TORONTO—Few female cinephiles of a certain demographic will ever forget John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, standing on Ione Skye’s front lawn in 1989’s Say Anything… with the boom box and the high-tops and the unflinching I’m-in-love-with-you stare.
It seems like maybe even Cusack thinks he might still be a bit Dobler—a grown-up version, of course—because when the Straight caught up with him in a hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he was laid-back in skinny black denim, smoking an elegant, black-tipped vape, and happy to talk about how much he loves B.C. (Hot Tub Time Machine was shot in Whistler, after all.)
Cusack maintains an iconoclastic, unconventional edge in two of his recent roles: as real-life Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, and as an unsettling fictional Hollywoodian patriarch in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (opening Friday [October 31] ).
“There’s an exhilaration in the architecture of the writing,” Cusack said when asked what drew him to the latter project. “There’s all these circles that [screenwriter] Bruce [Wagner] writes, all these spirals of trauma that circle in on the characters. We’re all replaying the trauma in the body. It’s very Greek, very precise. He’s so fast-twitch, so postmodern; and Cronenberg is so rigorous he dissects. So it’s a slow, slow tide and then it’s a tsunami. Bruce and David Cronenberg, it’s a match made in heaven.”
Cusack is a self-professed Cronenberg fanboy from way back. He admitted that an assemblage of classic Cronenberg characters can be recognized in his chilling performance as Dr. Stafford Weiss. Like James Woods in Videodrome, perhaps?
“Sure, that’s one way to think about it,” he affirmed. “Or Goldblum in The Fly, or Scanners, or—if I’m aspiring to greatness—Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. Though my role is as, obviously, part of an ensemble.”
Legends aside, Cusack said the main reason he’d long wanted to work with Cronenberg was that “David does what David wants.” Doesn’t he, Cusack, also do what he wants?
“I’ve gotten that chance once or twice,” he said. “But do you think L.A. gives a shit about people? This town has gotten so vicious. You really have to fend off those vampires.”
Indeed, he eschews the idea that Maps to the Stars is satire and calls Weiss the most true-to-life character he’s ever played. (Screenwriter Wagner also claims that Maps is a real ghost story and swears that every line in the script is something he has heard said in real life.)
“L.A. is a town full of so many desert crazies, snake-oil salesmen, carnival barkers, and fake spiritualists that it’s impossible to spot a real one,” Cusack said. “The idea is that there’s this need that people have because it’s such a desperate town, so you have a lot of predators who come around. That kind of need, coupled with that kind of money, anywhere—in Silicon Valley, in the financial district, in D.C., but especially in L.A.—you’ll always have these kind of opportunists attacking the moat and trying to get inside by any means necessary.”
Weiss, he said, is just that kind of living ghoul: the ghost that hangs over his whole family. With a conspiratorial look, Cusack affirmed that he knows what he’s talking about.
“It was a way to express a certain kind of evil, always with half-truths. The successful opportunist doesn’t use lies: he has to be very clever to hide what he’s up to. He’s the beast that apes God, for whom there’s no tragedy that can’t be exploited as a revenue stream.”
Like all good movies about the evils of Hollywood, Maps is an inside job. The A-list cast, which includes Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, and Robert Pattinson, participates with an ill-disguised glee. You get the sense that their performances come from their experience in the industry, a fleeting intuition that Cusack confirmed.
“Every awful thing that happens to our characters are the things that happen to us on all our other movies,” he explained. “Most of my time as a filmmaker and someone who produces, writes, acts, directs—my job is keeping those people away from the actors and the set.” Most of the movies you see in Hollywood, he continued, “got butchered and focus-tested for a committee of senior vice-presidents who didn’t read the script.
“Now it’s just a corporate group idea of ‘Let’s put together an animated version of a face.’ There’s no sensitivity towards letting anything interesting happen. The culture has gotten so debased,” he said.
“For us, that’s what we live in and fight all the time. So to do this film, which was just us and David, that’s real filmmaking. No one fucked up this movie,” Cusack concluded. “Maybe it’s fucked-up. But if it is, it’s us that did it.”