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Wearing a throwback Cubs cap, Chicago native John Cusack took to the stage at C2E2 to discuss a film career that spans from “Sixteen Candles” to “Chi-raq.” Actress Clare Kramer moderated the wide-ranging spotlight panel, which touched on Cusack’s experiences playing the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, working with his sister Joan, and genres he’s not yet tried.
The conversation began with Cusack’s 1997 comedy “Grosse Pointe Blank,” which he also co-wrote and produced. “I had a theater company in Chicago called New Crime Productions,” he said,” and when I was 27, 28, I thought I wanted to take more control writing and producing films.”
Moving from the broad comedy of that film to playing Brian Wilson in the 2014 bipoic “Love & Mercy,” Cusack noted there can be more at stake when portraying a real person. “When the people are still alive, it adds a little pressure,” he said. “But Brian and Melinda were so gracious, they let me come in and see how he is and how he copes with the world.”
“The most important thing to me was, when they saw the movie, that they felt we did him justice,” he added.
Music plays a significant role in many of Cusack’s movies, but of course with a project like “Love & Mercy” there’s another dimension as well. “Music is like the fuel, it’s like the gasoline. When you’re acting you have to set the mood, set the tone,” the actor said. “When I was doing “Love & Mercy,” I just listened to the ‘Smile Sessions’ box set,” he continued, recalling, “When [Wilson] re-emerged he played that at the Royal Festival Hall, with Paul McCartney sitting in the front row weeping.”
Wilson’s mental illness also meant the role needed to be approached with great care. “He was schizo-affective, which is not schizophrenic. He heard music, he didn’t hear voices,” Cusack said. “I think the problem with Brian is he was misdiagnosed and mis-treated … and then he was abused by this horrible, horrible man who entered his life.” As Wilson was given increasing doses of the wrong medications for years, Cusack said that for his performance he “tried to find what the effects would be of those drugs that he didn’t need … and work that in.”
Asked if there was any genre or type of movie he’d like to do that he hasn’t yet explored, Cusack replied, “I think there would be room for a really insane musical.” When he added that his voice might not land him such a role, Kramer said, “Even great singers aren’t always great singers; look at Bob Dylan.” This was met with a smattering of groans, and prompted a few fans to defend Dylan in the Q&A.
Cusack also said, “I could do, like, a guest zombie thing on ‘The Walking Dead.’”
“I want to do a movie on a guy called Edgar Cayce [the famed American mystic],” he said. “I’m trying to get the financing now to make that happen.” The project, called “American Prophet,” would be directed by John Sayles, with whom Cusack worked on the 1988 sports drama “Eight Men Out.”
A fan asked Cusack about his favorite live bands, and he cited Gogol Bordello as a recent “incredible live show.” “Other than that, I’m listening to a lot of older bands,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s because I’m getting old or because the newer music sucks. “He added that, “I’m always ahead of or behind the curve” in music trends, “never in the now.”
Asked about his top five songs, Cusack struggled. “I’m not really a ‘top five’ guy. I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t decide. It depends on the mood. I think ‘Gimme Shelter’ would be up there.’”
On the possibility re-staging his production of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which he produced in the early 1990s, Cusack said, “Theater is tough because actors want to get paid, and that’s not going to happen with small community theater not sponsored by AT&T.”
Asked whether he wrote the role of Marcella in “Grosse Pointe Blank” specifically for his sister Joan, Cusack said, “I basically write some stuff on the page and get on set, and then she says whatever the fuck she wants.”
“I like to get to a point where I’m about 70 percent done [with a script] – it’s not a novel, you want to capture things that happen on camera,” he added. Joan “always comes up with crazier shit than I can write.”
Although Cusack takes this approach with his other films as well, he concedes that working with other directors can require different approaches. “If you’re working with David Cronenberg, he wants every word exactly the way he wrote it, which is cool.”
Multiple fans asked about advice for aspiring actors, and Cusack favored the DIY approach over seeking fortune in Los Angeles. “If you go to LA to make films, you’re going to LA to ask for permission to make films from the studios,” he said. “Now you can go out and shoot films with your iPhone.”
“Once you have films that you made, you can go to LA and meet people.”
He also emphasized the need to hone the craft of acting. “I think Chicago is great, because you can go do plays all the time,” he said. “You need to practice, and you don’t get better at acting by auditioning. … A lot of people just go out to LA and say ‘I’m an actor’ but they just get stuck auditioning. It’s like saying ‘I’m a basketball player’ and not wanting to do pickup games.”
“Do it yourself. Learn by doing, and don’t ask anyone’s permission,” he said, returning to the topic near the end of the panel. “It’s great to learn all the rules and then break them. Look at Picasso. Nobody knows this, but he was really great at drawing very realistic figures. Then he could go abstract. Learn your craft, and then you can layer it.”
Asked about going with novelist Arundhati Roy and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to meet NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Moscow, the actor said, “There will be more of that coming up,” he said.
On the topic of actors or directors he’d like to work with, Cusack said, ‘I think it would be really cool to make one with Scorsese.”
But, more importantly, will there be a “Hot Tub Time Machine 3”? “Not with me! I produced the first one and oversaw the writing, and with the second one they just wanted a lower-rent one,” he said. Asked why he only appeared briefly in the sequel, he replied, “They decided the problem was me, I guess.”
Asked about working on “Con Air” with Nicolas Cage, Cusack rattled off the roster of A-list talent before saying it was “like the ’85 Bears.”
Cusack worked again with one of those Bears, John Malkovich, in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s surreal “Being John Malkovich.” “He was so awesome,” he said of the actor. “He called me up and said, ‘You’ve got to do this movie, because it’s so fucking mean. It’s so fucking mean about me. And fuck it, I am an asshole.’ It was a weird conversation.”