the vulture transcript

John Cusack on The Raven, ‘Lazy’ Comedy, and His Zombie Survival Plan

John Cusack.

Earlier this month, we spent a very enlightening several hours with self-professed maniac John Cusack, pretending to rob the Getty Villa, stealing potato chips, and discussing everything from Greek antiquities to his new Edgar Allan Poe movie, The Raven, from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue. Below is what didn’t make it in, including Cusack’s movie recommendations and his plan for surviving the apocalypse.

[Editor’s note: A bit of context: We’d originally thought that we’d do the interview at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which sounds like it might be about dinosaurs, but is not. It is awesome, though. Go if you’re in L.A.]

Did you relate to the plight of Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven? He had to shout out his poems in bars so someone would remember he was once great and buy him a drink. Sounds like an actor’s worst nightmare.
Oh, I can see where all this talk of dinosaurs is going. He’s more of a guy who just painted himself into a horrible box. I don’t know about that.

What do you mean?
Well, Poe was such a disagreeable man. He was at war with so many different men. He was petty, vindictive, elitist, snobbish — all those things. He said once, “I don’t want to put up with anything I can put down.” He would just decimate other writers, like Emerson and Wordsworth and Longfellow. He challenged people to duels. He really burned all of his bridges intellectually. I don’t think he really liked men at all, any men.

It seemed like you spent most of the movie being dirty or wet or having mental breakdowns.
It’s Poe. How could you not?

Was it uncomfortable to shoot it?
I wouldn’t say it was uncomfortable. It’s just it’s not a nice head-space to stay in, but it’s kind of an exhilarating head-space because there’s something kind of romantic toying with the abyss, you know. But it’s a nice place to be able to leave. I mean, I understand why he died early and everything.

Did you get more gray hairs when you were doing this?
No. But it was funny, I just got really, really thin. So when I came back I scared my family a little bit. They were like, “What have you been doing?” He was so poor and he was such a bad alcoholic it felt right to be kind of rail thin. So, when I got back from doing eight weeks of night shoots in Hungary and Serbia in the winter, I was 187 pounds. I think everybody was a little startled.

How much weight did that mean you’d lost?
Probably 30. It felt like it would be a good way to try to get inside of his skin.

Did you starve yourself?
Well, I tried to do it in a healthy way. You know, have a nutritionist.

Oh, I was hoping you just went a little crazy.
Well, I did when I was there, skulking around Serbia at night in a goatee with a head full of Edgar Allan Poe.

Did you scare strangers while you were doing that?
I don’t know. I might have. I don’t know what I was like because I was in my head. I mean, they didn’t have to call me Edgar or anything, but I’m sure I was a little bit moody.

What about his heavy drinking? Did you experiment with that?
No. No. No. But I have enough experience with being a maniac that that’s close to the surface.

Are you talking about your early days hanging out with Tim Robbins? You guys were maniacs together.
Yeah. We were. Hope to be again.

When did being a maniac like that end, or has it?
It’s just changed its form, you know. Not so much drugs and alcohol.

How do you be a maniac without?
Easy. You just do different sorts of adventures.

Like skydiving?
Well, everything. You just graduate to a higher level of maniac.

Well, it probably helps to have more money, right?
No. I don’t think it has to do with money. I think it has to do with the state of your spirit. Like where you’re willing to go.

You’re being so vague. I’m having trouble picturing what you do.
Well, for example … however else the movie works out or however it’s received or perceived, if you go to Serbia and you throw yourself into it and you start to do Jungian shadow exercises … If you go deeper artistically into things, you’re actually more intense than if you’re out there raging around.

Did that take a while for you to understand that?
I think before, it was a younger man’s version of wild. A limiting version of wild. But I hung out with great maniacs and I understand it. It’s just, I mean, you can’t do that. If you live like Poe did, you die.

Can you tell me about the movie you have at Cannes, The Paperboy? You shot that after The Raven.
It’s based on this Pete Dexter book about these reporters [Zac Efron and Matthew McConaghey] in the sixties who are following this woman [Nicole Kidman] who kind of serially falls in love with people who are on death row. She wants to get this guy off, and they think they can get him off on a technicality. So the ethics of it are dubious as to who’s using who and what the right thing to do is. Why are they following her around for this story? Are they exploiting her or trying to help her?

You’re the guy on death row they’re trying to get off.
Yeah. It’s been said that he gutted a sheriff and he’s in for life. So, they all come to him and then he sort of uses them and initiates them all. Lee Daniels is an intense, intense director. Really liked him. I think I understood him right away or he understood me. Lee wants that sort of psychic space where you don’t know whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry, where you don’t know what to do with your emotions. Are you supposed to be disgusted or in awe?

Zac Efron plays a reporter in the film. Did you guys ever talk about how he can be taken seriously as an adult actor?
Well, I mean my thing on him was he was going to do just fine because he had a certain mind-set that I thought, That’s the way a winner is. He didn’t walk around trying to prove what he knew. He was just totally open to wanting to really work hard and was just really honest about what he didn’t know, which I always think is a smart thing to hear from somebody. It makes you take them seriously because they’re not really pretending.

You visited death row inmates for the role, right? What did you learn?
Well, you have all sorts of ideas about what these types of people are going to be, what it was going to feel like. Then when you get there it’s completely different. Mostly you see people who are just like us. They’re just human. They’re not monsters.

Which is scarier, maybe.
Well, yeah. Because it could be us. But there were a couple people there that had something in them when they looked at you that just … there was sort of a malice to them, where you really did feel there was just no place for them outside those bars. You could feel the hairs on the back of your neck. That’s what I wanted to get for the character. It’s more of a pure kind of predator; like if you see a crocodile or something prehistoric, it has sort of an intelligent kind of cruelty to it. I mean, when I’ve been in Africa or when I’ve seen some of those predators, to me the crocs are the most frightening because they feel so ancient and they feel so intelligent and ruthless. But it’s not as sort of self-obsessed as some of the cats. It’s not as vain.

You’ve been on safari, I’m guessing.
Yeah, I’ve been two or three times. To South Africa and Botswana.

And the lions and tigers seemed vain to you?
Well, you don’t want to catch a cat on the wrong day or the wrong moment. Obviously, they’re rough customers, but they’re sort of beautiful and mercurial and moody. Sometimes they’ll be sitting there and they’ll just sort of look right past you and sort of ignore you, like they can’t even be bothered. But a crocodile is looking at you the whole time, like he’s watching everything you’re doing. It feels more evil.

After The Paperboy, you play a serial killer in Frozen Ground, which shot in Alaska. Nicholas Cage is the cop who chases you. You’ve worked together before.
Yeah. I was in Adaptation for a second. Then we did Con Air and now this. We seem to be taking different paths. I always enjoy it when I see him, but we haven’t had a chance to hang out as much.

You both have made pretty idiosyncratic choices in the movies you’ve done. Do you feel a kinship?
I think we share a certain kind of thing. I think when he was younger, in some of the films he’s done, there was sort of a comic distance or a postmodern take he had. I hate to use those words. But he was so aware of film and film narrative that he was coming at it from odd angles and doing some really kind of brave, out there, wild stuff. So, I think we connected on that area. Like the stuff he was doing in Raising Arizona and some of those wild films.

Now you both seem to be struggling between doing the movies you want to do and doing commercial movies.
Yeah. I think he’s done a lot more commercial movies than me. I’d be smart if I did more like him.

Is doing a movie like Con Air or 2012 a form of career strategy?
If you do a commercial movie, you can usually leverage it to make something else. But then sometimes things work exactly the opposite of what you think. You know, you can’t get the stuff made for a while and they say, “We haven’t done enough box-office movies,” and then you do 2012. Okay. There. That’s $800 million worldwide. Then for a while you can’t really find a job after it.

That happened?
Yeah. I mean, it never works out how you think. Maybe it’s just for me the rules don’t really apply. Like when I’m supposed to not be able to get things done I get them done. Or when I’m supposed to be able to get things done I can’t get them done. I’m the kind of person that if you lift weights you don’t get bigger, you get smaller. Sometimes it just works the opposite.

But you have a sort of credibility that hasn’t faded over time. Like, people seem to be generally interested in what you’re doing.
Yeah. I’ll have A-list pedigree, but I’m not on it.

You’re not A-list?
I think you come in and out of fashion. It’s pretty fickle. But I think you have to be able to do the job on some level. So, I’m pretty confident that at the end of the day I can do that. So, it’s like I’ll sort of let the chips fall where they may. But I don’t really listen to what I’m saying about myself or someone else is saying about me. I don’t take it too seriously in the moment.

Was that why you did Hot Tub Time Machine, because you stopped taking yourself seriously?
I did it because I thought the idea of it made me laugh. I thought if I’m going to address being an actor and my own career and be self-referential, at least I can be the one being mean to me. And I thought it was like a funny, crazy, kind of postmodern idea. Go back and get stuck in films you already made.

Did you like how it turned out?
Yeah. The only issue is that there’s a trend in kind of corporate comedy where it’s pretending to be chic, but it really wants to make things kind of like American Pie and do puke jokes and dick jokes and things like that. So, I wasn’t interested in that stuff. But the studio at the time was, so the movie is a little bit in conflict with itself that way.

You thought it was too raunchy?
I don’t mind raunchy. I just thought some of it was a little lazy. So, I didn’t do that stuff, but they wanted to do that. So they did that stuff with other characters.

Like what?
There’s a scene where Craig Robinson sticks his hand up a dog’s ass and pulls out some car keys. I was like, Really? Okay. I guess if you like that, go ahead. You shoot it. I’m not going to go shoot it.

Did it make you nostalgic?
No. It made me feel old. [Laughs.] But it was really fun to do. I liked working with the cast, Corddry and Craig Robinson and Clark Duke. So I wanted to do that. I just never did that stuff even when I was a kid. I didn’t do the American Pie stuff. I was never interested in that raunchy shit.

Were you happy to revisit the movies of your youth, like Better Off Dead or Say Anything?
I didn’t really revisit Say Anything. I didn’t feel like the movie [Hot Tub Time Machine] could have that one. It didn’t sort of earn that one. It earned the other ones. It earned the sillier ones.

What do you mean it didn’t earn Say Anything?
Well, they wanted me to do Say Anything jokes in that movie but I didn’t want to do it. I just thought the movie was being too cheap with it. In a funny way, I guess, but it was too cheap for me.

So that one’s on a higher plane for you?
Yeah. I think so. I think it’s kind of a more complex piece. I mean, Better Off Dead was cool. It was a teen movie and an absurdist black comedy. So, I thought that was interesting as a kid. But it was something I did when I was 17 for three months. So, it was weird to keep thinking about it 25 years later.

[Pauses.] I guess people like that movie, Hot Tub Time Machine, don’t they? It’s cult-y. I do cult-y well. That’s why I don’t listen to what people say right away because a little while later the people either like them or hate them more.

According to 2012, the world is supposed to end this year. How predictive is the movie, you think?
Um, I don’t think very predictive. The Mayans were probably talking about a big shift in consciousness, rather than literal …

My friend actually has a zombie survival plan.
So does Max Brooks. How does it work?

She lives across from something called the Unknown Bikers Club, and they’re going to take her across the Verrazano Bridge and out of the city.
Do you think it’ll be zombies?

Why not? They represent disease and pestilence, right?
I always liked the George Romero take. Which is like it’s a metaphor for consumerism. There’s a reason they all take place in malls.

Not all of them take place in malls.
The best ones.

Which are the best ones?
Dawn of the Dead
. The 1978, not the new one. The new one didn’t cut it. The Dawn of the Dead 1978 that’s my — that’s the best zombie movie. I love ‘em.

Are they your favorite undead creatures?
Yeah. I think for some reason they make the most logical sense to me.

Have you seen Omega Man?
That’s really bad. [Laughs.] I like 28 Days Later. I’m watching The Walking Dead. I watched the other ones, but they never quite cut it. I like anything that’s supernatural horror space. That’s why it was fun to do Poe. Who wouldn’t want to go into the underworld? I want to go there. Horror films have a dream logic that I think mirrors what we have in our subconscious. The subconscious is very violent and it’s jagged and primal. It has to do with, like, primal fears, and attachments, and fleeing, and being suffocated.

Your last horror movie was 1408, that Stephen King story about the haunted hotel room. How do you feel like that movie turned out?
Uh, pretty good.

I think so. I think Stephen King is what Poe would be if he’d survived and ever gotten sober. I liked the idea of doing a genre movie about this room being a sort of hell, and being trapped in this Hotel California–like place. I thought we went for it. It was one of those movies where you’re either going to succeed or fail, and you’re going to fall on your face either way. It’s kind of like Hot Tub Time Machine. It was like, you know — you know what you’re doing. It could be just the worst thing ever, too. I don’t have a problem taking risks that way.

You’re not thinking about a legacy.
I’m not, like, going to try to protect … I just do things if I feel like it could be a good idea. I think — it’s better to take risks that way than it is to play it safe. In fact, I wish I could take more risks. If I had the opportunity to take bigger risks on a bigger scale I would do it. I think The Paperboy is risky. It was such an intense role and was so kind of graphic and perverse and, you know, but I was like, “Great let’s do it. I’m in. Let’s go.” It’s just getting the opportunities to do them that is the problem. Once I get them, I’m good with taking risks.

I’m guessing most casting directors don’t think of you when they’re trying to cast a death row inmate …
Yeah, maybe not.

 … or a serial killer.
Probably not, yeah. The people who finance movies, they’ve got really short attention spans and they don’t really think that much, so, you know, like right now I’ll probably have to prove to people that I can do comedy.

Even though you’ve done plenty of comedy before.
Sure. But they, people, don’t remember. They can only see you as whatever you made in the last year or two years, you know?

I had mentioned my friend’s zombie survival plan to you. Did you have your own? Did you come up with one after 2012? Like what you will do?
I think, um, a helicopter. It’s just something if you have to get out, you have a helicopter nearby.

Do you have one?
No. I don’t have a zombie survival plan.

But you don’t think it’s going to be zombies?
No. Do you think it’s going to be zombies?

I’m just asking.
I want there to be zombies.

Well, in 2012 the world ends with natural disaster. Is that what you imagine?
I think everybody will be stuck with each other for a long time, but the planet will get more and more uninhabitable.

That’s so gradual. That’s no fun.
That’s what I think.

Who do you save?
Who do I save?

Yeah, like who’s your one person you save?
Well, it would have to be someone in L.A. right now. If it happened today …

You can’t save your sister Joan, because she’s in Chicago.
Yeah. A couple friends.

This is getting morbid.
It is. Who would you save?

I would save my mom and my dad, I guess.
Not if they’re in L.A. and you’re in New York.

They’re in New Mexico, but you’re right. You can only save people in your immediate proximity.
Would you save me?

I guess we have to save each other. You’re very practical about this.
Well, yeah. You’re not going to have a chance to go anywhere.

What do you do if there’s no helicopter around?
I have two motorcycles. They’re trikes, though. Two wheels in front and one in back, like the Batmobile, so the wheelbase is still pretty wide. For the kind of apocalyptic gridlock we’re facing, I think I’d need to get actually get the two-wheel. But, you know, everybody is going to have the same idea …

[We start wandering around the Getty. The following are snippets of the conversation.]

What’s this on your jacket?
It’s a patch of a baseball player getting crucified. See, he’s got the glove and he went up to try to catch the fly ball, but …

… he got crucified?
Yes, like, sometimes that happens. [Laughs.]

[In a room of Dionysus sculptures.]

Cusack: Speaking of Bacchus, that’s my man!

Have you seen the second season of True Blood where they were all possessed and did Bacchanalian orgies?
I haven’t really seen it. No. That sounds like an excuse to shoot orgies. [Laughs.]

[In a room with Hera sculptures.]

So what did Hera do besides just be jealous?
Basically, they just fuck each other over. [Laughs.]

She and Zeus?
Yeah, you know, and all the other gods, like, there’s just, like, petty jealousies and trysts and rival camps and, you know, it’s like Dallas or Peyton Place.

[Later, by a sculpture garden.]

Cusack: What’s your theme on this piece?

I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet. I assume it’s going to be about The Raven and where you are now.
Oh. Well, what’s your theory about where I am now?

You’re putting me on the spot.
Now you know how I feel. [Laughs.]

Yeah, but I’m not asking you to analyze me. I’ve been asking you about yourself.
I’m asking you about what your theory is about me.

I mean, I do think it’s odd that when I asked you what you do between movies, you mentioned other movies.
Oh, that’s interesting. Was that a Freudian slip? It was probably a slip. Maybe it’s back to adventures. I go on adventures.

Well, I travel or I do a little some sort of kind of, like, I do, like, helicopter snowboarding, or I’ll do motorcycle trips. Things like that. Or I’ll take train trips. Like, when I was in Alaska working, I would take helicopters up to glaciers. Land a helicopter on an iceberg and get off and just hang out on the iceberg. I like to be in places where you’re never going to be there again. It’s very odd and random that you ever get to be there at all. I enjoy that space.

How long can you hang out on an iceberg?
As long as you can. It’s great. You can land a helicopter on there, you get out, and you just hang out.

Do you go by yourself? Do you bring a book?
No, no. You just bring camera and you bring friends. Maybe bring a cigar or something.  A drink — hot coffee or vodka or something.

[Later, inside the galleries.]

Do you want to be producing movies more?
I don’t want to be producing more movies right now. It takes so long. I just feel like acting.

Acting is what excites you more now?
I think I went through trying to get movies produced for so long. It’s a little bit of a rat race. I’m a little burned out on that. I think just that pure performance and, like, getting into that space is pretty fun. I’m doing some interesting things with, like, with, um, Jungian shadow exercises.

What’s a shadow exercise?
You know Jung’s concept of his shadow? There are these meditations you can do that are like dream analysis, but breaking down into your life or your character. You feel like you’re exploring your subconscious a little bit. You’re asking the piece to ask questions of you that, you know, maybe you want to know the information, maybe you don’t. But it’s fun. It’s interesting.

Do you have a deep dark side that you just discovered?
No, not just discovered. I’ve known about it forever. [Laughs.] But I’ve been tapping into it in interesting ways.

It’s odd to think about wanting to exploit your dark side.
I think if you’re an artist, you can’t afford not to, because if we don’t remember we’re fucked up and human, then the work isn’t compelling. The thing that makes us human is the shadows, the part of yourself that you want to most hide and not reveal to other people. Because you don’t want to be judged, right? But in art if you don’t put that stuff out and you don’t have any creativity, any sexuality, you have nothing. So, that’s why obviously the job is not all about people who are, like, totally evolved and happy [laughs], because there’s no drama there. We’re all human. We’re struggling, so that’s what makes it compelling to watch, so we don’t have any choice. We have to mine our secrets.

You stopped blogging, right? Because I haven’t seen the Huffington Post since 2009.
Yeah, yeah. I haven’t done it for a while. I think there’s so much noise in the political process now that I’m a little bit done with trying to figure out about adding to the noise. I don’t know what the point is of just more noise.

But you were at the inauguration. Are you a fan of Obama’s anymore?

Where did he lose you?
Well, Larry Summer and Tim Geithner was a pretty good indication it was going to be, uh, business as usual — as far as business and Wall Street. He did run on the idea of, “I’m going to restore sanity to the system.” He hasn’t done that. He’s institutionalized the Bush crimes and overages in ways that I think are really profound and damaging to the country. … To me, I can’t support a constitutional law professor who does away with habeas corpus. I just can’t do it now.

Well, then what happens? Do you not vote? Is there a Republican who’s got the …
Oh God, no. Never. It would be a cold day in hell.

So then, does this mean you don’t vote at all?
I think Obama on Afghanistan, and habeas corpus and FISA and prosecution of torture — those things shouldn’t be optional political moves. Those should be kind of line-in-the-sand, unclad felonies that are at the foundation of a democracy. They don’t give a fuck. They’re just doing the same politics, so I can’t vote for him anymore. I’ll try, but I don’t know if I can. We’ll see if I can do it.

[Outside, saying good bye.]

You spend half your time in Chicago and half your time here in Malibu. So where’s home?
Both, for me.

How is life in Chicago different than here, besides the sun and beach? 
It’s like city life. It’s like New York, but I guess I feel more comfortable there since that’s where I grew up. I mean, here you spend more time in people’s homes. In Chicago, you’re more out and about.

You go to baseball and hockey games a lot.
Going to games and going to bars and going to restaurants — you know, just out. I ride a motorcycle and bikes around, or Vespas, and you just kind of bob around the city. And you can go sailing there. When it’s warm out.

Are you dating?
I don’t talk about that, but …

Okay. But I read an interview where you said that it was hard to meet women because you realize “they’re not having a conversation with you, they’re having a conversation with their ambitions or their relationship to celebrity.”
That’s true that sometimes you maybe meet a certain person who has preconceived ideas about you and they can say, “What are you doing here?” But they’re not talking to me. It’s their issue with whoever you think I am. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s true. People come with certain baggage and it takes you a while to, like, figure out who you’re talking to. That’s happened to me, too, before. If there’s somebody that I really like or something, then when I meet them at first I’m sort of a fan and then at some point you sort of have to talk to them like, “Oh, this is some person who gets up every day and does this stuff.”

I remember that happening at, like, my high school reunion. Like, not being able to interact with people in their adult states, because you still have this vision of how they treated you when you were young.
It’s the reverse of that, I think, with being famous. It’s like, instead of you can’t relate to them because of how they were, you can’t relate to them because you think you’re better than them or you think they think you’re better than them. It has to do with the gulf they feel. They have issues with that kind of status stuff and they project that onto you. I think it’s true. Not all-the-time true, but it’s happened.


Cusack: What should I watch tonight that’s a really good, like, zombie movie that I don’t …

There’s one called Wild Zero with this Japanese punk band called Guitar Wolf that I’m particularly fond of.
Okay. Good. Have you ever seen some of the Japanese horror movies? Audition will fuck you up. Audition is the most horrible Japanese movie ever.

Wild Zero isn’t scary. It’s kitschy.
is like really fucked up. Audition, you’re not going to like me after you watch it. It’s really, really disturbing. [Laughs.] Like, you ever see Funny Games? The original. Michael [Haneke], what’s his name? The crazy lunatic Norwegian director. Not the remake.

I know a guy who was in the remake, Brady Corbet. He did this movie Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s about the two weeks of psychological terror this girl goes through after leaving a cult.
That sounds good. You know good, juicy stuff. I need a source for, like, good, juicy stuff.

It stars Elizabeth Olsen, who is the youngest Olsen sister.
You are a queen of kitsch. That’s awesome. There’s another Olsen twin?

She’s not a twin. She’s the third sister. Oh! Have you seen a Nick Cave video called “Heathen Child”? You might like that. It’s very weird.
You should read my friend Mark Leyner’s book, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. It’s about a butcher in New Jersey named Ike Karton who is actually the obsession of all of the gods who came, like, 20,000 million years ago on a bus from the primordial. It was a spring break bus [laughs] and the gods are named, like, Mogul Magoo and XOXO and Shanice.

Does your friend do a lot of hallucinogens?
Well, remember when we talked about how we can go wild without? He’s totally one of those maniacs.

What does the rest of your night look like?
Uh, I don’t know. I’ll have to see what time it is. Some friends might be meeting for food.

Are these famous friends?
Well, they’re not vagrants. [Laughs.] Actually, they are two hobos.

John Cusack on His Zombie Survival Plan