John Cusack

The Bush-hating actor delivers an antiwar movie without all the preaching.

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Illustration: Rob Kelly

John Cusack proved long ago that he has a staying power not too common among '80s poster children. (See: William Zabka.) Decades removed from his days as soulful everymisfits Lloyd Dobler and Lane Meyer, the Chicago-born actor has built a career of playing complicated—and often not entirely likable—characters.

In his latest, Grace Is Gone, Cusack portrays Stanley Phillips, a paunchy middle-aged father whose wife is fighting in Iraq. When tragedy befalls the family, Stanley is forced to question his core beliefs—and somehow, break the news to his daughters. Given that the actor, who also produced the film, once called the Bush administration "corrupt, unlawful and tragically absurd" on The Huffington Post, it's natural to expect the Sanctimonious Level to hit the red. Instead, the movie opts for subtlety.

Cusack, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Chicago, phoned us from L.A. to talk about reading his own reviews and how he avoided making an antiwar polemic.

After I saw Grace Is Gone, I left the theater totally bummed out. Is that the reaction you want from your audiences?
I'm just happy for any serious, intense reaction. Hopefully it's not depression, but I wouldn't mind anger or outrage.

Was it weird playing someone with beliefs so different from your own?
I guess people who know my politics will think, Oh, that's interesting. Stanley believes a lot of things differently than I do, but you find the common humanity. He loves his country and his family and he's wound way too tight, and in some ways I can relate to that. So I was able to funnel some of my own rigidity and self-righteousness into the role. [Laughs]

How careful were you to make sure the movie didn't have an agenda?
The only agenda it has is that it's pro-human. The film doesn't get into the mechanics of the mission; it shows the human costs when the coffin comes home. It's trying to transcend the partisan bickering that you can fall into when you're having a discussion about the war. We wanted to make a movie where nobody had a monopoly on the truth. Everybody's right and full of shit. [Laughs] None of these characters walked down from Mount Olympus.

As a Hollywood liberal you must be prepared for some backlash anyway.
I think the people who do that sort of thing will always find an opening, whether or not there's a valid reason for it. And critics, some of them will find it schmaltzy or take shots because they don't like a couple of the movies I've done in the last few years.

You really think critics let their opinions of your other movies bleed into the next one?
I think people do all sorts of crazy shit that has nothing to do with saying, "Here's what these people are trying to do, and here's whether or not I feel they were successful." There are some reviews where after I read it I wonder, Did I break up with her or did she see my film? [Laughs] I don't even care if [a critique] is mean as long as it's interesting, but some of it is so self-serving. But I love reviews that make me see something a different way.

So reading about yourself can be illuminating?
Yeah. I read something about High Fidelity: The reviewer said, "Everybody's saying this is this sad-sack loser who can't keep a girlfriend, but in reality this is the portrait of a passive-aggressive womanizer using that as a cover." I remember reading that and going, "Yeah!"

Did you play him that way?
No, but there's an element of truth to it. I think how it usually boils down is, when they write something really good about you, it's insightful and they're genius writers. When they write something really bad about you, they're tabloid trash. [Laughs]

Pretty convenient!
Yeah. There's not a lot of intellectual honesty there, but that's probably how I see it.

Grace Is Gone is now playing.

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