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Dobler Effect: The Good Vibrations (and Martial Artistry) of John Cusack

Cusack has never been busier, but that doesn’t mean you’ve seen everything he’s made lately.

“You have to do movies to pay the bills, ” John Cusack says, “to do other things you want to do in your life — if you want to put on a play or if you want to author a book or pay to have a screenplay written.” Cusack is explaining why he makes so many movies. He doesn’t sound defensive — he’s been doing this too long for that. He’s just pragmatic.

It’s late May and we’re talking on the phone one week after a brief encounter in the bar at Metro, a well-known music venue in Cusack’s hometown of Chicago. At the time, Cusack was reticent and worn out from a grueling press tour in support of Love & Mercy, a biopic about the life of Brian Wilson in which Cusack plays the middle-aged version of the Beach Boys musical mastermind. (Paul Dano portrays Wilson as a younger man in the ’60s.) But during our follow-up, Cusack is more, well, Cusack-like: funny, fast-talking, candid, and sneakily earnest.

“Unless you have a billionaire in your pocket, you have to get money, and I get money by acting in movies, right?” he says. “I mean, it’s a big racket.”

Since 2010, John Cusack has starred in 17 films. He has three more in the pipeline, including Spike Lee’s Chiraq. That’s a lot of output for any actor in five years, but let’s put it in perspective anyway: Cusack has already exceeded his level of production in the ’00s, when he made 16 films, including the hits High Fidelity, America’s Sweethearts, and 2012, his highest-grossing movie. If he maintains his current pace this decade, Cusack will nearly match the number of movies (37) he appeared in during the ’80s and ’90s combined.

These days, it only seems like the 48-year-old Cusack will take any role that comes his way. He’s become the chill Nicolas Cage, with a filmography loaded with many straight-to-VOD movies you’ve never heard of, with titles you’ll instantly forget: The Factory, The Numbers Station, The Frozen Ground, The Prince, Reclaim. Cusack’s higher-profile projects in recent years cover the full spectrum of camp — there’s enjoyable camp (Drive Hard), scandalous camp (The Paperboy), self-aware “smart” camp (Hot Tub Time Machine), and high-minded art camp (Maps to the Stars).

john-cusack-map-to-the-starsEntertainment One

Should you decide to sample one of these films lurking in the nether regions of your Netflix queue, you’ll find that Cusack remains a highly watchable and forthright actor. He exudes intelligence, even when the movie is lobotomized. For whatever reason, one of the most appealing romantic leads of his generation has played a lot of creeps lately — serial killers, hit men, Richard Nixon. But his commitment to the seediness of his characters is commendable. When Cusack slams his sweaty, naked crotch into Nicole Kidman’s backside while she’s bent over a washing machine in The Paperboy, it is sufficiently repellent. Cusack is solidly professional even when the scene calls for grotesquerie.

But Love & Mercy is different. It’s a prestige film with an A-list cast, and Cusack’s performance is bracingly vulnerable.

“It took me about five years to get something this good,” he told me in Chicago. “Just searching and trying.”

Picturing John Cusack as the architect of the Beach Boys’ all-American boomer-era hits might strain credulity, but he’s not really playing that Wilson.1 Dano is tasked with convincing the audience that he’s actually creating the pocket symphonies of Pet Sounds, all while fighting inner demons. It’s no small compliment to Love & Mercy that it makes arduous, painstaking studio work seem not only fun but also cinematic. No film since Amadeus has been better at visualizing the art of music composition.

1. Director-producer Bill Pohlad said he was inspired to cast Cusack after watching Don Was’s great 1995 Brian Wilson documentary, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.

Cusack, meanwhile, portrays Wilson during the Beach Boys’ ’80s period, when Wilson was under the thumb of a domineering therapist named Eugene Landy (played with an insane Mephistophelian glint by Paul Giamatti) and about to fall in love with his future wife, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who eventually helps Wilson get his independence back.

Cusack says he played Wilson as “an open wound” — a lonely sufferer with a fragile psyche who’s wary of people but desperate for connection. Given the grindhouse griminess of many of Cusack’s recent films, the lightness he brings to Love & Mercy rolls in like a refreshing breeze off the Pacific, particularly in his scenes with Banks, which make surprisingly good use of Cusack’s rom-com chops.

While he’s proud of Love & Mercy, Cusack doesn’t apologize for the clunkers in his rearview. After all, he has been making movies since he was 16, exactly two-thirds of his life. If you’ve been around as long as Cusack has, you know that the way to keep making movies is to keep making movies.

“You see all these guys [saying], ‘Oh, I’m an auteur filmmaker,’ and they only make one film every four years. Well, you know what they’re doing the rest of the time? They’re doing burger commercials!” Cusack says. “They don’t put their name on it, but the auteur directors are making commercials, right? So, I could go make commercials where I’m onscreen, but I don’t necessarily want to do that.

“I think people can probably tell when I’ve gotten the opportunity to do something that I thought could be good and I put my all into it,” he says. “I try to take my craft seriously. But you also have to make deals with the devil all the time in the business.”

HP_fox_say_anything_john_cusack_80020th Century Fox

For people of a certain age, John Cusack will probably always seem like a big movie star. If you entered puberty between 1983 and 1990, Cusack is a quintessential everyfella — after The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead…, and Say Anything…, he was an avatar for sensitive males who knew they’d never be Billy Zabka. But even after he graduated to Bruckheimer-size blockbusters with Con Air, Cusack made sure to chase the popcorn flicks with intellectually adventurous movies like Being John Malkovich. Like Rob Gordon, proprietor of Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity, Cusack has been an amiably aloof presence, never a focal point in pop culture but still hanging out in the background.

While he hasn’t lost his movie-star charisma, Cusack isn’t doing movie-star projects. Where is John Cusack’s comic-book movie? Guys like Robert Downey Jr., Paul Rudd, and Miles Teller have their comic-book movies. The genre that rules Hollywood has made the brainy, dude-next-door, John Cusack type a new kind of action hero. Meanwhile, the actual John Cusack is making martial arts epics that only get released in China.

“I got a call last year and it said, ‘Jackie Chan wants you to come out and do a Chinese-language movie set in the Gobi Desert, and you’re going to play a second-century Roman commander who has to fight, and Jackie Chan is doing all of the stunt choreography. Will you come out and do this thing?’” Cusack says. “And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I have to.’ Because, that’s already making me laugh, and when am I going to get a chance to do like a full-on, crazy action movie with Jackie Chan?”

Cusack is talking about Dragon Blade, which did good business in its native country when released in February, grossing more than $100 million, though it hasn’t arrived in America.

“You think, OK, that’s a smart business move, you’re going to be in China — China is a big, booming thing. Those Chinese companies are probably going to buy Paramount and Warner Brothers one of these days. I love Jackie Chan, I’m a martial artist,2 and you can’t really do good martial arts unless you’re at the top of the food chain in the studio system. You can’t really do smart action.

2. A kickboxer since Say Anything…, Cusack is a level six black belt.

“So I went out to China and did this crazy martial arts thing with him,” he says matter-of-factly.

When I met Cusack at Metro, he was joined by the real Brian Wilson, who also accompanied Cusack at a screening of Love & Mercy the night before. Immediately after appearing onstage for the post-screening Q&A, Wilson was greeted with a standing ovation.

The night’s first question came from an intensely emotional young man who poured his heart out for what seemed like three hours about how “Vegetables,” a song from Wilson’s ill-fated 1967 passion project Smile, soothed him after the death of his grandmother.

“Your time’s up, go to the next one,” Wilson replied.

My interview with Cusack and Wilson unfolded in more or less similar fashion. The pair reiterated the usual talking points for the Love & Mercy publicity campaign — the innovation of the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions, the romance of Brian and Melinda, Wilson’s triumph over Landy. Cusack, a Beach Boys fan, was initially nervous to meet Wilson, but he came to rely on the pop genius’s insights for anything he couldn’t intuit on his own. At Metro, Cusack was still channeling Wilson — he was taciturn and brief throughout.

Finally, after about 10 minutes, Wilson turned to me, extended his hand, and said good-naturedly, “Thanks for the interview, man!”

love-and-mercy-john-cusack-2Roadside Attractions

“I just think he’s not an emoter, you know?” Cusack tells me on the phone, referring to Wilson. “If you asked Bob Dylan to explain what it was like when he plugged in his electric guitar [at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965] and got booed off the stage, he’s not going to give you an answer. He’s answered that 20,000 times.

“Any famous person knows what that’s like, because people come and they have either a need or a want, and sometimes you’re just tired and you’re just trying to get through your day and you can’t be what you want them to be and you disappointed them and it all feels a little overwhelming,” he says. “I’ve had that to a small extent, because some people kind of feed off of being famous and some people find it kind of weird and a little bit intrusive. I can understand how it can all be too much — it can get overwhelming at times to try to meet those expectations.”

Cusack picked Metro for the Chicago junket in part because he’s been seeing bands there since he was a teenager. The son of Richard, a documentary filmmaker,3 and Nancy, a math teacher, Cusack grew up in nearby Evanston with three sisters (including fellow actors Joan and Ann) and one brother.

3. And NCAA champion alongside Bob Cousy at Holy Cross in 1950. He also roomed with peace activist Phil Berrigan.

Cusack still lives in Chicago, which forms a crucial part of his persona. His separation from Hollywood is geographical as well as philosophical. Midwestern contrarianism is ingrained in him — Cusack doesn’t think he belongs, and therefore he doesn’t belong.

“I call it nouveau sane, when the ultimate act of rebellion is staying sane,” he says. “Sometimes that means removing yourself from the fucking rat race.

“It’s so crazy, there’s a premium put on networking and being kind of, you know, a yuppie. It’s all the same corporate structures and it’s the same billionaires and it’s the same people going to the same parties and all that stuff. But if you’re not cut out for that, you have to sort of … you know, I’ve had to do movies that I didn’t think were the best things that I could do. You do these movies that you don’t get paid anything for, and you work on them for over a year, a year and a half, two years. And then you’ll do a more commercial movie.”

Love & Mercy feels like a commercial movie, but it technically counts as “small.” The arc of Brian Wilson’s life is a natural fit for the biopic treatment — it is, in many ways, textbook feel-good entertainment. (The audience literally cheered at the end of my screening.) Nevertheless, it’s not the kind of movie that major studios seem to have interest in making anymore.

For years, the project languished in development purgatory: Back in 1988, William Hurt was going to play Wilson opposite Richard Dreyfuss as Landy. The project didn’t get moving until Bill Pohlad — financier, producer, and son of former Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad — decided to put up the money and direct it himself.4

4. Pohlad’s most notable films as a producer include 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, and Brokeback Mountain.

The final result isn’t perfect. Sometimes Love & Mercy’s reach exceeds its grasp. A shot of Wilson floating in a swimming pool as his mental state disintegrates during the Smile sessions alludes to the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind, awkwardly transforming an otherwise intimate story into an allegory. But Love & Mercy is affecting and different enough from the typical biopic to avoid the usual pitfalls. And in the movie business, expecting perfection is a fool’s game. Nobody knows better than Cusack how hard it is to pull off a good movie.

“A film can get fucked up — if you don’t get the script right, that’s phase one, right?” he says. “Then you get the cast right, that’s phase two; and if you cast someone wrong, that can screw it up. Then you have to film things that happen to actors, and if you don’t get that right, you screw it up. And then finally the film can get put into the hands of a bunch of executives who weren’t even on-set and they’ll hack the thing up and ruin what you did. So to make anything good is almost a miracle.

“We had one shot to get it right and everyone was going to give it everything that they had,” he says. “I knew what this could be, so I’ve given everything I had.”