The Raven - John Cusack interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JOHN Cusack talks about playing Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven and what he hopes people might take away from the film.
He also reflects on why he feels it honours the writer historically, even if it is a piece of fiction, and discusses one or two of his past movies.
Q. What kind of research did you do for the role and did Edgar Allan Poe really have a pet raccoon?
John Cusack: If I remember correctly I think we did that because there was a theory that he had rabies, so it was a little bit of an inside job. I don’t think he did have a raccoon. He had a cat though that used to ride on his shoulders. So, he did like animals. But I think we made that up about the raccoon.
Q. How did you go about your research?
John Cusack: Just reading… read everything. There are some great biographies around.
Q. How important is that to a film like The Raven? Is it relevant that you’re telling the truth?
John Cusack: I think it is actually. I think poets tell better history than historians. Historians lie all the time but the poets can get to truth of it. So, if you have Poe de-constructing Poe’s stories and you have research and you know what Poe’s written about in all his stories and you know what he’s said about all his stories and you know about his letters, you can investigate him. So, you have Poe investigating the mind of Poe. So, I think there’s a lot of historical insight you can get. You can put a lot of accuracy in the fiction and I think that’s what we tried to do.
Q. How do you think people will react to The Raven?
John Cusack: The problem is, at least in the States, is that sometimes people don’t want to think about it so much. So, they just market it as a thriller. So, they want under 25 people in here, or they say ‘this is for the women’, so they cut a romantic trailer or a trailer with action. But it’s really for adults and there are plenty of ways to look at it. But I think it would be great to talk a movie in that way, to put it out there with all these different things. But a lot of people just read the press notes and that’s what they write about the movie and the public doesn’t talk about it or think about it. I don’t know how people are going to see it. But I think we were true to the source material. I think we made a movie that was much like Poe’s writing, which was high-brow and pop. That’s sort of what he was. And I think it’s dark. I tried my hardest. I came back exhausted and 187 pounds. I touched down in Chicago at Christmas and I didn’t know where the hell I was. I was stumbling around. I felt like I went on a bit of a journey.
Q. Would you rather have it be a mainstream success with the popcorn audience or have a select group of people watching it and getting it? Which is more satisfying to you?
John Cusack: I don’t know. I don’t really care. Whatever… it’s going to be what it is. The good thing about a piece of art is you don’t have to… everybody wants to label it or put things into a box right away, or explain it right away. But even if you explain something, the definition of that is you’re making it flat. It’s got dimensions and it’s… [but] you want to put it in its box – is it a hit? It’s not a hit… it’s an art film; it’s this… But then you put it out there and people will see it and then a couple of years’ later people are like: “That’s really good.” They keep looking at it, so it’s like a painting; it changes. So, it’s going to be what it is.
Q. So, you’ve let go of it?
John Cusack: I like to think of it the other way, which is just if people like it now, then great, but if they say, ‘it wasn’t as successful as Sherlock Holmes’, then you go ‘OK, but let’s just wait and see in five or six years and see what the people think’. I’ve done movies that were modest successes that people still talk about 10 years later a lot and I’ve done movies that were hits and nobody even thinks about them. You have to just let a piece of art go out there. This could be successful I think because it is very McTeigue. Poe was writing for a mass audience, he was writing for thrills and he was writing for horror, but he just a lot more sophistication underneath it. He had so much stuff going on, so it could be both. It could be art-house and it could be pop.
Q. Like Sherlock Holmes, who had a massive fan-base, did people know about Poe?
John Cusack: He sort of invented Sherlock Holmes. Inspector [Auguste] Dupin is Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle quoted Poe as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
Q. In playing Poe, you have to bring the elements you’ve discussed while uncovering a serial killer and honouring the thriller element of the story. When you start the film, for instance, you’re quite an unlikeable character and yet you’re the hero of the piece. Was that a difficult thing to do?
John Cusack: I thought it was really interesting. It’s almost like… when we started the thing off we made sure that we really used his language and his idiom to make him as complex and as fucked up and all that stuff, to do the Poe thing. And then the narrative starts and it starts to go like a locomotion, so you’re doing things but then there are these moments when you stop and then the characters have to just catch their breath, and those are the moments when you have to reveal more character. You just keep on this… as it’s picking up momentum you keep revealing character on the run and it’s a very interesting way to do it because there’s momentum… it’s sort of how life is, too, because we’re very busy and then there’s these little bits of behaviour that reveal things and you always go back to his language.
Q. Obviously, these are his last days, so he’s also looking at his legacy…
John Cusack: It’s funny because The Raven was world famous and he actually went to The White House but he got drunk… he showed up drunk at the White House because he was on a bender. But The Raven was published all over the world and he was a famous poet. But there was no copyright, so he couldn’t get any money for it, and he couldn’t make any money from his books. So, he was one of the first people to try and be a professional writer, actually; he was the first professional journalist. But he was famous for living in a hovel. But he was so destructive and would burn every bridge that he ever fucking built… like any connection he would have with editors, any other writer, I mean you’re talking about a guy who would self-sabotage. He was at war with the entire world. He just wanted to… he would write these vicious attacks on other people’s writings and you could tell they’re not really… he’s just trying to totally destroy the other writer.
Q. When I think of your films, I think of them as very political and sometimes overtly so. Grosse Point Blank, War Inc… is there politics in The Raven?
John Cusack: Yeah, I think so. Let me think. What are the politics of Poe? They’re more internal. Poets are political, they have to be reflections of their times [because] they’re living in their times. But I see him more as a pioneer to the sub-conscious. But putting anything poetic out there is political. If you think of the movies… poetry is political in that it’s standing in opposition to fascism. Good poetry asks a bunch of questions and asks the audience to interact with themselves or see themselves in it; maybe you like it or you don’t like it. But the fascist sort of stuff plays on your fears and tells you to jump on the party line and gives some simple excuses – blame this person, blame that person right?
If you think of the politics of a movie like 300 – that’s a political movie. It’s a political movie that doesn’t know that it’s gay but basically they do a battle cry and they go ‘this is for reason and intellect and tradition and we will take a death blow to mysticism and the east, right?’ The people that they’re going to kill happen to be dark skinned androgynous kind of people… the other, right? That’s a fascist fucking movie. But it’s a good popcorn movie. I don’t have an agenda against 300 but that’s fascism, right?
Q. So, if we look at The Raven that way, what did we take away from it?
John Cusack: Well, I think it would be the opposite, it would be the other side of it, I would hope, because you’re saying here’s an artist who is admitting he’s totally human. He’s the protagonist but he’s got all the problems you could ever imagine a human could have. He’s not some super-angel with perfect muscles who loves his queen. He’s fucked up. He’s one of us, right? And he’s worse than us, or he’s better than us. But it’s not simple. It’s not reductive.
Q. Do you see Poe as a kindred spirit at all?
John Cusack: To me? No, I would never… he’s a genius and I’m an actor. But I think you can see yourself in any of these great people if they represent that shadow side of you.
Q. How much did it take out of you as an actor in playing him?
John Cusack: I don’t know. I don’t know if it takes out of you or if it’s a great role maybe you purge something and you maybe get to let things go. I sort of feel more like that.
Q. I enjoyed your performance of the poem itself. You could have a career reading Poe’s poetry if you wanted one…
John Cusack: It’s so funny because that scene was McTeigue sort of set me up for that one. It was funny because in real life, he was really good at those readings, and he would have these sort of séances and they were at night and were with all of these beautiful women. And he sort of set it up and I saw the shooting schedule was sort of day/morning and he was like: “No, no, man, we’ll do it like you’re hungover…” It was a little sad because he was sort of running on the fumes of The Raven, he was a little tired of doing it, and I was like: “It’s a good idea…” But I would have loved to have done the séance version. He used to go to people’s homes and dim the lights and put out incense and just freak people out… It was like he was just on the circuit trying to get some food money. But it was sort of his version of the endless press junket [instead].
Q. Was the biographical stuff more important than the poetry?
John Cusack: No, I liked the actual stories and poems. That spoke to me more… turns of phrases and imagery and symbols.
Q. Was it an authentic Poe beard?
John Cusack: I think there was a period where he did have that and then he was clean-shaven. McTeigue and I just thought that the moustache was a little too Charlie Chaplin and a little too… I said it was a little like Elvis meets Colonel Tom Parker meets Colonel Sanders! It was kind of a Kentucky Fried Poe.
Q. Were there any moments where you thought, ‘this man’s a genius’ and I’m just not up to it?
John Cusack: No and I don’t know what that means about me. If it means I’m an egomaniac. It was like being on a bender in a weird way. It had the feeling of some sort of run and I’ve felt that before.
Q. What happens when you come out of that run?
John Cusack: You just hope that there’s not a brick wall there in front of you and try to put some throw mats down on the ground.
Q. You’ve had your share of popcorn success, so was there a bubbling level of sophistication always within you during your more teen friendly flicks and romantic period that was always there?
John Cusack: To me, politics is a weird word but anything sort of human or good is… politics is a different word but I did a movie when I was a kid, Say Anything, and that’s got lots of politics in it. Lloyd is a totally political character. He doesn’t want to work for the Army and he’s a counter-culture type of character…
Q. Is there any pressure from fans of Poe?
John Cusack: No. I sort of play against myself a little bit. I keep pressure on myself. I’m not worried if somebody in Sweden doesn’t like my Poe [laughs]. I’ll find out. But I kept asking myself whether I’d gone into the places that he had described in my own weird way as much as I could.
Q. The whole film is like a nightmare that gets worse…
John Cusack: But I thought that was like a journey into the underworld artistically and that was kind of exciting, but I don’t want to stay down there and I’m glad I’m out of it. But I thought it was a good artistic journey for an actor or an artist.
Q. Do you find that characters stay with you? Or do you switch off easily?
John Cusack: I think maybe they change a little bit, or let things go… maybe.
Q. Is Martin Blank [from Grosse Pointe Blank] Lloyd?
John Cusack: No, no, no. Totally different. But what I’m saying is, it’s what it’s in opposition to. We wanted to be like JD Salinger, right? I wanted to make something like JD Salinger… that was my sort of hero. So, it wasn’t some glossy, perfect fairytale.
Q. But Martin Blank is almost the broken version of Lloyd…
John Cusack: No, but I’ve always been fascinated with people’s complicity in what they do. It’s probably how I grew up but I was always fascinated in that. So, that character was an individual outside of… he was someone who had gained his individuality. I was more interested in mercenary values [with Blank].
Q. But we’ve seen him twice, in War Inc, so will we see him again?
John Cusack: It’s basically the same. Different name, a third of the budget, and I had to deal with lunatics.
Q. Will you bring him back?
John Cusack: I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody would want to see him again. But I would [laughs].
Q. Are we going to see Lloyd again? Will you and Cameron Crowe get together and do a sequel to Say Anything?
John Cusack: He never… if he wanted to do it but he never said he wanted to do it. We never really talked about it. I’ve never done a sequel… or rather War Inc is the only one and we kind of had to lie about that one. But it is, basically. I’ve been trying to work with Cameron for years so tell him to give me a job. All he wants to do is work with blonde movie stars now… or Tom Cruise. I got replaced early on and he never looked back [laughs]. But I’d love to do another one with him, we haven’t found one yet or he hasn’t wanted to do it yet. It would be fun.