In a room infused with cigar smoke, John Cusack sits leafing through a book of poetry, the extinguished stub on the table in front of him.
“The coffee wasn’t working anymore,” he says, standing to shake my hand, before tossing the cigar in the bin. The book, as it turns out, is a work by Edgar Allan Poe and Cusack has been trying to find a particular line.
“‘I could not love except where death mingled tears with beauty’s breath’,” he reads, in a voice so soft it’s almost a whisper. Then he breaks the awkward subsequent silence by adding: “He was a trippy guy!”
A staple on reading lists, the American writer is being given the A-list Hollywood treatment in a film named after Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven.
In a nod to the film, the Chicago-born actor is dressed from head to foot in black: from trainers to leather jacket, which makes his pale skin look almost translucent.
Both on screen and in the flesh, raven-haired Cusack looks much younger than his 45 years, thanks in part to losing 25lb to play the drunken, impoverished poet.
Directed by V For Vendetta’s James McTeigue, the gothic-looking film is set in old Baltimore where Poe has to track down a serial killer inspired by the crimes in his dark works of fiction, who’s kidnapped his fiancée Emily. Initially a suspect, he eventually teams up with detective Emmett Fields, played by Luke Evans, and Emily’s father (Brendan Gleeson), to follow a series of clues pointing to the young woman’s whereabouts. It’s thrilling stuff and Cusack expertly captures the tortured genius of Poe.
“He’d suffered a lot of tragedy in his life. He was very melancholy and had a dark imagination,” says the actor. “He thought he could hear the sounds of darkness rushing across the horizon towards him. I’ve been very lucky in my life. I haven’t had horrible things happen to me but I still have a dark side, a perverse side. I want to get into trouble.
“Most actors are sort of thieves, they have criminal natures. It was like peering into the abyss when you get into the land of Poe. Well, jumping into it, actually.”
A long-time fan of the poet, Cusack says while it was an “honour to inhabit such an iconic figure”, he wasn’t daunted by the prospect of bringing one of his literary heroes to life on the big screen. “I’d feel that more if it was someone I knew and was friends with, but there’s a certain distance you have from someone who was alive 100 years ago.
“What I tried to do was go into the writing and from that, get the clues to his psyche and psychology.
“Acting is trying to figure out where you and the person meld. Sometimes it’s not nice, but it’s fun to explore those sides of yourself.”
Co-star Luke Evans previously said Cusack stayed in character between scenes, so much so that he always felt as though he was speaking directly to the man himself.
“Did he say that?” says Cusack, chuckling. “I’m not aware of it, people didn’t call me Edgar, but you sort of stay in that mode.”
Method acting or not, it’s great to see the star of such diverse films as blockbuster 2012, romcom Serendipity and indie hit Being John Malkovich, in such a gritty role. Since disaster flick 2012, which many saw as him selling out to mainstream schlock, Cusack has kept a low profile.
“I choose scripts depending on if it’s good or if I need the money,” he laughs. “Or [you think] ‘Is it smart to do politically?,’ because maybe if you do a big movie, that will keep you in the game to do some smaller, better movies, or something with a great director. But this was a no-brainer.”
Notoriously private about his personal life, Cusack is, however, very open about his political views. For a while he used to regularly blog for the Huffington Post news website in America and has fully embraced Twitter.
“I share my opinion with people who are supposedly interested in what I think – people who like my work and ask me questions. I can tweet, ‘Here’s a book by Arundhati Roy that I think is great. She’s an amazing writer’.
“People talk about politics [on Twitter], but their version is MSNBC, you know, so I’m like, ‘Look at Bill Moyers, he’s a legend in journalism, he’s one of the great voices’. Or I can just say, ‘Here’s a funny picture’.”
As he chats away, I can’t help but wonder if Poe would be tweeting, if he was alive today. Cusack fixes his steely brown eyes on me and says: “No, I don’t think so.”
The Raven is on general release from today.
Poetry in motion on the big screen
Stephen Fry played playwright and poet Oscar Wilde in Wilde (1997), which won him a Golden Globe nomination.
Gwyneth Paltrow discovered her inner poet as American Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (2003), alongside Daniel Craig as her husband Ted Hughes.
Joseph Fiennes tackled the Bard in Shakespeare in Love (1998), which also starred Paltrow as his love Viola and swept up seven Oscars.
Matthew Rhys played Dylan Thomas in The Edge of Love (2008), about a love triangle between him and two women, played by Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller.