We walk past an outdoor amphitheater where this fall, Desiree explains, the Getty will be staging Euripides’ Helen, in which the gods send Helen to Egypt for safekeeping while sending a ghost, or “Stepford Helen,” to Troy. Chaos ensues. Says Cusack, “I’d make that movie.”
He tells us his father once used Aristophanes’ The Birds as the basis for a play he wrote. “He sold his soul to advertising to pay for us, then did what he wanted to do, which was write. He passed away nine years ago.” Wandering through the galleries, Cusack admires a plump Aphrodite: “If she were around today, she’d get liposuction.” Of the museum’s prized artifact, a fourth-century bronze Greek athlete whose hand is raised to his ear, Cusack jokes, “He originally had a cell phone.” We pass a Dionysus. “Speaking of Bacchus,” he says, “that’s my man.” He touches the statues until Desiree catches him and asks him not to.
Cusack describes making The Raven as “like being on jag or a bender.” His Poe is so broke he’s reduced to shouting out poems in bars in hopes that someone will remember he was once great and buy him a drink. (I tell Cusack that sounds like a mid-career actor’s worst nightmare. He doesn’t bite.) On the three-month shoot in Serbia, Cusack says, he went a bit crazy. He didn’t sleep. He dropped 30 pounds. “I just got really, really thin. When I came back, I scared my family. They were like, ‘What have you been doing?’ ” But he liked being inside Poe’s head, temporarily. “There’s something romantic about toying with the abyss. But I wouldn’t want to stay there.”
The Raven was just the beginning of a dark, three-movie journey through the underworld for Cusack. He then shot The Frozen Ground, in which he stars as a serial killer (he based his portrayal of evil on crocodiles he’d seen on safari in Africa), and played a death-row inmate in Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy. To prepare for the three roles, he did Jungian shadow exercises, meditations designed to delve into parts of the subconscious you most want to hide. Did he discover a dark side he didn’t know about? “No, I’ve known about it forever,” he says, laughing. “But I’ve been tapping into it in interesting ways. If we don’t remember we’re fucked up and human, then the work isn’t compelling. That’s why, obviously, the job is not all about people who are evolved and happy, because there’s no drama there. We have to mine our secrets.”
Getting deep into character, he says, “felt appropriately binge-y. Poe binge-y.” But he stopped short of actually becoming a drunk: “I have enough experience with being a maniac that that’s close to the surface.” Drugs and alcohol, “that’s a younger man’s version of wild. If you live like Poe lived, you die.” So you go on adventures. You sit on icebergs, get skinny enough to scare your family, and sulk around Serbia doing Jungian shadow exercises. “It’s just changed form,” Cusack says. “You graduate to a higher level of maniac.”