Teen actor turned Hollywood star and producer John Cusack appeared Sunday before an appreciative audience at Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo to discuss his upcoming turn as Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven and, of course, his early films, many of which were longtime favorites of the crowd.
Director James McTeigue’s The Raven, which opens April 27, tells a fictionalized account of the last few days of Poe's life as he pursues a serial killer whose murders mirror those in the author’s works.
"The conceit of the film is that he becomes involved in one of his one stories," Cusack said. The tale "enables you to sort of have Poe have to deconstruct Poe because he has to try and find out what the mind of the killer is, and the killer is trying to be Poe. It allows you to sort of get into his work in a really cool way, which is less boring than a biopic.”
Poe himself led a tragic but highly influential life, the actor said. In researching the role, Cusack discovered exactly how tragic, and how extensive the influence. "[Poe's] mother died of tuberculosis, and then he sort of found a stepmother, and then she died of tuberculosis, and then he married his cousin who was 13, and then she died of tuberculosis,” Cusack said. “He called consumption the family disease.” Poe was also an infamous alcoholic, even going to the White House drunk.
Poe was also dirt poor, despite being one of the most famous writers in the world. His 1845 narrative poem “The Raven” was published around the world, but Cusack said Poe only made a “few bucks” from it. Although movie doesn’t follow the poem, it remains central to the character because of the fame Poe achieved from the work.
"He was a real kind of psycho in a lot of ways,” Cusack said. “He was really crazy -- a really crazy, eccentric writer. He had a bad alcohol problem, so he was like a classic genius crazy writer.”
One of his central themes was the mixture of beauty and love with horror and loss. "He kept ... juxtaposing this, having this deep love for these women who he adored in almost a religious way, and he would mix that with the horror of losing that [love],” the actor said. “The horror of disease, causal violence of his time. He was always juxtaposing beauty with horror, and that's why he's the godfather of goth.”
Poe is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, Cusack said, extending his influence even further. Without Poe's work, there would be no Sherlock Holmes, no CSI: Miami and no Souxsie and the Banshees, he said. Every horror writer has been influenced by Poe.
In particular, Cusack sees Poe's influence in the works of bestselling novelist Stephen King. "I would love to have a conversation with Stephen King about Edgar Allan Poe, because I can only imagine how those two genius minds would have – how Stephen King would have been infected by Poe and what he would have to say about Poe as a writer as a guy who does that kind of horror,” Cusack said. “’The Fall of the House of Usher’ could very well be The Shining. They are both geniuses."
Cusack said he relished the opportunity to bring Poe to life on the screen. "I thought it was a really great role," he said. "If you're an actor and if you don't want to play Edgar Allan Poe you should go ahead and retire. That's a really crazy, juicy, fun type of dude. It's really fun to play." The film also contains some of Poe's acerbic wit. "He had a gallows humor and a really sharp tongue. Those characters are really eccentric. I don't think it would be fun to be that person, but it's sort of fun to look at them from a distance."
Poe fits within a continuum of roles played by Cusack, characters with flaws but the ability to laugh about them. "If you do characters that were like the Buddha they'd be boring because they are totally enlightened and they don't have any flaws,” he said. “Or maybe I'm just – that's just naturally who I am, just funny and fucked up.”
When the conversation turned from Poe and The Raven, it landed on the classic Cusack canon: Sixteen Candles, Say Anything, Better Off Dead, Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity, among others. Many fans listed a favorite, to cheers of agreement from sections of the audience.
Cusack himself returned to Grosse Point Blank, a film he produced, several times. "I look back at some of the experiences with people, like Grosse Point Blank, I got to make with some of my friends from Chicago, and special experience as producer and writer," he said. He said he doesn’t have a favorite movie or role, or a top five, but instead looks back on the experience in making the film.
Grosse Point Blank was also notable because of the contribution of Joe Strummer to the soundtrack. "He's an important guy in my life, too," Cusack said.
Being John Malkovich also came up a number of times. "I went to this agency I was with and I said, ‘Give me a script that's the most unproduceable script you can find,’" Cusack recalled. They provided a few scripts, but Cusack gave them back, saying they weren’t bizarre enough. Finally, they gave him Charlie Kaufman's script for Being John Malkovich. "I knew John Malkovich, so I thought it would be fun to be inside his head. He's a very, very interesting, strange human being."
Responding to a fan's question, Cusack said he had no interest in doing a sequel to Sixteen Candles titled 40 Candles.
Another fan, dressed as Batman and speaking in a low, growling voice, asked about a sequel to Better Off Dead. "I don't know, I think you know more about sequels than I do,” Cusack replied before commenting on the costume and voice and adding, "That takes a commitment."