Playing gothic 19th century poet Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven was like jumping into the abyss for Jon Cusack. Kate Whiting meets the Hollywood star
In a room infused with cigar smoke, John Cusack sits leafing through a book of poetry, the extinguished stub on the table in front of him.
“The coffee wasn’t working anymore,” he explains.
The book is a work by Edgar Allan Poe, and Cusack has been trying to find a particular line.
“I could not love except where death mingled tears with beauty’s breath,” he reads, in a whisper-soft voice, before breaking the awkward subsequent silence by adding: “He was a trippy guy!”
The celebrated 19th century writer has been given the Hollywood treatment in The Raven, named after his most famous poem.
Chicago-born Cusack is dressed head-to-toe in black when I meet him – a nod to the film that makes his pale skin look almost translucent. He looks much younger than his 46 years, and actually lost 25 pounds to play the drunken, impoverished poet.
“I went on a strict diet to look super-thin, because he was underweight,” Cusack explains. “He was world famous but dirt poor and once showed up at the White House drunk.”
Directed by V For Vendetta’s James McTeigue, the gothic-looking film is set in old Baltimore, where Poe has to track down a serial killer inspired by the crimes in his dark works of fiction, who has kidnapped his fiancée Emily (played by London-born Alice Eve).
It’s thrilling stuff and Cusack demonstrates great skill in portraying the tortured genius.
“He’d suffered a lot of tragedy in his life. He was very melancholy and had a dark imagination,” says the actor. “He thought he could hear the sounds of darkness rushing across the horizon towards him.”
Cusack admits that he identified with Poe’s dark nature.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life. I haven’t had horrible things happen to me but I still have a dark side, a perverse side. I want to get into trouble. Most actors are sort of thieves, they have criminal natures.
“It was like peering into the abyss when you get into the land of Poe. Well, jumping into it, actually.”
A long-time fan of the poet, Cusack says it was an “honor to inhabit such an iconic figure”, but he wasn’t daunted by it.
“I’d feel that more if it was someone I knew and was friends with, but there’s a certain distance you have from someone who was alive 100 years ago. What I tried to do was go into the writing, and from that get the clues to his psyche and psychology.
“Acting is trying to figure out where you and the person meld. Sometimes it’s not nice, but it’s fun to explore those sides of yourself.”
Fortunately, Cusack found many places where he and Poe meld.
“I’m an actor, so I’m vain. Part of me is totally insane, part of me thinks I’m the best, part of me is competitive. Poe also had a lot of those qualities.
“They’re human emotions that we all have, but he had the courage to go into the underworld, or straddle both worlds. He was interested in the metaphysical, spiritual space that was gothic. But it wasn’t a headspace that I wanted to stay in.”
The role is unusually gritty for Cusack, whose diverse CV includes blockbuster 2012, romcom Serendipity and indie hit Being John Malkovich.
Many thought he was selling-out with big budget disaster flick 2012, but Cusack argues that sometimes he has to take a role to pay the bills.
“I choose scripts depending on if it’s good or if I need the money,” he laughs.
Notoriously private about his personal life, Cusack is, however, very open about his political views and used to blog for the Huffington Post. And he’s also a huge fan of Twitter.
“I share my opinion with people who are supposedly interested in what I think – people who like my work and ask me questions,” he says. “I can tweet, ‘Here’s a book by Arundhati Roy that I think is great’, or I can just say, ‘Here’s a funny picture’.”
I can’t help but wonder if Poe would be tweeting, if he was alive today.
Cusack fixes his steely brown eyes on me and says: “No, I don’t think so.”
The Raven is available on DVD now.