John Cusack: 'I like to take risks'

Actor John Cusack made his name in edgy, offbeat films and is known for his outspoken political views. So why is he starring in Sony's latest blockbuster?

I am waiting to enter John Cusack's London hotel room when I'm approached by a dainty blond ice pick of a woman. My heart sinks. Every journalist knows that being taken aside by an actor's personal publicist is Number Two on the official list of Things Likely To Spoil An Interview. (Number One is the non-appearance of the interviewee.) "I wanted to let you know that John prefers to concentrate on the later part of his career," she warns me. "I'll be sitting in with you, and if I sense his energy levels are dropping – like, if he starts giving short answers – I'll wind things up." How disappointing that an actor who projects an apparently laid-back persona needs an attack-dog at his heels.

You haven't truly been held at arm's length until you have tried to interview John Cusack. It's not that he is aloof; he displays all the surface signs of engagement, without quite making the leap to authentic friendliness. He has always been cool. His first lead role was in the 1985 comedy The Sure Thing, but it was as Lloyd Dobler, the emphatic and sincere romantic hero of hit teen film Say Anything, that he attracted something like idolatry. Since then he has gone from playing a commitment-phobic assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank, to the cheating music nut in High Fidelity, to the sleazy, weaselly puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, to the romantic lead in mainstream films like Serendipity. Yet ask him about his idiosyncratic choices and you'll get stock explanations about good business sense. Touch on anything in his personal life and you'll be stonewalled.

The 43-year-old Cusack springs out of his armchair to greet me. At 6ft 4in, there's a lot of him. He's wearing jeans, with a black jacket over a white T-shirt. His black hair is fluffy and a touch unruly, his long face Kabuki-white. He remembers correctly that we last met two years ago; it was in Berlin, where he was preparing to shoot the ambitious action movie Stopping Power. Only the film was never made. The budget fell through, and Cusack sued the production company for a claim of $5.6m based on a deal that guarantees full whack even if the camera never starts rolling. Funny that after missing out on one blockbuster, he signed up so quickly to another. 2012, the film he is here to promote, is an apocalyptic, CGI-heavy blockbuster from Roland Emmerich, the director of Independence Day; exactly the sort of project, in other words, that Cusack can usually be relied on not to make.

I wonder if he had some specific thirst to quench that could be met only with CGI and mass destruction. "I guess so," he shrugs. "Yeah. I dunno. Who knows?" The ice pick glances up from her BlackBerry. "It's sort of the way the business is. If you do one type of movie it makes it a lot easier to do other kinds of movie that you want to do. It's just reality." This is the Cusack line – there's no wheat without chaff, you have to do one for "them" and one for you. Or, in his case, you need to star in multiplex-clogging fluff such as Must Love Dogs or Serendipity to get the chance to make, say, Being John Malkovich. "But it's nice to get that call. 'It's Sony's big release of the year, you've got the lead role.' I thought, 'Why not?' "

When we last met, he was bemoaning the state of the industry: "The movies have got more corporate," he told me. "They're making fewer movies in general, and those they are making are all $200m-$300m tent-pole releases that eat up all the oxygen." Now he's starring in one. But these are lean times for Cusack. Three of his most recent movies (Grace Is Gone, Martian Child and his pet project, the political satire War, Inc) sank without trace in the US, and never opened in the UK. Whereas he once successfully alternated mainstream and personal projects, he is now doing fewer of the former, while the latter don't seem to be connecting with audiences as they once did.

When we meet, 2012 isn't yet finished but the 50 minutes screened to the press suggests that a work of striking originality may not be on the cards. Its starting point is the Mayan calendar's prediction that the world will end in three years' time, which is going to mean some serious upset for London's Olympic plans. On screen we witness what apocalypse entails: tidal waves, volcanos, perfectly decent actors delivering dialogue of excruciating tedium. Cusack plays a dishevelled author who is camping with his estranged children when disaster strikes. This is just a shot in the dark, but do you think the destruction of the planet will bring their broken family closer together?

He talks some more about 2012 – "It's alluding to, or exploiting, the zeitgeist of fear and paranoia in the world" – but his heart isn't in it. Change the subject to politics, however, and it's a different story. His faint voice grows louder and he leans forward. Like his longtime chum Tim Robbins, Cusack is one of Hollywood's campaigning liberals; he writes for the Huffington Post website, where he can also be seen in video clips interviewing Naomi Klein, the Shock Doctrine author who has since become a friend. In the run-up to last year's election, he recorded a commercial exposing John McCain's parity with George W Bush. Not that he's thrilled with the current administration.

"So far, there's been no transformation," he says. "The Democrats aren't changing things. The Wall Street guys are keeping their bonuses, and Obama isn't going to make any reforms unless he's prepared to piss off Wall Street. I'm hoping he's keeping his powder dry until he feels he can really strike – that he'll become as tough as he needs to be. It's a sad state in America right now. No accountability for Bush and Cheney's crimes, and those are slam-dunk felonies right there. No accountability for torture. Obama's escalated two wars, he hasn't dismantled the Bush/Cheney terror apparatus, and he's upholding Bush's precedent to hold people without charge. Jesus, I wouldn't want his job. But he wanted it. And we have to be honest about what he is or isn't doing. We have to be critical and hold Obama accountable. It's the most helpful thing we can do for him."

Cusack has always been passionate about politics. He is one of five children (his siblings include the effervescent actor Joan Cusack) who were raised in Evanston, Illinois, by Nancy, a teacher, and Dick, a writer, actor and socially conscious documentary maker; family friends included Philip and Daniel Berrigan, figureheads of the 1960s anti-war movement. "He had this exceptionally big, Irish heart," Cusack says of his father, who died in 2003. "He was so warm. The older I got, the more I appreciated him."

I ask when he realised the value of what his father did. "That's a good question," he says, tilting his head to one side. "I remember he had an office and a secretary down in Chicago, and he had his name on the door. And I have a memory of him having people over to the house, and they'd be talking about history or something, all these smart people sitting around discussing ideas and stuff. I was just a kid but I got this sense that there was this other world, this adult world, where people would talk about things that weren't really there. They weren't talking about dinner, or the piano. They were talking about some other thing."

The writer-producer-director Peter McCarthy, with whom Cusack made four films including the 1988 cult comedy Tapeheads, remembers the clan with fondness. "They were a very cool family. His mum and dad were righteous people, not in an evangelical sense but with their strong values, their kindness, and they infused their kids with that. They supported John unconditionally in his acting; they never treated it as some hobby. I wouldn't say he had a lot of confidence, but he always followed his heart. He would do the things that mattered to him." As a child, Cusack joined the Piven Theatre Workshop, run by Byrne Piven (father of Jeremy Piven, the Entourage regular and one of Cusack's closest friends). While in high school, he wrote and staged two plays that were screened on a local TV station; he notched up some commercials, and made his film debut in the 1983 sex comedy Class, starring Rob Lowe. He stayed within the approximate confines of the teen genre for a few years, but seemed quickly to realise it was inhibiting him.

"I think Tapeheads was a conscious step for John away from those teen movies," says McCarthy. The film featured Cusack and Robbins as enterprising motormouths trying to bust into the music-video business. "I remember John and Tim banging on my office door, full of energy. They came in and started improvising and riffing on the script, and it was so much fun. But what's remarkable about John is he has this grounded quality. He just hangs back there, he's so disciplined and focused as an actor; he never tries to steal anything."

I ask Cusack if he enjoys acting. "Sure," he says. Another shrug. "Depends on the film. I like to take risks. With acting, you wanna see if you can get into trouble without knowing how you're gonna get out of it. It's like the exact opposite of war, where you need an exit strategy. When you're acting, you should get all the way into trouble with no exit strategy, and have the cameras rolling."

He says he doesn't have much time for the tortured-artist side of his trade. "I probably believed in it a bit when I was younger. Actors are weird enough as it is. We don't need to act tortured. I'm probably tortured enough." I wonder if acting is merely a distraction for him these days, and it's the political writing that most exercises him. "Uh, I don't think so. Acting can be pretty challenging. I can't say making a romantic comedy is challenging, but to do anything well, you have to put yourself into it. But no, if I'm doing some commercial movie just to keep my name in the public eye, then it's just a job. You don't have to sweat it too hard."

When he mentions staying in the public eye, he means it on his own terms. For an actor of his stature and celebrity, Cusack is a virtual stranger to the gossip rags. Months or years after the fact, we might learn about those formerly special someones in his life (such as Minnie Driver, Neve Campbell, Claire Forlani and Alison Eastwood), but he is uncompromising on the matter of privacy, and solicits similar discretion from those around him.

I tell Cusack that nobody seems to have any dirt on him. "Oh, yes they do," he laughs ruefully. "I'm sure they do. Maybe they're just saving it all up to bury me." He has even offered advice to friends whom he thinks are dropping their guards, living their lives in public. "If I feel they're playing with the tiger too much, I'm like: don't go there. Don't get into it. That stuff only goes one way. If people are constantly reading about you, and you're overexposed, they've got no reason to go see your movies. Also, it's not pleasant or nice to have your privacy invaded."

I bring up the most explicit instance of this happening to him – when he was pestered by Emily Leatherman, a woman in her 30s who threw letters and packages into the grounds of his Malibu home. Last year, Leatherman was convicted of stalking Cusack and breaking a restraining order; she was given five years' probation, and ordered to avoid Cusack's homes and businesses for 10 years. "Oh, no, I didn't mean that," he protests. "I was referring to whatever way the intrusion might be manifested. You know, however those things happen. It's a bizarre world. We shouldn't care about what celebrities are doing. I don't read those magazines. I don't like to. Why do I wanna find out what all these celebrities are doing?"

As the publicist gestures for me to wind things up, I tell Cusack that the importance he places on privacy would seem to conflict with giving interviews. "I don't like doing them," he admits, stating the obvious somewhat. "If it was up to me, I'd just put the movies out there. Or maybe I'd do a couple – I'd think of some smart things to say so people think, 'Oh, he's cool.' It doesn't seem polite to try to be in the limelight more. I don't even know if I was invited in to begin with. I'm well aware that I might have worn out my welcome already."

• 2012 is released on 13 November.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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