In his 1980s romantic comedies, John Cusack always wore his heart on his sleeve – but it’s hard to imagine any of those fresh-faced underdog characters carving up said heart onscreen and feeding it to a raccoon.
In The Raven, Cusack’s new film in theaters today, the actor plays Edgar Allan Poe, whose grim, violent stories inspire a 19th-century serial killer in Baltimore. The movie’s plot is fictional, but Cusack portrays the real author’s macabre imagination with a tolerant curiosity towards human organ dissection and gruesome murder. At the same time, the film explores Poe’s romantic side, with the author risking his life to save one last chance at true love in a life full of tragedy.
Cusack’s roles have varied greatly in the decades since his teen-angst beginnings – he’s played all kinds of outsiders, from assassins to frustrated puppeteers to an unexpected upcoming role as Richard Nixon in The Butler. The actor, who is also well known as an active tweeter, talked to Rolling Stone about playing Poe, his first starring role, and his favorite recent concert.
Was there anything that made you hesitant to take this role, or was particularly challenging about playing Poe?
I liked it. I thought it was really smart. Obviously, if you don’t like the premise, it would be hard to sort of like the film I guess. But if you think of the premise being appropriate to different genres that he created – the detective genre, the horror genre – he was doing the dream within a dream thing and he also wrote about people surfing in that space between sanity and insanity, waking and dreaming. So I thought it was like oh yeah, that just gets you to get into all these stories, his imagination and his own view of himself.
So what did you do to prepare, other than I assume read a lot of Poe.
Read a lot of Poe. Read his letters and diaries and things. That’s really it.
Your portrayal captured a definite, stylized persona. It was very different than anything I had ever seen you do before. Did you develop that based on anything that you had read?
Just what I’ve read, and just accounts of his behavior and things. And then just whatever your imagination grabs a hold of. It’s a dream about Poe. It’s like Lou Reed made (2003 concept album) The Raven and that’s his and his musicians’ dream. So this was me and the writers and the other actors and producers.
What is your favorite work of his?
I always liked where he’s into the absurd stuff between life and death. Mystical supernatural elements. That’s the sweet stuff in Poe’s writing that affects me the most. That’s why I like Day of the Dead, and Halloween and that kind of time of year. That gets me going.
Are you into horror lit in general? Did you get into Lovecraft?
I had already read those books, read Lovecraft. I’ve done Stephen King movies before, I really love Stephen King, he’s a great writer. Or George Orwell.
I want to go back and ask you about your first starring role, in 1985’s The Sure Thing (with Daphne Zuniga and Anthony Edwards), which I’ve seen dozens of times. Was that movie as much fun to make as it seemed?
I was a kid. I think I was 16 when I made that movie. I started when I was really young. You know Rob Reiner was the director and he’s such a good guy. He’s so protective, and looked after everybody. I had the best guy to work with for my first time I did a lead in the movies. He was responsible for kind of giving me a career. I was really lucky to get to work with Rob. He’s such a mensch, he was super good to me.
On RollingStone.com we have a weekly column where we ask rock stars who are huge baseball fans questions about the game. Since you’re a huge Cubs fan, I’ll ask you, what is your favorite baseball movie?
It’s weird, I’ll never do this again, but I’ll say a movie I was in called Eight Men Out (about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal).
That was Pete Yorn’s favorite too.
I think Eight Men Out is a really good baseball movie. The Natural had a really good budget, and all that. But I loved that one.
On the music front, is there anything in particular that you are listening to right now? Have you gone to any good shows lately?
The last live concert I saw was Gogol Bordello. Great, great, show. I also can’t wait to go see Bruce [Springsteen] again.