Independent spirit of John Cusack

He's the indie king with a love of horror. John Cusack discusses career choices with Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.

Indie king: John Cusask pictured  in The Frozen Ground.
Indie king: John Cusask pictured in The Frozen Ground.

Always an actor who makes intriguing choices, John Cusack has also lamented the seismic changes in the film industry that have seen his brand of film squeezed out by megabudget blockbusters.

Cusack is the star of Grosse Pointe Blank, The Grifters, Being John Malkovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Maps to the Stars, Max and sundry other mid-budget character pieces based on fine writing and solid plots.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But the 50-year-old has also been seen in mainstream fare such as 2012 and Con Air, the latter co-starring with Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich. It was a choice, he has revealed, that gave him the financial and artistic freedom to make the movies that inspired and informed him as an actor.

“Con Air was pretty fun because it was just a bunch of crazy actors. You could stay up all night. That was a pretty wild one.

“Some of the ones I wrote and produced, which I saw through all the way to make sure they were good, those were fun too.”

This week he can be seen in Cell, co-starring with Samuel L Jackson. Based on the 2006 novel by Stephen King, it tells of the human race being infected by a mysterious pulse emitted from their cell phones, and which turns them into homicidal maniacs.

Perhaps Cell, with its relatively low budget, stands as a hybrid entry in Cusack’s CV and represents something akin to the movies he was making 20 years ago. Indeed, Cusack talks of the era of High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank as almost a golden period. And he’s quick to praise former Disney chief Joe Roth as the man who made things happen.

“A lot of it is just luck. Then it’s the right people at the right time. When I was making movies in the 1990s and early 2000s Joe Roth gave me the money to produce and write 2000’s High Fidelity and 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank.

“The studios are more super-corporate now. He was more old-school. He’d do his big summer movies like Con Air but then he’d give a certain number of movies to artists that he liked.

“He let me make two. He let Spike Lee make Summer of Sam; he let Wes Anderson make Rushmore. A lot of people don’t know that. They think the actors or the directors are the reason things got made but sometimes it’s the environment. I don’t think they’d make those movies today.”

Cusack still does impressive work, not least 2014’s Love & Mercy, playing Beach Boy Brian Wilson as he slips into psychosis in the 1980s. Says Cusack: “It was scary to play Brian because he went through such a tough time. It’s one thing to be talented but you look at guys like him and think they can’t get the song out of their head. What if they can’t turn it off? It’s about the burdens of that genius.”

Cell might be casually dismissed as just another entry in the current fashion for zombie flicks. King’s book – he also co-wrote the screenplay – is about so much more than that, combining the apocalypse with telepathic villains and a sense of the existing human order being subsumed by a new one.

Given Cusack’s appetite for 
off-kilter, non-studio product, 
Cell might appear to be an odd choice.

“King’s great to adapt,” said Cusack a couple of years back. And he’d know, having already featured (with Jackson) in 1408 and, years earlier, in Stand by Me, which was expanded from King’s short story The Body.

“His ideas are vital. He dreams things before they happen, like, culturally. He’s ahead of the curve. He’s cavalier in the way he churns out his books but they’re very resourceful. I enjoy working with him.

“1408 I was involved with, and that was very faithful to Stephen King’s short story. It was a really good experience.”

It might be argued that the “cavalier” comment is somewhat harsh, but King is undoubtedly prolific. And like the British writer Nigel Kneale, creator of Quatermass, his work is often eerily prescient.

Cusack has also been vocal about his desire to be in the TV phenomenon that is The Walking Dead. A childhood devotee of comic books and sci-fi, it’s easy to imagine the jump from Marvel comics to the series written by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore that led to the The Walking Dead, now in its seventh season.

“I love zombie movies. I love George Romero’s [films]. I like a good one. And I like sci-fi and horror. It’s hard to find really good ones, but, yeah.”

Perhaps Cell is his nod to wanting to work with Romero who, at 76, made his last film, Survival of the Dead, seven years ago and may have abdicated his position as Knight of the Living Dead. Cusack is still fondly remembered from ‘80s fare like the teen romance Sixteen Candles and the cult favourite Say Anything...

He finds it curiously heart-warming that people still remember those films – the first made in 1984, the second in 1989 – and enjoy seeing him in them. Moreover, he doesn’t dismiss them.

“The nice thing is that people are still talking about films that I made a while ago. You need time to let people live with a film. If it’s good and people find things in it then it’ll live a little bit. I think I made a few that people liked so I’m pretty lucky.

“Sometimes the films that are most hyped, three or four years later people are going, ‘What?’ And ones that didn’t find recognition right away find their place. You can get savaged by critics and later on people like them. So you have to take the long view.”