Martin and Lewis. Lemmon and Matthau. Newman and Redford. Cusack and Piven.
OK, maybe John Cusack and Jeremy Piven would be a different thing.
For starters, they will need to stop giggling. “We met at the"--Piven offers the name of a famous young actress--"Dramatic Institute of Fun,” as Cusack responds with a derisive snort. Said actress is rumored, despite her adorable, petite appearance to be a no-neuroses-barred nightmare on and off set with a variety of personality issues, including compulsive lying.
But before Piven or Cusack can offer their own version of events, Piven catches himself: “Oh, God, irony doesn’t work in print, does it?”
Cusack’s eyebrows shoot up and and he shakes his head “Nooooo.” That’s “nooooo” as in “Good going, bud, now let’s see you come in off this limb before it snaps.”
It’s the kind of caustic Kodak moment that can only occur between two people who have genuine affection for each other.
The two have been friends since the age of 9, when Cusack joined an Evanston, Ill., theater company, the Piven Theater Workshop, run by Piven’s parents, and the two started “butchering Chekhov onstage,” according to Cusack. They have appeared in five of the same movies.
Five of the same movies, not five movies together. As Piven explains: “Most of the time, we were in the same movie, but it would be Johnny driving the movie and me having too much to drink and falling on my knees and people walking over me.”
Their career trajectories have been different, with Cusack finding star status as the Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol in films such as “Say Anything,” “The Grifters,” “Thin Red Line,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “Grosse Pointe Blank.”
While he’s been in just as many films as Cusack, with roles in a series of respectable projects, including “White Palace,” “Bob Roberts” and the cable project “Don King: Only in America,” Piven found his greatest exposure on TV on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” and as Ellen DeGeneres’ cousin on “Ellen.”
“Serendipity” finds Piven with quite a bit to do, even though it’s Cusack who shares driving duties for this romantic comedy with Kate Beckinsale, most recently of “Pearl Harbor.”
Set in New York and San Francisco, the movie chronicles the romantic misadventures of young urbanites as they try to find the right balance between fatalism and action. It sounds French, but no one smokes and there are no long expository scenes without pratfalls, so the realization is pure Hollywood.
“It’s a chick flick,” observes Cusack, who admits that part of the reason he wanted the role was because it’s the kind of gig that permits him to continue doing the edgier work, such as “Being John Malkovich,” that he is known for.
“But the script also asks some interesting questions,” Cusack continues. “What is fate? Is fate what you make of it? What’s the balance between fate and action? If it’s meant to be, is it gonna be right?
“You read the script and you realize that everyone thinks about that--that mixture of letting your fate happen and making it happen. What’s the correlation between free will and destiny? The fun with this movie is having these two characters try to comprehend the meaning of that and put rules to it, which is absurd.”
Both men admit that these questions have come up in their own lives.
“It happens in careers, relationships,” continues Cusack, “all of it. You work really hard and you worry and you obsess over things and you wonder, ‘Did any of that force things to happen? Or was the project that came to me from the director something that would have happened no matter what I did?”’
In this case, there actually is someone who can address, with authority, this specific aspect of Cusack’s and Piven’s existential angst: director Peter Chelsom of “Town and Country” and “The Mighty.”
“Jeremy’s audition was by far the best, and John was our first choice [for his role]. I wasn’t just casting them because they were very good friends, but, yeah, what a great bonus.”
The bonus being, says Chelsom, chemistry. “You see it again and again, a Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis kind of thing; their timing is so sharp, I don’t have do it in the editing room. I don’t have to instill timing as an apology for something that isn’t working.”
Chelsom confirms that, in line with that, the actors did contribute changes to the script.
“Jeremy’s part actually changed quite a bit and grew. It was originally a bit of a worn joke--him being something of a pseudo-intellectual.”
“It became almost like a buddy flick rather than a romantic comedy,” observes Cusack. “Kate and Molly [Shannon, in a hilarious turn as an utterly jaded New Age San Francisco retailer and Beckinsale’s best friend] spent more time with each other than my character and Kate.”
“Someone said, ‘You guys have really great chemistry--how does that happen?”’ offers Piven. “I thought, ‘If we couldn’t work up chemistry together as friends at this point, I need to go into roofing or find something else to do.’ There’s a lot of history there, kindred spirits, et cetera.”
That more than 25-year-old chemistry became blazingly apparent a few years ago in “Grosse Pointe Blank,” in which Cusack plays a hit man returning home to his 10-year high school reunion. Piven plays his former best friend. In one scene, Cusack’s character is talking and Piven’s finally lets loose with “Wow man! Ten years!”
It’s supposed to come off like an exclamation and, while it does on the surface, the subtext is one of pure joy at being reunited but also lingering hurt at being abandoned, and it’s a brilliant portrayal of the way men communicate with each other; vulnerability wrapped in layers of irony and bravado.
It, like much of what they do best, wasn’t exactly scripted.
“The scene wasn’t really written out,” explains Piven. “Johnny’s gotta hit his speech and I’ve gotta feed that, but we just hit the ground running. We’re used to improvising and being around each other so much, and as John says, being around each other so much just informs it.”
“The scene is about [Cusack’s character] Martin,” explains Cusack. “But it’s also about this best friend disappearing on [Piven’s character]. Jeremy took it and I was like ‘Go! Go!’ It came back, and we like to work without a net that way.”
“They’re very generous with each other,” says Chelsom. “They give focus to each other where they need it.”
Chelsom makes no bones about where he feels Cusack and Piven’s working style originates. “It comes from theatrical training, there’s so much to be said for it. I’m not being a boring old English guy, but that energy is second nature.”
Both actors concur. Says Cusack, “A lot of people punch the clock, but we grew up together, and our background is a little less self-oriented. There’s not a problem with someone taking the stage; it’s all for the greater good.
“It’s a community; we’re all having fun together, we’re all working on the same thing and there’s no room for territoriality. We’re very ‘This is my thing, this is your thing.’ Give the ball away, it will come back.”
“And if you’re patient the ball may come back an even better way,” adds Piven.
And all of this wonderful bonhomie can blow up on all concerned in about two seconds if they aren’t careful.
In fact, this becomes apparent when they start riffing about their hometown of Chicago (pronounced She-Ca-Goo), where both own homes (they rent here).
Piven: “Bob Peterson opened a cheese shop.” Which sounds like “Bab Peeterson oopenned uh cheeeeze shap.” Laughter.
Cusack: “We go to Mahnster Treck Rallies.”
Piven: “And don’t watch.”
They convulse in laughter. They just kill each other, these two. And it’s happened at times when they really weren’t ready to die.
“We know each other so well,” says Cusack, “where we can’t look at each other because we might crack up. We have found ourselves on the verge of being Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner on ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and they’re laughing so hard they can’t keep a straight face. You can’t do that. People are burning money waiting for you to stop laughing and then the joke is on you.”
“If you’re not careful, you can get there,” Piven says with a sigh.
“If you’re having fun, the audience is probably having fun, but you have to find the line and stay on it, or you lose control of the scene,” says Cusack.
Fortunately, these two are more than able to channel all of the shared intimacy of a lifetime of growing up together and learning together in a variety of ways.
Take stunts, for instance.
“There’s a moment in ‘Serendipity,”’ observes Piven, “when we’re hunting Kate down and it’s written as a tussle in the script, but we decided to be [Jeff Van] Gundy in the New York Knicks. I mean, let’s face it, it’s the times you see two guys who can’t fight--who shouldn’t fight--that’s far more interesting than watching two guys who can.
“I dropped down and he’s dragging me across the lawn and I know from years of experience, if I lift my foot and pull his ankle, he’ll land on his face and be OK.”
“Some actors really like to work all of that stuff out,” explains Cusack. “But when I’m working with Jeremy, we are so used to working off each other it becomes, ‘You do this, at some point, I’ll go down. Instead of working it all out and stopping, let’s do it. I’ll go down when I go down. OK?” He laughs.
What’s next? For Piven, who just spent five months in Morocco with Ridley Scott on “Black Hawk Down,” a rest. For Cusack, it’s off to Budapest to shoot the lead in “Hoffman,” a pre-World War II story about an art dealer befriended by a young Hitler.
But what about the two of them? Well, there’s a table reading on Tuesday. “We’ll find something,” says Cusack. *