A Tower of Self-Control

Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

The valet and the doorman are talking about the actor who just walked by.

“You know who that was?”

“Yeah, that was, uh, I know I’ve seen him.”



“It was him.”

It was him, as it often is in Los Angeles, a tall somebody, early 30s, with dark hair and pale complexion, more than plain but less than preening. It was, in fact, John Cusack, a somebody to anybody who follows movies closely or just gets out now and then to see one of the really good ones he’s made. And today in Santa Monica, Cusack is dressed not unlike Lloyd Dobler, the uncorrupted and ungroomed hero of “Say Anything,” the original romantic comedy that secured a place for him in Hollywood 10 years ago.

Lloyd’s uniform consisted of a long tan overcoat, worn over a T-shirt and reaching down nearly to his high-top sneakers, and that would describe what Cusack is wearing on this blustery March afternoon, only, unlike Lloyd’s, his overcoat is dark and looks like it might have once been pressed.

Film actors tend to be smaller in person than they appear on the screen (“Sylvester Stallone, he’s so short!”). Cusack, at 6 feet 3, is bigger. Like many of the characters he has played, he is accessible to a stranger, proud but unassuming. He wears his fame, like his clothes, in his own singular style.


Inside the hotel bar, deserted at this hour, he orders a big bottle of mineral water and leaves his coat on. “A real movie star is somebody that you just want to have dinner with,” he says, grappling with the public fascination with actors, a fascination shared sometimes even by other actors. “You see something in them that you’re curious about and you want to sort of figure them out.

“But I feel like you can know a lot about a person from their art. I don’t think you can know the entire person, and I think you can see somebody who can be a wonderful artist who you don’t respect in their personal behavior. But I think you can know something about their intrinsic qualities. I think if you can give a good performance, the well you are drawing from is yourself. You have to have some of that stuff.”

Ranked somewhere below the Toms (Hanks and Cruise) in marquee value, too old to be a teen star, too cerebral to be an action hero, Cusack soldiers on, saluted by discerning reviewers and a widening cult of fans, building a career aimed not so much at stardom as personal satisfaction in the stories he is getting to tell on screen. A few years ago, a movie magazine accused him of not living up to his potential in the Panavision race for fame and bond-issuing wealth, faulting him for passing up the chance to be in the hits “Indecent Proposal” and “Sleeping With the Enemy.”

His admirers are just as likely to say he made the right decision. As is he.

“I’ve seen things that I’ve turned down or wasn’t offered that were very successful movies at the box office,” he says, “but I saw them and didn’t like them. I’m at peace with what my tastes are. How much money do you need? I don’t collect cars.”

He did appear in producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s exploding jailbreak cartoon “Con Air” in 1997, for which he offers no apologies (“I’m not going to defend it, it’s the kind of movie that it is”). But “Con Air” is the exception in a career that at age 32 has included leading roles in such smaller-scaled pictures as “The Grifters,” “Eight Men Out,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “City Hall.” Later this year he will be seen in two other offbeat films, “The Cradle Will Rock” and “Being John Malkovich.”

Cusack’s newest film, “Pushing Tin,” a comedy-drama about air traffic controllers directed by Mike Newell, opens Friday, and he’s also visible this month on HBO as the star of “The Jack Bull,” a nontraditional western directed by John Badham that Cusack produced.

In many of his films Cusack plays characters both edgy and nice, pumped up yet laid back at the same time.


“People say that I have a persona in film, but I don’t know what it is. They say, ‘Yeah, you know, you do this thing.’ But I don’t know what that is.”

“The thing that I love most about John’s acting,” says Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed “Say Anything” (and “Jerry Maguire”), “is when he lights up with the idea he’s presenting in the film. He just lights up! He has a burst of passion and energy that’s like nobody else. And it’s funny.”


Newell, the British director of “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Enchanted April,” and “Donnie Brasco,” says that Cusack is “prepared to be engaged.”

“He’s one of the most gifted actors I’ve ever worked with--as opposed to a star. The difference is that stars can’t be someone else. They cruise like some iron-plated warship through other people’s plans for them. John likes to sit on the floor during setups gabbing with the crew, and what I think he’s doing is simply sizing up what the opportunities are, rather than cutting himself off and being resplendent in his trailer.”

In “Pushing Tin,” Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play dueling air traffic controllers contending with stress and marital infidelity in the nation’s busiest airspace around New York City. With Thornton cast as a blissed-out Zen head-case who has conquered the stress of the job by giving up his rage for control and domination, Cusack is the one who forces a rivalry, addicted as he is to the regimen of adrenaline-fueled macho performance with thousands of lives at stake.

The scenes in the air traffic control center are notable for the intense, rapid-fire code the controllers speak, employing staccato cadences that suggest the sound of old-school Top 40 radio disc jockeys barking esoteric vector lingo. You wonder what sort of special preparation was required to master these speeches.

“You want me to show you how I prepared for it?” Cusack says. He motions to a waitress. “Ma’am. Could I get a cup of coffee? Make that a double espresso.” In a word, caffeine.


“When I get worked up, I can talk pretty fast, but trying to memorize all that stuff was like trying to memorize Sanskrit or something. The volume and the density of it were so insane. One day on the set I asked Billy Bob, I said, ‘Did you get all that stuff memorized?’ He said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ So we were printing them up and taping them to the [radar] screens because it was almost impossible to do it otherwise. I probably shouldn’t say it, but we did a few ‘Marlon Brandos’ there. You know Brando used to do that supposedly, tape his lines to a wall, read them and talk.”

Cusack’s character, Nick Falzone, loses his grip on his marriage--Australian Oscar-nominee Cate Blanchett does an amazing impersonation of a Long Island housewife--and his job when he falls into bed with Thornton’s wife, played by Angeline Jolie.

“I wanted the guy--however much a control freak he might be, leader of the pack--to also have a forgivable quality,” says Newell. “And John has that. He’s very cocky, high-maintenance, doesn’t apologize. But he has an innocence and warmth as well. I lost my temper with him once during a dubbing session when he questioned something I’d done, and he turned around and said, ‘Oh, tough old boy, are you?’

“There’s a tremendous brash self-assurance there. With some actors it would have felt callous or vindictive, but not with John. He’s very Irish but sunny at the same time.”

Myrl Redding, the character Cusack plays in “The Jack Bull,” is from another time and place and preoccupation: a simple horse trader in the Wyoming territory whose ill treatment by a neighboring cattle baron provokes in him a febrile and tragic pursuit of justice.

The film was written by Cusack’s father, Dick Cusack, a sometime actor, documentary filmmaker and former advertising man who, along with his wife, gave his four children--including Cusack’s sister Joan with whom he acted in “Say Anything” and “Grosse Pointe Blank"--an abiding interest in the arts and anti-establishment politics as they were growing up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.

Technically “The Jack Bull” is a western, but it bears little resemblance to the ordinary Hollywood horse opera while daring a rough emotional conclusion that was an obstacle to getting it made as a feature. “We saw it as more of a morality play that happened to be set in the West,” Cusack says. “We never had any doubts about how the film would end because I thought it was a beautifully written piece. The themes and theology made it essential that he had to sacrifice himself for the higher ideal that he was fighting for.”

It doesn’t hurt that Bob Dylan agreed to give them the song “Ring Them Bells” as a closer after seeing a rough cut. “That’s kind of all the critics I need,” Cusack says.

“He may not be a hero,” Cusack says about Redding, “but he’s heroic. And I think it’s acceptable for some people to see it as a tragedy about a guy who just took it too far. . . . There are some people that just don’t have it in them to roll over. And I can relate to that. I have similar tendencies that way. I think that’s why I responded to it. Rosa Parks said she wouldn’t go to the back of the bus.”

It is a performance that could be described as brave, dirty, soulful and, in the end, haunting--possibly among his most memorable. This is his first time acting on television. The show premiered Saturday and will be shown 13 more times through May 12.

“I want to see things projected on a big screen. That’s what I like. But I was tired of screwing with studio people who said they’d do it if I did one of their movies. But the movies they wanted me to do were trash, so I didn’t want to do that. HBO said, ‘We get it, we’ll make it right now.’ ”


In a few weeks Cusack returns to Chicago, city of his birth and everlasting affection, to begin filming for Disney the movie of “High Fidelity,” the popular Nick Hornby comic novel about a used-record shop owner and his late-emerging reckoning with adulthood.

Cusack will play Rob, the main character, and Danish actress Iben Hjejle will play Laura, the object of Rob’s failure to commit. Stephen Frears (“The Grifters,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) will direct from a script written by Cusack and his two partners, Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis, who also collaborated with him on the script for “Grosse Pointe Blank” and helped him produce “The Jack Bull.”

“They’re very smart guys, great writers and two of my oldest friends,” Cusack says about the pair. They all met at Evanston Township High School and later formed a theater company in Chicago in 1988 after Cusack dropped out of NYU.

“We’ve always creatively co-conspired,” says Pink, who now lives in Los Angeles, as does DeVincentis. “I used to take the money I made from films and go produce all those plays back in Chicago,” says Cusack. He says he misses the bustling Chicago theater scene and still keeps a place there.

Some fans of “High Fidelity” have worried about its announced relocation to Chicago from London, but Cusack says that Hornby himself has given them his blessing.

“Nick thought the book was what we thought it was about, too. It’s much more than some sort of regional slice of life. It’s about men and women. It’s about guys getting dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood. When I read the book, I knew the record store, I knew the guys who were those record store guys.”

Cusack is slightly younger than Rob, but he says he can relate. “I think I went through a lot of that when I was around 27, 28, when you get stomped pretty bad at some point in your life and then you start to grow again.”

At this point in the conversation he chooses to close the seam between his art and his life, however. Asked if he wanted to say anything about girlfriends, he said, “Absolutely not. I can’t think of a good reason to talk about that in print. I can only think of bad reasons.”

Someone close to him says, “There doesn’t seem to have been a long relationship. He’s a guy. He likes to be with his buddies, playing basketball, kickboxing.”

Actress Neve Campbell did fly to Alberta, Canada, to visit him on the set of “The Jack Bull.” Or so it was reported.

Which gets us to the downside of being a successful actor. “If I go to Chicago and I go out to dinner, it’s in the papers the next day. If you let off steam at someone, even if they deserve it, it’s in the papers the next day. So that’s kind of a drag, but there’s got to be a trade-off for being able to create and make a lot of money and get all this opportunity.”

In “Say Anything,” Lloyd Dobler gave what was perhaps his defining speech when his brainy high school heartthrob’s (Ione Skye) father (John Mahoney) asked him what plans he was making for the future. Cusack worked with Crowe on the speech, drawing on his own ideas and ideals to help shape it.

What Lloyd said was, “Considering what’s waiting for me out there, I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything, as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed or buy anything sold or processed. . . .” All he wanted was to be a professional kickboxer--and to take care of Skye.

It was as vivid a moment as the one in “The Graduate” when young Dustin Hoffman’s eyes glazed over at hearing a family friend announce that the future was “plastics.”

Crowe remembers that Cusack, who was then 21, wanted the speech to be grander and more political. “He wanted to get [Ronald] Reagan in there and Oliver North and, I think, the Clash. He wanted to be real powerful with it. And because it was fresh when we shot it, he fumbled it and made mistakes. Which worked in the end because by using those takes, it made him look vulnerable.” And enormously appealing to a large number of women attracted to a soul as pure as Lloyd’s.

Of such passion and happy accidents are some great moments in film made, but when Cusack saw the scene for the first time in the dubbing room, he walked out, according to Crowe. It wasn’t as he had imagined it.

“I have a good sense of whether a film works or not,” Cusack says today, “‘other than that I have to divorce myself from my opinion for a while. You just throw yourself in and expose yourself and try to get out of your own way.’

“I was walking around with John when ‘Say Anything’ came out,” Crowe says, ‘and he said to me, ‘I don’t know how to act if people expect me to be like the guy in the movie.’ And this girl sees him and comes up and says, ‘It’s Lloyd Dobler! Are you really like Lloyd Dobler?’ And John turned to her and said, ‘On a good day.’ ” *


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