Minutes after meeting me at the Getty Villa in Malibu, John Cusack has concocted a plot for us to commit grand larceny. The Greek and Roman antiquities museum is closed to the public today, but open to us because one of us is John Cusack and we asked nicely. Its grounds are eerily devoid of people, its galleries minimally guarded. “That’s pretty wild,” says Cusack, grinning mischievously. “So, we could steal art.” But what to do about the museum’s willowy PR director, Desiree, who’s following us around to make sure we don’t touch anything? He suggests we cut her in, too. “We’ll all be tied to each other as felons for life. If one of us goes down, all three …”
Just as quickly as he dreamed it up, though, Cusack abandons the plan, having spotted something easier to pilfer: potato chips from the museum’s closed café. He couldn’t know they’re not free, but he doesn’t ask. He’s already digging in and offering me some before Desiree can tell him that, of course, he may help himself. He thanks her, grateful but not surprised.
Cusack, now 45, has been making movies since 1983, which means he’s been famous for over half his life. Museums opening their doors just for him, or cafeteria food being his for the taking, are just normal things that he’s long since grown accustomed to—not out of a sense of entitlement but because why waste time feeling conflicted about good fortune? He’s reached a stage in his career, too, where his decisions seem to be driven mostly by whimsy and “opportunity”—a word that, along with “risk,” he mentions a lot. He took his latest role, as a washed-up, alcoholic Edgar Allan Poe in the thriller The Raven, from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, because he felt like reading a lot of Poe. He’ll follow that with an experimental half-Spanish-language meta-comedy (working title: No Somos Animales), which he co-wrote, about an actor who moves to Argentina because he’s tired of making conventional movies. It sounds a little like a cry for help.
“I’m not trying to protect [a legacy],” says Cusack, who lives nearby in Malibu and keeps a home in Chicago, where he grew up, near his mother and actress sister Joan. Indeed, he gamely skewered his past in Hot Tub Time Machine, the 2010 sci-fi comedy in which four buddies travel back in time into what is essentially Cusack’s 1985 absurdist teen-skiing hit, Better Off Dead. “I thought, If I’m going to address my own career and be self-referential, at least I can be the one being mean to me,” he says. But when the studio pushed “to make things like American Pie and do puke and dick jokes,” he got protective. “They wanted me to do Say Anything jokes, but I thought some of it was a little lazy,” he says. “It didn’t earn that one.”
He pauses. “I guess people like Hot Tub Time Machine, don’t they? It’s culty. I do culty well.”
His culty-ness is why, he says, “I don’t listen to what people say [about my movies] right away, because later the people either like or hate them more.” Take The Raven. Under a period-piece surface, it’s a lurid murder mystery that finds Poe trapped in one of his own stories as he tracks a serial killer who’s using Poe’s stories as inspiration to bury people alive (“The Cask of Amontillado”) or gut them with a swinging blade (“The Pit and the Pendulum”). “This isn’t The King’s Speech,” Cusack says. “People challenging the conceit of the movie don’t know Poe that well. He wrote highbrow, esoteric poetry, but also lowbrow pulp for a Saturday-evening paper. He’d do cliffhangers. He’d have outrageous things like orangutans coming out with razor blades. It was horror.”
Cusack wants to check out the art. At home, he owns pieces from friend Ralph Steadman and spin paintings he made with Damien Hirst. He’d love to get some German Expressionists but can’t. “Not unless The Raven’s a really big hit,” he says, laughing. “The kind of art I love I can’t afford. You have to be in a different tax bracket than I am.”
The tax bracket he’s in can’t be too bad, though. When he’s not acting or tweeting prolifically about pop culture and politics (he’s liberal, but no fan of Obama these days), he says, “I go on adventures.” Those include snowboarding and driving a tripod motorcycle around South America. He still practices mixed martial arts, which he picked up while filming Say Anything, but doesn’t spar much anymore. “You can’t keep going to the chiropractor,” he says. In his off time on The Frozen Ground, a thriller he recently shot with Nicolas Cage in Alaska, he and friends would land a helicopter on an iceberg and smoke cigars, floating on the Arctic Sea. “That’s a pretty good day.”