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A chat with John Cusack of “The Raven”

The really fun part of setting up an interview with John Cusack is telling people about it and getting their reaction. The still boyish star of such classics like “Say Anything,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “The Grifters,” “Being John Malkovich,” and recent ‘plex-fare like “2012” and “Hot Tub Time Machine,” is one popular guy, and not only with women.

Now in his mid-40s, the former teen rom-com leading man is also something of a paradox in that he’s been able to keep the details of his private life private while also being unafraid of a little controversy. He maintains a direct connection with his fans via his well-known Twitter feed that often touches bluntly on his strongly left-of-center politics. We interviewed Mr. Cusack back in 2008 about his somewhat underrated satirical broadside, “War, Inc.,” and he makes some revealing comments about its production below. He has nevertheless avoided becoming a Sean Penn-style right wing whipping boy, though his recent election-year bashing of the Obama administration’s civil liberties failings on “CBS This Morning” attracted some attention from conservative outlets.

The fact of the matter is that Cusack, still best remembered by many as idealistic aspiring kickboxer Lloyd Dobler, is the closest thing modern audiences have to a Jimmy Stewart. He’s a low-key, yet charismatic and highly energetic actor who never seems to act at all. That’s high praise, but it does make him a slightly counterintuitive choice for the role of Edgar Allen Poe, the flamboyant, floridly romantic author who largely invented modern horror and crime fiction.

Directed by James McTeigue of “V for Vendetta,” “The Raven” has the master of the macabre trying to solve a “Se7en”-style killing spree inspired by his own stories. Critics have not been impressed by the film and the crowded opening weekend box office returns have been kind of dismal, but that won’t have been for any lack of effort on John Cusack’s part. The actor spent weeks promoting the film everywhere from “The View” to our humble selves. He did, however, take a moment to receive a very special Hollywood honor.

Bullz-Eye: It’s been a good day for you; you just got your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

JC: Yeah man, thanks.

BE: What’s that like at your relatively young age?

JC: I don’t know. I’ve never got one before so I don’t know. It was pretty surreal; pretty cool. I liked that I was right next to the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry. That was pretty cool.

BE: That is cool.

JC: I was right across from Musso and Frank’s, so I thought that was pretty damn cool. That’s such a great place. I’m also next to this great book store, so I’m well represented. I liked it.

BE: Speaking of books — a great segue there — I know that one of the reasons that you took on “The Raven” is it gave you an excuse to read up on Edgar Allan Poe. Why do you think he has remained kind of contemporary all of these years?

JC: I think he’s this classic sort of archetype for all of the shadow parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit out loud or you’re not supposed to admit in polite company or society. You know, all of these terrors and fears and phobias and anguishes and torments, and also this kind of grave, deep love of language and poetry. I think he’s a genuine genius and he spoke to the language of the subconscious and he was a great poet and artist. A great storyteller; a wild creator of different genres and hybrids of genres and mash-ups of genres. He was a pretty talented man, and he was also just wired way too tight, so it was a volatile mix.

BE: It’s interesting, when I mentioned on Facebook that I would be talking to you, I got a kind of unprecedented reaction from my friends.

JC: Oh yeah?

BE: They were very excited that I was going to talk to you.

JC: Oh cool. Tell them they can follow me on Twitter and they can talk to me directly.

BE: I think we’re mostly aware of that.

JC: Okay.

BE: Speaking of which, it kind of brings us back around to “The Raven” because the price of fame is a little bit the film’s theme. You’ve kind of done this interesting dance where you’ve never been turned into portmanteau word with another celebrity [a la “Brangelina”], yet you’re on Twitter and you’re very much in touch with people. Was an interest in sort of the up-and-down side of fame part of what got you involved in “The Raven”?

JC: No, I just really loved Poe so I was just ready to immerse myself in that guy and play around with all of the different themes of his work. Then, I [also] think there is a contemporary aspect to the ongoing sort of fixation and love affair with that writer. He’s got his hand in so much of culture, literature and films and music and fashion and poetry — not just in the United States, but in Europe as well. I was just interested in that. Fame was part of the theme, but not really; it wasn’t the primary theme.

BE: We know what Poe looked like, but we don’t know much about the way he talked. Now, I understand you’re going to be playing Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels’ next film, “The Butler.” Have you thought about the differences, that we all know what Nixon sounded like and moved like? That must be an interesting new challenge for you.

JC: Yeah, that just sort of happened so I haven’t really even thought about it too much.

BE: You haven’t been working on your Nixon impression?

JC: No. You try not to do an impression because if people want to see an impression they can see impressionists and they can also watch footage and documentaries and TV. [It’s] the same thing with Poe — you want to catch some essence of him or some truths about the person and you don’t really need to impersonate somebody or dress exactly like them. But if you can inhabit them and get in contact with some things about them that are true [that is enough]. You’re never going to do a definitive version of anybody because one book or movie or song couldn’t ever really encapsulate their entire life.

BE: This is going to sound like one kind of question, but it’s going to take a sharp left turn. I’m sure you’ve already been hearing a lot about your [widely quoted] statement on “The View” that you’d be open to playing Lloyd Dobler again….

JC: Oh right. Well, that’s mostly a media kind of thing, you know people keep asking about it so…that’s been basically a repeated media question from reporters.

BE: Right, but here’s the sharp left turn. What I thought was interesting about that was that you’re not, in theory, opposed to sequels. I’ve always wondered about this. [Before War, Inc. came out] it seemed like you were going to be doing Martin Q. Blank again [but the quasi-heroic assassin in the movie was actually named Brand Hauser, and was presumably a different guy].

JC: Well, we sort of were. That was sort of my unofficial sequel to “Grosse Point Blank.”

BE: So why didn’t you just call him “Martin Q. Blank”?

JC: Because we couldn’t get the rights and nobody wanted to let us do it. To a certain point, I just don’t believe in asking permission to make things; you just make them. So, if they weren’t going to let us make them or people weren’t into the idea of it, we just made that. I think smart people can make the connections. You know my sister [i.e., the great Joan Cusack] was the secretary [in both films] and it was a similar kind of vibe.

BE: I’ve always wondered about that. Okay.

JC: Yeah, that was definitely what we had in mind.

BE: You’ve written and produced several movies now. You’ve picked out some very good directors, people like George Armitage [“Grosse Pointe Blanke”] and Stephen Frears [“The Grifters” and “High Fidelity”]. Did you decide deliberately that you’re not going to direct something or are you thinking about doing that?

JC: Well, I sort of co-directed a bunch and directed “War, Inc.,” as it turned out, with the other guy [documentary director Joshua Seftel]. So I’ve done my share. I’ve directed stage. So yeah.

BE: Are you thinking about doing it again sometime?

JC: Yeah, it just takes so long, you know, it takes a year, year and a half, to do and it’s like you have to swim upstream like a deranged salmon. So, I think I’m just going to do some acting jobs and somewhere down the road, I will.

BE: You’ve been a martial artist; you studied with [legendary kickboxer and fight choreographer] Benny “the Jet” Urquidez. I’ve always been interested in how many really good actors there are out there who also are skilled at things like martial arts, ballet and sports. For you, is there any particular link between athleticism and acting?

JC: Yeah, it’s the momentum of sports. You have to be warmed up. You have to be disciplined. You have to try to experience all of your emotions and control them and control your energy, so there are lots of parallels.

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