally seeing themselves represented on screen — in comedies and horror films — Cusack played Walter, a smart but typically self-involved college freshman. Depressed by the poor romantic prospects that his Ivy League university presents, Walter decides to visit his friend Lance (the ever-amazing Anthony Edwards, pre-Top Gun) in California during winter break, where Lance promises him a beautiful and willing girl, a “sure thing.” But of course, the journey is the destination: Walter finds himself travelling cross country with Alison (Daphne Zuniga), a preppy and very well behaved girl going to California to see her preppy and very well behaved boyfriend. Cusack nails the easy-going attitude of the egotistical Walter, but avoids caricature by making his longing seem genuine. Reiner, working from a brilliant script by Steven L. Bloom and Jonathan Roberts, understands that teenagers are no doubt ridiculous, worrying too much about the future and their image when they should cherish their younger years and their safety from real world matters. Yet these concerns are nevertheless the very signs of young people’s growth and are worth taking seriously. Walter may be slightly selfish and may seem superficial in his pursuit of sex, but he simply doesn’t know much about women, romance and the world at large. Of course, the same can be said of Alison: she conceals her anxieties behind a well-arranged life, but is hungry for experiences and knowledge, too. When Walter literally gets the girl of his dreams in Reiner’s fantasy sequences, Cusack plays him with the perfect balance of satisfaction, wide-eyed wonder and fear.

Walter and Alison’s road trip is as tumultuous as their relationship, and helps them figure out what they really want — who they want to be. The premise of pairing two teens who don’t know and are not (at first) at all interested in impressing each other allows for unusual behaviour, and thus great and deeply affecting acting. As Walter grows fond of Alison, Cusack gets to explore a wide range of emotions from irreverence to shyness. When Alison angrily decides to hitch a ride alone with a creepy driver, Walter suddenly appears and puts on a maniac’s act to scare the man away. This total abandonment is hard to describe in words and seems to blow up the frame with its weirdness. But in Walter and Alison’s context of head-first immersion in the unknown, with only each other to rely on, it shows how the young man embraces the freedom to be himself that he has found on this trip and near his chance partner.

It’s interesting, if not entirely surprising, that this more complex role, where Cusack gets to be both cocky and tender, isn’t the one that most people remember from the actor’s early days. Understandably, his uncompromised kindness in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… (1989) is more widely cherished. Yet many of his later parts in adulthood saw him play much darker characters, from losers and has-beens to murderers, closer to the selfish and sexist Walter at the beginning of The Sure Thing than to Say Anything…’s perfectly adorable Lloyd Dobler. Perhaps these more sinister parts wouldn’t have happened without Lloyd, however, for this role not only made Cusack a star, it also granted him a seemingly unshakable good boy image against which he would come to play.

Lloyd Dobler is a typical Cameron Crowe character: a fantasy version of a young American male whose boundless generosity would seem caricatured if he weren’t also so weirdly spontaneous. Through Lloyd’s constant hyper-engagement with his surroundings, Cusack channels both the madness Walter let out in that hitchhiking scene from The Sure Thing, and the genteel aspirational big brother Denny he played in Reiner’s 1986 masterpiece Stand By Me. During his car ride, Walter learns to appreciate the fleetingness of life, an idea that weighs heavily on Denny’s brother since his premature passing. To use common 2018 parlance, these young men know how to live in the moment (which, by the by, is another definition of acting), so much so for Lloyd that he has no idea what his plan will be once high school is over. When he finally gets the courage to invite the beautiful and smart Diane Court (Ione Skye) on a date on graduation day, he decides that spending time with her will be his sole occupation, until she leaves for college in the UK.

Ironically, it is precisely Lloyd’s impulsiveness and earnest kindness — generally understood to be great qualities — that make him seem suspicious in the eyes of Diane, but especially in those of her father (the wonderful John Mahoney). For the spectator, however, Crowe makes clear that Lloyd gets his vigor from his overthinking brain: it isn’t that he never doubts himself, isn’t ever afraid, or just goes after whatever it is he wants at any given moment, but rather that he has understood that fear can only be surmounted by being fully embraced. This is why he doesn’t seem creepy when he holds that blaring boombox in the early hours of the morning below Diane’s window. Perhaps this is also why he rightly predicts, in 1989, that kickboxing will be the “sport of the future.” As the couple faces its uncertain future in the film’s closing moments, a frightened Diane asks, “Nobody thinks it will work, do they?” and Lloyd replies “No. You just described every great success story.”

Either heartbreaking or hilarious–– depending on your mood — would be to imagine Lloyd Dobler eventually leaving Diane, moving to Los Angeles, never deciding on a career and becoming a low-level robber, relying on his charisma to quietly scam people and make ends meet. This young man would be Roy Dillon, one of the titular Grifters of Stephen Frears’ 1990 film and the first of Cusack’s series of dark roles in the 1990s. Roy is as fucked up as Lloyd was decent and as paranoid as Walter was enthusiastic. Based on a 1963 pulp novel by the misanthropic Jim Thompson, The Grifters presents capitalist society as the root of all evil and a disease that spreads through families, which, once infected, can no longer be the idyllic domestic units they were once at least supposed to be. Roy finds solace neither in romance with Myra (a sexually explicit Annette Bening) nor in his mother Lilly (an unusually and captivatingly frightened Anjelica Huston), and unlike Cusack’s previous heroes, he is constantly running away from the present and terrified by whatever might come next. Cusack turns inwards for most of the film, his still youthful face stern like that of an older man because Roy is already disillusioned about life. When he livens up and resembles Lloyd Dobler, it is only to fool people, attentively following their eyelines to distract them from the loaded dice in his hand, and putting on a deceptively generous smile. Seeing Cusack not chivalrously pursuing women but coming at them with aggression is a disturbing sight that, at 24, the actor must have been aware of and perhaps seeking. The film itself struggles to depart from its novelistic origins, but for Cusack, it was a pivotal moment, moving away from teen comedies and towards other horizons. His longevity in the industry may be explained by this early willingness to take risks and avoid typecasting, especially since by the early 1990s, the teen comedy cycle that made him a star was mostly over.

In a July 2013 interview with The Guardian, Cusack explained that he felt lucky to have had his midlife crisis at the early age of 24 — around the time of The Grifters: “I was hot and then later in the month I was the next best thing and then I was cold. And then I got hot again — and you realise you can’t take any of it seriously. You have to just find your way and try to have an authentic voice, and so it was very helpful in a weird way to have it all happen to me very young and survive.” Indeed, the films that followed allowed the young man to explore stranger and often more sinister characters, but were not the most successful of Cusack’s career. He played a seedy law student against another bizarre actor of his generation, the great James Spader, in 1991’s True Colors; he was an eyepatch-wearing weirdo in the 1992 road movie Roadside Prophets and cameoed in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player that same year. He found a more interesting role in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway in 1994, playing a struggling and morally conflicted playwright having to accommodate some mobsters in order to find success — a metaphorical stand-in for Allen himself. The nice boy had grown into a disappointing or even malevolent 20-something man.

Cusack’s big return came in 1997, when he went even further in his striving for independence and unusual roles. With school friend writer Steve Pink, he set up New Crime Productions, with which he created Grosse Pointe Blank, an unclassifiable action comedy romance directed by George Armitage that has inspired many (Bill Hader’s 2018 TV show Barry, to cite one clear example) and feels prescient of the contemporary tendency for meta and genre-bending cinema. Cusack both co-wrote the film and starred as professional hitman Martin Blank (interestingly, Hader’s hitman-turning-actor calls himself Barry Block — in America, both “blank” and “block” mean “hitman”), who struggles with his conscience and, on his psychiatrist’s advice, takes the opportunity of a job in Grosse Pointe, Michigan to attend his 10-year high school reunion party. Rekindling with his girlfriend from the time Debi (Minnie Driver) makes Martin face his failures: he abandoned her on prom night to join the army, but he also gave up on his family and himself (he is a true Blank). Martin is attacked from all sides — by his past, but also by fellow hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) who wants him to join his assassins union, and by Felix LaPubelle (Benny Urquidez, a former competitive martial arts fighter who first became Cusack’s kickboxing coach on the set of Say Anything…and continued to train him for many years), a hitman sent to punish Martin for a botched hit.

With Grosse Pointe Blank, Cusack got himself a role to honour all his varied skills and his particular taste for the unsettling: dry humour paired with tenderness, brutal killings and romance, kickboxing and witty conversations, hope in the face of betrayal and disenchantment, and even pop music, as Debi has become a radio DJ. This musical touch predicted Cusack’s record store clerk and music obsessed character in his production company’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in 2000, but so did the emotional complexity of the entirety of Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s no wonder that these two films remain to this day Cusack’s most impressive work as actor, screenwriter and producer.

The years between those two successes weren’t the most exciting period for Cusack, except for his turn in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich in 1999. Between his everydayness and growing tendency to play men riddled by self-hatred, Cusack was the ideal actor to portray Craig Schwartz, the puppeteer who uses and soon abuses a portal that leads into movie star John Malkovich’s head. This disappearance behind puppets, then into the body of another person, meant that Cusack didn’t get as much recognition as the titular and actual Malkovich: he was self-effacing even as the film’s lead. With their exceptionally strong female characters and excellent performances, Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener also got more accolades than Cusack. This underdog role nevertheless let the actor tug at his veil of niceness more than ever before, and with High Fidelity the following year, he would do so even more impressively, while this time putting all the spotlight back on himself.

The virtues of High Fidelity the film are many and Cusack made bold decisions on the producing, screenwriting and acting fronts. Even though the London location is crucial to Hornby’s story of pop music obsession and romantic doubt, Cusack relocated the story to the city where he himself grew up, Chicago, and created a genuine sense of place with his locations (including the central record store) and his relaxed performance. More impressive still is how, in order to communicate the internal ruminations of Rob Gordon, Cusack continuously breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera with his self-involved and often questionable remarks about himself, women and the world. The actor’s process is often summarised with the motto “acting is reacting,” implying that a performer needs another to interact with another to generate and reflect back real emotions. Where Rob’s confrontational confessions could have made the spectator way too uncomfortable, Cusack manages to make them convincing and even entertaining by perceiving the camera as his mirror: rather than talking to no one, he is talking to himself and reacting to his own words. Cusack’s acting talent is nowhere as evident as when Rob lists to the camera the top five things he misses about his latest ex-girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) and fluctuates between shy vulnerability and irritation at his own melancholy; for once, he struggles to even look at the camera, because that would be like acknowledging his own sad self.

One way to look at High Fidelity is as a spiritual sequel to Say Anything… one that rewrites Crowe’s happy ending in multiple and more realistic directions. Hornby’s novel satirizes the idea of teenage true love, and Cusack’s self-absorbed, overgrown teenager — still making mixtapes for college-age girls, like an older, sadder Lloyd Dobler — both spoofs and complicates his 80s persona. In the end, Rob grows up just enough that we can like and admire him while hoping that he might mature even further. For Cusack, though, the part was a peak — at 35, he’d found the perfect role by helping to create it himself.

Finding more parts allowing an aging Hollywood star to keep exploring his more unlikable side was bound to be difficult. Although Cusack managed to stay busy — he kept acting and doing — most of his films between 2000 and 2014 are better forgotten, with a few bizarre and interesting exceptions revealing his striving for original and unlikely work. The excellent chemistry that Cusack has with a Kate Beckinsale at the top of her game helps sell the ludicrous premise of the romantic comedy Serendipity (2001); the 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1408 is deeply unsettling and sees Cusack successfully setting foot in the horror genre, bringing to it his older body and getting his now classic self-hatred substantiated by a new sense of loss (his character is haunted by the death of his daughter). The early 2010s saw Cusack take an extreme turn for the unlikable with some fully disturbing roles. His infamous scene of sexual tension with Nicole Kidman in the entertaining but awful film The Paperboy (2012) announced his incestuous and violent masseur in David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars in 2014.

That same year, a truly complex part allowed Cusack to solidify his new place in the industry while tying the loop of his earliest interests. In Love & Mercy, he played the aging pop music legend Brian Wilson who, in the 1980s, was experiencing growing mental distress and suffering the abuse of his psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), but also falling in love with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The Beach Boys frontman is also portrayed by Paul Dano as the extremely ambitious young man about to craft Pet Sounds, one of the greatest albums of all time, in the 1960s. Seeing Cusack sharing the bill with an actor of the new generation while playing a man who essentially struggled to grow up and live outside his own head, where all his music was, is a powerful culmination for the actor. No longer holding up the boombox nor deluding himself with the idea that “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… books, records, films — these things matter,” Cusack turns this loss into a moving portrait of aging and the artist’s struggle to reconcile his creativity with reality — which seems to be both Wilson’s and his own fight.

Cusack’s roles since Love & Mercy haven’t been as gratifying, with only his appearance in Spike Lee’s 2015 film Chi-Raq to be worthy of serious consideration. He played Father Mike Corridan, a white priest in a black neighborhood of his beloved hometown and forever place of residence Chicago, as gang violence pushed the women of the community to refuse sexual intercourse with their partners until they stopped killing each other. His impassioned speech in the film, as well as his public denunciation of gun laws and shootings multiplying across America at the time (and still today) marked his continued commitment to both politics and cinema, as well as his relentless independence. All the terrible straight-to-DVD films Cusack has made throughout his career are not indicative of a moral compromise, but rather indicate a pragmatic understanding of Hollywood’s creative limitations and an endless hunger for acting — even if his Top Five performances might be behind him.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.