HOLLYWOOD — The year 2012, according to the ancient Mayas, is the year Earth destructs and a new cycle of life begins. (The Aztec and other pre-Columbian American calendars also held a cyclical view of the universe, sort of a reincarnation of planets at the end of each eon). So leave it to Hollywood to craft a film titled “2012” in which our planet is destroyed and we vicariously experience the struggles of its few heroic survivors.
The survivors are led by John Cusack — as a researcher — who helps explain the transition from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius — the subject of a hit song in the 1960s Broadway musical “Hair.” What is unusual is that Cusack took on this genre project, directed and cowritten by Roland Emmerich and costarring Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet, George Segal, Danny Glover and Oliver Platt. After all, Cusack has famously turned down such commercial movies as “Apollo 13” (1995) and “Indecent Proposal” (1993; his role went to Woody Harrelson). So what lured him onboard “2012”?
“It’s not the usual formula,” he explains. “It brings in a lot of ideas, and it’s sort of cutting-edge about topics like the self-destructiveness of the human race and how we deal with forces we can’t control and with forces that we can control.”
Cusack says he’s partial — depending on the scripts, he insists — to characters experiencing something new and bewildering. For instance, he appeared in Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (1997) as a Yankee reporter in the South, covering a real-life scandal involving a black drag queen and a gay man of means (Kevin Spacey).
“When you’re in a new place or environment, or in extreme circumstances, that’s when your character has the chance to develop and evolve. And character evolution is, I think, crucial to good storytelling.”
Though Cusack’s background is as showbizzy as it gets, he’s renowned for shunning Hollywood fame and formulas. “I am basically anti-Establishment,” he’s been quoted as saying more than once, and he once stated his belief that his telephone was wire-tapped because of his public assertion that “(former U.S. President Ronald) Reagan used the (U.S.) Constitution as toilet paper.”
Asked if he would ever write a memoir, Cusack responds that a book on his very liberal though Irish Catholic family would be more interesting. Other than his mother, Nancy, a former mathematics teacher, all his immediate relatives are in showbiz. His father, Dick, is an actor and documentary filmmaker. Siblings Susie, Bill, Ann and Joan (the most famous, after John) are all actors. And Cusack attended a theater workshop run by his parents. He was born in 1966 in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and he’s been given an award for his loyalty to the Windy City.
“It’s no longer the nation’s second city (in population; Los Angeles is, now), but Chicago is very creative — was and is,” he says. “A lot of talent has come out of it, and it’s a very real place with a real sense of theater.”
In 1988, John founded The New Criminals, a Chicago-based theater group that performs political and avant-garde work that he sometimes produces and directs. He has not regularly churned out movies, like more ambitious actors.
“Acting is something I find very gratifying when the project is gratifying,” he explains. “I like entertainment as much as the next one, but when it’s mindless or exploitative, I’m not interested. I like something funny, I like something challenging, something offbeat, or a combination of all that.”
John was acting as a child, focusing on theater. He made his movie bow at 17 in “Class” in 1983, starring Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy, in which he was somewhat typecast as an introverted teen. We finally got his first really adult role in 1990 in “The Grifters,” in which he played the con-man son of con-woman Anjelica Huston. One of his more offbeat projects was “Being John Malkovich” (1999).
“One of the more interesting, or crazy, questions I’ve been asked was if there’d ever be a movie (called) ‘Being John Cusack,’ and whether I’d appear in it.”
Well? “You can’t go by a title,” he says, flatly.
Now that he’s in his mid 40s, has he ever considered shifting from acting to directing?
“You mean directing movies, like Eastwood? The thing about this business is that you never know what’s around the corner,” he says.
“It’s no use declaring yourself solely an actor or solely a director. Things are too interesting for that. You complain about lousy scripts; then out of the blue you get a terrific script. As an actor. Or a director. Or whatever. For the screen, for the stage. John Huston acted in between directing assignments, and sometimes you have to do a documentary.
“Different formats, yes, but the result should be interesting and . . . there’s nothing wrong with being thought- provoking. If you just read novels that never challenge you or watch movies that you forget the moment you leave the theater, what does it amount to? It’s really junk food for the mind.
“In my family, we’ve tried to go beyond that.”
So what will linger in audiences’ minds after seeing “2012”?
“Naturally, that depends on the individual, but we have to face the fact — or the situation — that our Earth, or rather, life on Earth, including the human species, is not indestructible. It’s not immortal, and we’ve been making some very bad choices, or our leaders have, and the corporations — I won’t say ‘our’ corporations, but somebody has to control them and rein them in, in the public interest — that could lead to dire circumstances for all our lives on Earth.
“There’s a whole genre of movies, going back to roughly the 1950s, to when the idea of the atomic age sank in, that have to do with cataclysms and end-of- the-world scenarios. Some of them are very thought-provoking, very intriguing. There are so many variations and answers to the question of that would you do if most everyone around you were dying or the Earth was being . . . destroyed. It can be fascinating to watch. Sort of like watching a traffic accident, but with the difference that this gives us food for thought as to what we should do — while there’s still time — to avoid bringing life on Earth to a standstill.
“But ‘2012’ is good entertainment. I think it’s well done, besides being an interesting concept. And in terms of the Mayan calendar, it is timely.”
In the film, the survivors have to contend with The Destroyer, also known as Wormwood, Planet X and Nibiru. Can Cusack elaborate on the plot?
“If it were a relationship film, you know, two or three characters, I could, but this is a suspenseful story and lots or most people don’t like to have it spoiled in any way . . . But I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”
As for the private John Cusack, he is very private indeed. He’s been linked with several actresses, but most of them were costars (a frequent publicity ploy in Hollywood). Most of his friends are not Hollywood figures, excepting TV star Jeremy Piven, with whom he’s made 10 movies. Cusack is also close to his family and is known to spend much of his time off work reading and writing. He also indulges in kickboxing with a stunt coordinator who oversees the sometimes dangerous sport.
“I’m not some fascinating movie-star character,” says Cusack. “I’ve never tried to be a famous personality. I do my work, I live my life. I have tried not to be a boring, predictable actor. I used to struggle against being pigeonholed, but in movies there’s always going to be some of that. In theater, there’s more range, more choice. I’m lucky to have a foot in each world.
“And, in view of (‘2012’), we’re all lucky to be living in a world of finite resources that can still support us, and while we have so many wonderful animal species with us — some of them just still barely with us. One thing that made me happy the other day was hearing about the snow leopard cubs that just made their debut at the zoo in Los Angeles. There are only four or five thousand snow leopards left in the wild in Asia. Such a beautiful creature, so tragically irreplaceable, as every species is, yet greed and stupidity are as we speak diminishing their numbers. Where will it end?
“Where will our Earth — its life, our lives on it — end? This movie ties in with that. I like that it’s not entirely fiction, or from a modern mind. It’s inspired by the Mayas, who once upon a time had a calendar more accurate than the one used in Christian Europe. The Mayas were a great civilization and a mysterious one, because so many of their great cities were abandoned overnight, and we don’t know why. Maybe if we found out why they disappeared, it would serve as a lesson to us.”