He’s been a Hollywood star since his teens, when he starred in Class, Sixteen Candles and The Sure Thing, but thankfully John Cusack was never like the characters in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars. A brutal satire about the players, wannabes and has-beens of Hollywood, Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, a self-help guru who peddles his therapies to the weak-minded. Father to the foul Benjie (Evan Bird), a rehab-hopping teen star of the ‘Bad Babysitter’ franchise, Stafford is just one of the soulless ghouls that haunts the Hollywood Hills in what is the Canadian Cronenberg’s first real foray into Tinseltown terrain.
For Cusack, it represents yet another impressive notch in a career that’s seen him work with Stephen Frears (The Grifters, High Fidelity), Woody Allen (Shadows and Fog, Bullets Over Broadway), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line) and Clint Eastwood (Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil). Born and raised near Chicago, where he still lives, the 48 year-old has also produced and co-written screenplays, while he actively blogs for The Huffington Post. Below, he explains why Maps made him groan, why LA is full of “desert crazies” and also lifts the lid on his next role, as The Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson.
Q: You were a young star in your teens like Benjie. Did you relate to him?
A: I was older than him [when I started acting], and I wasn’t in a huge Hollywood franchise. I just got to work as an actor. But just the idea of being that young and having that much pressure on you, and being at the very height of Hollywood, would be terrible to think about. I remember being a couple of years older and starting and what a head trip it was, at 16 or 17, and that was working with good people and having a pretty good introduction to it. I worked with some really nice people. The film business was a lot different back then; it was more like personalities ran studios, it was a little bit more of the old movie mogul thing. It was intense but not so corporate or cutthroat. I didn’t know…I was a young guy. But I worked with John Sayles and the great cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs…so I was lucky. But if you start off as [starring in] ‘Bad Babysitter’ and you were trying to protect a franchise…oh my god!
Q: Was Hollywood a familiar place to you back then?
A: No, no. It wasn’t. We lived in Chicago. No-one knew what Hollywood was, except for the movies or the art-houses. I’d never been to California. I had no experience of it. My sister [Joan] and I started working in Chicago, around 16, 17, in high school – because they happened to be making films about teenagers at that time. Before that, they never made films about young people. And now? You can’t even show a 28 year-old woman without someone saying, ‘She’s menopausal, right?’! It’s gotten so crazy. When I was a kid, it was, ‘Oh, there’s a movie about young people’, but it wasn’t a genre.
Q: Was it a more innocent time?
A: I think so. When we made Say Anything, it wasn’t a teen movie. It was just a movie; they called it a ‘coming-of-age’ movie, but that was it.
Q: What did you think of Bruce Wagner’s script when you read it?
A: It’s so well written. The script was surprising and inevitable, and that’s what I think tragedy is. You could get surprised or shocked by something, but it’s all inevitable – going to a place where you go, ‘Of course, that’s where it has to end.’ It’s a very singular piece of writing, and Bruce is a very meta synaptic-firing writer. And David is this very precise formalist, so I thought, ‘That’s going to be a really interesting mix.’ That’s what I thought. It was all there. I talked to David about how he liked to work, and then tried to figure [things] out…I did think about what it would’ve been like if I’d started then, and I had really had crazy parents and I lived in LA. I tried to think about, ‘What would be the worse possible father? The most damaged version?’
Q: Did you find it funny?
A: You groan – it’s like a bone on bone; it’s like a hit in a football game. You hear it and you go, ‘Oh! That’s terrible!’
Q: Did you have to learn any massage techniques for the scenes with Julianne Moore, who plays actress Havana Segrand?
A: No! They’re so awkward and weird. Weirdly, that was the first day we were working.
Q: Do you see a relationship between therapy and acting?
A: I think a lot of actors feel that the act of doing those things is somehow therapeutic for them. Most actors feel that it would be better if you…you need to get some things out. You don’t know how to form it. You obviously have some things you need to release. Then there’s an instinct as an actor to go to a place…normal people try not to feel things and actors try to go into the most dangerous places they can and then hide it. So it’s an intuitive thing, to go towards the flame – so we must know that there’s stuff we better get out.
Q: How would you describe Stafford – a charlatan?
A: Yeah, sure – an exploitative charlatan of Biblical proportions!
Q: But are these types very prevalent in LA?
A: Sure. I was doing a film that’s going to come out on Brian Wilson, Love And Mercy. Interesting film. You talk about the California of the Fifties and Sixties; Joan Didion says there is a Chekhovian sense of loss and uneasiness in the air – and this is a loose quote and I’m probably getting it wrong – as if all the people there thought we better make it here, because if not, we’ve run out of continent! And I think there’s that sense of that frontier mentality, which is, ‘This is our last stop!’ People that come towards LA and fame…where else are you going to go? Go up to Alaska? Go be fucking Grizzly Man? There’s a real desperation there. So I think that environment leads to all sorts of free, original thinking, but also desert crazies! And all the people that prey on those people. We were just noticing in LA that there were these things – agents and managers. Then I realised there were these things called ‘life coaches’.
Q: Did you know much about them?
A: Well, I knew about Tony Robbins. I loved the ‘personal power’ things. I don’t know much about Tony, but it seems like he has this act of will – like Scientology. He wants you to control your thinking, and they’re all half-true things, but it just feels bat-shit crazy and culty. That’s just the way it feels, right? I know Scientology is bat-shit crazy. These evangelising shrink coaches…it’s got to be only in LA, right? Then tere are life-coaches…and they mix psycho-babble, like Oprah’s psychology with Rolfing and past-life regression therapies. It’s the place where the guy who ran The Source – a health food restaurant – started a cult in the Seventies and they were called the Source Family and he proclaimed himself a divine being and he had followers. It was a cult! So LA’s got something special!
Q: Your character seems very cynical…
A: That’s what Bruce writes. The first thing he writes is, ‘Say what you want about the Dalai Lama but the man’s a pro.’ He’s not even considering that he might mean it or not; he’s just saying, ‘Good one – that’s a pro.’ There’s an element that every human interaction is a transaction. It’s all currency. What am I going to get? What’s my angle? And that’s connected to showbiz. It’s also connected to the con, the grift, and just ugly power politics.
Q: Without giving the usual ‘he was fabulous’ answer, how was David Cronenberg to work with?
A: He’s precise, super-precise, and super-fabulous, super-wonderful, super-warm…he’s the most amazing, generous, kind, decent, loyal, loving human being…and just totally, fantastically fabulous! Seriously, though, he’s a trip, he’s really intense. But he actually is a really nice, friendly guy.
Q: Have you seen much bad behaviour on set in the past?
A: Yeah, I’ve seen it! But I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had to deal with that much.
Q: Does being in Hollywood incite it?
A: All those things can happen all the time. I don’t think it’s any different to Silicon Valley, or the financial district, or Washington – any type of place where there’s powerful people, there’s a lot of capital in flux, it’s sort of the Wild West…it’s a rigged game. Anytime there’s fear and ambition and greed…
Q: What helped you to survive Hollywood?
A: I don’t hang out there, though I have a place in California and I go out there. I have some good friends out there, but if you really think about it, there are seven, eight people I consider really close, that I’ll see when I’m there. I think if you survive in the business, you probably get the joke after a while. I think there are people that are pretty nice, but they do tend to live other places! That’s how they survive.
Q: Were you worried about biting the hand that feeds?
A: No! I don’t care about any of that shit!
Q: Talk about Love And Mercy. Were you a fan of The Beach Boys before?
A: Yeah, but I wasn’t interested in them until I investigated the music more. I got into the surf music and Dick Dale and all that stuff – and it came from Phil Spector and his sound, the Wall of Sound, and then Brian Wilson was in this race, almost, with the Beatles. It was just him, The Beatles and George Martin, and they were creating the next century of music as they went. And how much Wilson influenced the Beatles…he really did Sgt. Pepper first with the Smile sessions, and McCartney heard it, and you can hear the next fifty years of music in those Smile sessions and in Pet Sounds. He was a real bona fide genius and still going strong. He’s a lovely guy.
Q: You got to know him?
A: Yes, I’ve become close with the Wilsons, and I actually got to sing with them. It was kinda cool. It was at the wrap party and Brian said, ‘Johnny B. Goode – you’re going to sing with us.’ And I said, ‘I don’t normally sing’. He said, ‘You’re gonna be great.’ You can’t not do it, right? Otherwise you’ll go to your grave [having not done it]…it would be better if you fail and you look like an asshole, but you don’t want to say the Mozart of rock’n’roll said, ‘Come up and sing back up’ and you were too much of a coward to do it. So I shamed myself into doing it! And he’s pretty incredible, and his wife is also. And the story is about him and wife, partially, Melinda. He’s an amazing guy.
Q: You’re very active on Twitter. What do you like about it?
A: What I think is interesting is the idea that you can curate content. If I like somebody’s stuff, I can say, ‘If you think I’m interesting, I’ll tell you who I think is interesting’, and you trust me, so I can read all my news from the Twitter feed. And then you can promote stuff that you want, that you think is worth it. If you like a book, and you just feel like doing it…I don’t get paid for it, or anything, but just do it…I think that’s interesting. And also, it’s impossible to kill art. You can’t do it. You can’t bury anything. It’s good and bad. If I made a film almost ten years ago called Max, and when it first came out, people thought it was controversial, the way maybe David’s film is. And there was no vehicle for people to see it. Now, you can’t kill it – so that’s good. So, yeah, I like it – it’s fun!
Q: Doesn’t your publicist tell you to hold back?
A: No, and that’s good. The other thing is, it’s changed the way movies are distributed, it’s changed the way movies are marketed…the press junket is over now. They know that you have to talk to the journalist, but then once you do, it’s going to go virally online. People are going to have their opinion from the screenings, no matter what the critics say. Critics will do what they want to do, and they’ll sway people, but people are going to listen more to each other than they listen to authority – so it’s kinda cool.
Q: Do you ever re-watch your old films?
A: No. Well, sometimes on TV, I might stop and watch for a while until it gets too painful. Then I’ll change channel. I remember one time, The Grifters was on. I’ve worked with Stephen Frears, who is such a great director, twice. And I remember stopping and watching it – it was Annette [Bening] and Angelica [Huston], and I started to watch the story a little bit, and then I came on, and I saw myself differently. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s good.’
Q: How do you choose your films?
A: I’m up to do anything if it’s with a good filmmaker and a good script. I think that movies are like dreams; you can play any role in the dream, and there are lots of different dreams. I like to play any version, any role in the drama – it doesn’t matter.
Q: Have you ever had any strange jobs?
A: Well, acting is a weird enough job, right? And I started when I was 16…though I delivered newspapers in a hospital. That was terrible, because people were sick and you had to ask them for a quarter. You’re like, ‘Why aren’t we giving them these?’ – they’re sick and they’re reaching for change! It was a terrible job.
Q: What do you do when you’re not acting?
A: That’s a good question. What do I do? I travel a lot. I’m on the road a lot anyway, but I like to travel, just try to annihilate yourself, get out of your head. What else do I do? I don’t know.
Q: Do you like sports?
A: Yeah, I box. And then I just try to meet other people who are doing totally different things. I work with this group called the FPF – the Freedom of the Press Foundation, working for the First and Fourth Amendment freedoms, protections for journalists, whistleblowers…so I use my brain in a different way that doesn’t have me out in front as much. And there are some great people on the board, including Edward Snowden. So we talk to him. That gives you a sense of where you get out of thinking about yourself all the time.
Q: How did you get involved with that?
A: I’ve had a lot of friends who are writers and journalists, and I’ve dabbled editorially in journalism, in different places, and done advocacy work. Hunter Thompson was a very good friend of mine before he passed away. I’ve just known a lot of writers and journalists who are friends. I think what happened with the NSA revelations, and the prosecutions of whistleblowers across the board, has been a real assault. It’s had a real chilling effect. If you’re interested, look up the FPF blog site and they’ll tell you about the board, the mission statement and the organisations we support. So that’s something that I do, in my political advocate life.