HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – “One of the negative things about the Internet,” actor John Cusack remarks when asked about rumors surrounding casting in his new film, “The Raven,” “is unnecessary information. Stuff that doesn’t serve any real purpose and can be detrimental to someone’s ego or … like I say, useless. Hopefully a good editor or writer knows what facts to use and which ones to pass by.”
The American star, who has appeared in more than 50 movies since the early 1980s, is referring obliquely to the actors with greater box-office cachet who were also sought for his role as the celebrated writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) in “The Raven.” His comment sounds halfway between a subtle warning and a plea. In any case, this production teams Cusack with relative newcomer Luke Evans as a young detective.
Fate may have won out in the end, though, as the plum role of the brilliant — yet ultimately doomed — American writer suits Cusack. Fully made up as Poe, his resemblance to pictures of the author, “the father of the detective story” via his pioneering novella “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is striking. For one thing, Cusack — who is of Irish origin — is also pale, black-haired and typically not a smiler.
Cusack himself was even startled by his resemblance to Poe, via his own physiognomy and the talent of the makeup artist.
“In some photos, I can see the fake hairline,” he says a bit ruefully. “We didn’t shave my hairline back. I guess we could … we should have.
“But what’s kind of amazing is how you can sometimes get to look almost exactly like a historical figure. That is, people we’ve seen in photographs or even paintings. Whereas if I tried to look, for a role, like some given movie star, that would be almost impossible. With Poe, it was uncanny.”
Looks are one thing, what could be more striking is whether or not Cusack identifies with the writer.
“The more you know about him, the more interesting he is,” Cusack says. “He had a surprisingly hard life, poor too. When his only novel (“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”; 1838) was published in America and England, it sold well in England but Poe got no royalties because the United States didn’t participate in the international copyright convention. Ironically, the novel didn’t sell well in his own country.
“The man knew tragedy intimately. He had a drinking problem, and his death is still a mystery as to how it happened, what he was doing, and what was done to him. And the woman he loved was a girl … in an era when it was more acceptable for a man to be in love with or marry a girl in her early teens. Sort of, in a way, Poe was just this side of a pedophile.”
“The Raven” is about a serial killer who patterns his murders after stories written by Poe, including “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Poe, who feels he is nearing the end of his life, agrees to cooperate with Det. Emmett Fields (Evans). The film is predictably gruesome and bloody, and most reviews haven’t been very complimentary. However, Cusack theorizes, “Maybe it’s because we’re treating Poe in a commercial way.
“The irony is, I don’t think he would have minded. Poe was commercially minded himself. He wanted to be rich and famous. He was poor and famous, but also infamous … he had a big ego, he felt he was owed more, always struggling. He had a lousy family life, growing up. Then he lived claustrophobically with his young wife and her mother.
“Of course the movie isn’t a strict biography. The usual poetic license … has been indulged in.”
“The Raven” — which is also the title of a poem by Poe — is directed by James McTeigue from a script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare. It costars Alice Eve as Poe’s fictional love interest, Emily Hamilton. Her father, played by Brendan Gleeson, initially disapproves of the penniless and often touchy writer. But eventually Poe shows he is willing to trade his life for Emily’s, once she falls into the murderer’s clutches.
Cusack has played his share of popular characters. He made his name in 1980s films such as “Sixteen Candles,” “Stand By Me” and “Say Anything.” He was a cult favorite in 1997’s “Grosse Pointe Blank” and 1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” and in 2009 he starred in the blockbuster “2012.” However, Cusack says he finds real-life characters particularly intriguing. In 2002, he appeared in “Max,” playing a Jewish artist who mentors a young, would-be painter named Adolf Hitler, whose lack of funds was a major reason he instead turned to political rabble-rousing.
“The intersection between reality and fiction is a fine line,” Cusack says. “A line that admittedly often gets trampled on. You feel, as an actor, the obligation to the historical character. That has to play off or against the commercial considerations of the director, writers and producer. It’s a noble struggle that I approve of.”
Cusack comes from a family of actors. The most notable are his sisters Joan and Ann. His father, Dick, was an actor before becoming a documentary filmmaker and his mother, Ann, is a former math teacher and political activist. John Cusack is also known for being politically outspoken. For almost four years, Cusack blogged on the news-aggregation website The Huffington Post, expressing, for instance, his opposition to the war in Iraq.
“It’s a good sign that you can now, as a citizen, express your opposition (to a given war),” he says. “When Jane Fonda did it, she was almost tarred and feathered.” How much of that had to do with sexism? “That’s true. Women’s dissenting opinions are less tolerated. I think today more people realize that opposing a government and its policy is not the same thing as being against your own country. Fortunately, administrations are temporary — unless a president’s son later becomes president himself, if you see what I mean.”
“The Raven” was shot mainly in Serbia. With Cusack being reputed as one of Hollywood’s more serious personalities, how did the actor find filming in Eastern Europe (Budapest was another location)?
“It’s another world,” he says. “It’s Europe. It’s also … a bit of a time warp. Like maybe where Western Europe was 30 or so years ago.”
Cusack feels that Eastern Europe’s history does weigh a little on the people who live there, a fact that many other travelers to those parts have also been quick to note.
“The countries’ situation was harder, and it shows in the people. Yeah. The thing I can’t figure is, if communism ended by the 1990s, what about young people who never lived under communism? … Maybe they mirror the hard lives and attitudes of their parents. All I know is, there are many fine individuals there, but it’s not the happiest part of the world.”
Regarding the film’s level of blood and gore, Cusack feels that most moviegoers will be forgiving and understand that it’s fake.
“Okay, you’ll see slit throats, that’s not pleasant,” he says. “But ‘The Raven’ is far short of killing dozens of individuals, which they do in so many action films. There aren’t all that many corpses. The murders are deliberately stylized, after Poe’s literary works, by somebody who obviously, and I guess overly, admires his … output. There have been, in reality, copycat murders. This picture is — I say picture on purpose, in a painterly way — an adventure. Not just in the murder-mystery genre, because you have to guess who’s the murderer, but it’s a journey back in art and in time to an equally difficult time, and a very difficult life. On one level, it’s kind of morbid, on another it’s rewarding and partly true. And I think Poe is one of the great characters.”
Cusack quickly follows his pitch with some romance: “It’s also a love story. I don’t want to sound like I’m advertising the movie — though that’s sort of what doing an interview about a movie is. But for me it was a unique experience — the role, the settings, the plot, the urgency of a man (Poe) near his own death helping to solve the murders of strangers, in part because of the responsibility and guilt he feels, since the killer is using Poe’s work as inspiration. When you read Poe’s stories, you really get a sense of the man’s morbidity and paranoia.”
Cusack ventures to guess just exactly where Poe’s morbidity came from. “Maybe his greatest tragedy was losing his mother when he was about 2,” he says. “She was an actress. His whole life would probably have been totally different, much happier, if she’d lived. Instead, death is Poe’s No. 1 theme. His body of work is so dark and gloomy, it seems to fit in with modern times. That may be why he’s still so popular and kind of relevant. But what it must have cost him to create those works … you can’t help feeling sorry for the man. And I can see, or feel, why he died young. I don’t think anyone could have lived and endured what he did — his personal demons and the unfairness of people and that era — and then lived to be 70 or 80. I think you get some sense of that in this movie. It isn’t just about a serial killer, really.”
“The Raven” opens in cinemas Oct. 12.