MOVIES : Between Sweet and Deadly : John Cusack’s made an acting career moving from good guys to rats, movies to theater, comedy to <i> noir</i> . It makes him hard to peg--and don’t ask him to help you figure it out.

<i> Michael Walker is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

An acquaintance of John Cusack’s from the Chicago theater scene, praising the 28-year-old actor as “a very centered art ist” and “an extraordinarily talented young man,” adds a caveat.

“Johnny,” says the acquaintance, likes to mix it up a bit, and predicts Cusack will arrive for this interview “just slightly inappropriately dressed, just slightly unshaven. There’s always that element of the pose. He’s a really strong character, and the character he plays is Johnny Cusack.”

No surprise, then, when Cusack ambles into his publicist’s office in Westwood sporting museum-quality grunge wear and perhaps two days’ stubble on his pale, expressive face. Unlike most movie actors, he’s bigger than he appears on screen--about 6-foot-2--and he moves with the rangy self-assurance of a basketball forward.

Yet no matter how amiable and fast-talking Cusack becomes once he is seated behind a table at a corner espresso bar, he remains ineluctably watchful. When asked, after a lengthy and informed disquisition about the film business, whether he is comfortable with his stature within it, he turns suddenly disingenuous. “I don’t know what it is,” he insists. When the question is put to him again, he just as suddenly answers with disarming candor. Score one for Johnny Cusack.


“He’ll bring a commitment to something that’ll be designed to push a button in you,” says Cameron Crowe, who directed Cusack in 1989’s “Say Anything . . . . " “He’ll be checking you out. He’ll want to know about your commitment.”

It’s the same unsettling ambivalence--the nice guy with the sharpened edge--that Cusack has honed to great effect on screen: as the small-time con squeezed by a manipulative girlfriend and his mother in “The Grifters” (1990); as the nakedly ambitious junior politician betraying his best friend in “True Colors” (1991); as the indomitable kick-boxer who defrosts the class valedictorian in “Say Anything . . . , " and as the skirt-chasing collegiate dignified by love in Rob Reiner’s “The Sure Thing,” the 1985 movie that lifted Cusack, then only 17 and a student at Evanston Township High School outside Chicago, into the serious-actor leagues after appearing in the likes of “Sixteen Candles” and “Class.”


The ease with which Cusack moves from light to dark, often in a single role, has endeared him to critics--Roger Ebert anointed him “one of the best actors of his generation"--and to thinking-man’s directors like Crowe, Stephen Frears (“The Grifters”), John Sayles (1988’s “Eight Men Out”) and Woody Allen, who cast the dumbfounded Cu sack in a small but pivotal part in 1992’s “Shadows and Fog.”


“Some actors have a particular personality the audience likes,” says Allen’s casting director, Juliette Taylor. “John rides a certain line. People love to watch him--he’s cute and sweet--but he can play dangerous. His persona isn’t so identifiable that he’s pegged with a certain personality. He has a big range.”

Now, after last year’s diffidently received “Money for Nothing,” Cusack is back with two highly anticipated comedies: “The Road to Wellville,” Alan Parker’s adaptation of the T. Coraghessan Boyle novel, in which Cusack plays an embattled would-be corn-flake magnate, and the lead in Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” which opens Friday, as a pompously idealistic playwright beset by gangsters, armchair socialists and an uninvited collaborator.

“He’s my kind of actor,” says the newly press-friendly Allen, who was impressed enough after “taking a chance” with Cusack on “Shadows and Fog” to cast him in the far more demanding “Bullets Over Broadway.” Cusack, says the director, “is an attractive young man and athletic, so he’s got good physical presence. But he’s intelligent, and he projects that intelligence on screen. More important than anything, when he does a character he sounds like a real human being, not an actor doing lines.”

Cusack pointedly approached both Allen projects with a workmanlike attitude. “I’m pretty pragmatic about how you need to work, and you can’t really work with someone if you put them on a pedestal. I had to tell myself: There’s obviously a reason I’m working for the guy. You can’t think, either I’m worthy or I’m not. You just gotta go do it. Otherwise you start editing your instincts. So I saved that for before and after--I was all freaked out.”

Given Allen’s minimalist directing style and willingness to let actors improvise, Cusack says, “You have this great, strange combination: the best script you’ve ever worked on, and a guy allowing you to do whatever you want. For a while, you don’t take him at his word, and then you go, ‘The guy said do what you want. I better start improvising a little bit.’ ”

Allen, clearly, was pleased. “If I’m having problems with a scene, he can use his ingenuity to correct it. I trust his improvisational ability. He stays with the character. It’s never an artificial stretch or anything.”

Famous for turning down putatively attractive roles--he spurned offers to appear in “Indecent Proposal,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Sleeping With the Enemy"--Cusack began guarding his resume after narrowly escaping being typecast as a genial teen. “I knew I wouldn’t have longevity if I didn’t make smart choices,” he says.

Even after Cusack portrayed White Sox third baseman Buck Weaver in “Eight Men Out” with the unimpeachably classy Sayles, Crowe had to fly to Chicago to convince the skeptical actor that “Say Anything . . . , " now regarded as one of his best performances, “wouldn’t be a zany high school movie. When I hooked up with him, he didn’t want to be the guy who carried the weight of charm on his back anymore,” Crowe says.


Having proved his mettle with demanding dramatic material like “The Grifters,” Cusack is edging back toward comedies. “I’m ready to be funny again,” Crowe says Cusack told him.

“I want to do comedies because you’re much lighter of spirit,” Cusack says. “You spend all your days sort of having a nice distance on yourself and the human process. When I was doing ‘The Grifters,’ Anjelica (Huston) and I used to come off the set and have a tequila and go ‘ whoooo! ' because we spent all day being really nasty. We really freaked each other out.”

A hit comedy could also provide Cusack, now closing in on his 30s, with the opportunity to establish himself as a leading man who can open a mainstream film. As for now, he admits, “There is a group of projects that I’m excluded from based on box-office viability.

“There was talk of my doing a movie with a big director. He really wanted me to do it and I would love to work with him. But I can understand pragmatically why a producer, who is putting up $40 million for a very serious film, says, ‘We gotta get somebody like Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise that can guarantee us some money on our investments.’ (But) I’m doing some movies now that might be able to cross over, that are smart but also subversive and, maybe, commercial.”

In July, Cusack signed on to co-star with Al Pacino in “City Hall,” a thriller now in rehearsal in New York, and he will executive produce and star in “Grosse Point Blank,” a dark comedy he co-wrote about a hit man attending his high school reunion.

“I do think in the last couple of years he’s changed into wanting to have the Tom Hanks mantle,” says Crowe. “I don’t think in a million years he’d want to be Tom Cruise. But Tom Hanks is pretty appealing to him.”

The fourth of five siblings (older sister Joan was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for 1988’s “Working Girl”), raised by an Emmy-winning documentary-filmmaker father, Richard, and educator mother, Nancy, Cusack was a reluctant student--"every day I wasn’t in high school was a day above water for me.”

At age 9, he was performing with his brothers and sisters at Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop, run by family friends Joyce and Byrne Piven. (Their son, actor Jeremy Piven, remains one of Cusack’s close friends and appeared with him in “Say Anything . . . " and “The Grifters.”) Along with his parents’ left-leaning politics, Cusack would be profoundly influenced by the Pivens’ teachings.


“What’s so great about them is that, at a very early age, they teach you to guard your instincts,” he says. “Like, what makes you your most interesting and successful, not only as an actor but as a person. It’s your opinion, how you see the world. There’s a great validation of each individual, that they should guard and harness and protect their instincts. Because that’s all you’ve got, really.”

Itching to get into movies, and noting that several were set to film in Chicago, Cusack corralled an audition and, at 16, was cast opposite Rob Lowe in “Class.” Within three years he had appeared in eight films, although pearls such as Reiner’s “The Sure Thing” were outnumbered by swinish teen drivel such as “One Crazy Summer.” As his film career took off, Cusack maintained his Chicago roots, founding the New Criminals theater group, where he produced and directed raucous commedia dell’arte performances that included an interpretation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

“I’d always wanted to get the Fishbone crowd into the theater,” Cusack says. “And we did. We got a much younger demographic, the people who went to the clubs and bars.” For one production, he handed out chainsaws to the cast as opening-night gifts; one actor used his to literally cut his way onstage. Cusack approved. “When it comes to theater, I’m an adrenaline junkie. I want an event that challenges my imagination and makes my heart race.”

Cusack got both when he journeyed to Thompson’s lair outside Aspen, Colo., to woo the fabled gonzo journalist into allowing the production of “Fear and Loathing.”

“He said, ‘Come on out--we’ll talk about the script if you have money. But on the weekend there will be games.’ ” Ten minutes into the visit, Thompson had Cusack and fellow New Criminals “chipping golf balls off his front porch and blowing them apart with shotguns with whiskey in our heads.”

Later, at the Woody Creek tavern, a “big burly guy” impolitely asked Cusack what he was doing there. “And I said, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing here?’ I didn’t quite know what was going on, but Hunter goes, ‘You passed the test!’ Which was lucky, because otherwise I might have gotten stomped.”

More recently, Cusack has shifted his home base to Los Angeles, even though, he confesses, he still can’t find his way around town. He’s given up his Chicago digs and lives in a beachfront house in Malibu.

“I’ve got a lot of friendships here,” he says, “and a lot of my friends in Chicago theater want to come here. I would encourage them, too, because there are so many people getting well-paid who are sort of mediocre. Two or three moves through the hoop and they’re getting millions.”

Having noted that studios “aren’t interested in making anything, for the most part, with ideas or substance,” the star of “Hot Pursuit” wants to develop his own films. “It’s sort of a selfish instinct--I’m just trying to make stuff that I would be excited to work in. The worst thing is to wait around and be at the whim of directors and producers who want you to do their things, who might not have anything to say about your character but, since they’re in a position of power, you’ve gotta work with them for six months. Why not just do it yourself?”

Along with “Grosse Point Blank,” Cusack is developing a movie about the NFL for former Warner Bros. chief John Calley, now head of United Artists.

“I want to get into football’s sort of punishment-ritual bone-crunching,” Cusack says, his voice rising. “It’s connected, I think, to the whole manifest destiny, the giving up of self for the good of the team, the preparing people for a bureaucratic company life. Somehow, it’s a great tie-in to the American dream.”

And so Cusack, himself a pretty good tie-in to the American dream, soldiers on--even if, as one of his hometown associates points out, “There will never be anything that changes the fact that he is a white boy from a privileged suburb of Chicago, and he wants desperately not to be that.” Still, with minimal compromises, he’s nabbed a house on the beach, nuzzled Annette Bening on-screen, chucked a football between takes with Woody Allen, and begun to transform his table-pounding philosophies into movie scripts while maintaining the wardrobe and shaving schedule of a bass player.

“An actor,” Cusack declares, “should be a punk in the best way. It should be a full-on expression of self, y’know? Only without the broken bottles.”