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Actor John Cusack signs a few autographs upon arriving at the Music Box theater in Chicago, Illinois, for the premiere of his new movie "Grace is Gone," Friday, October 12, 2007. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
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CHICAGO—Joyce Piven remembers John Cusack as a high-schooler playing a charismatic anti-hero in the Piven Theatre Workshop’s adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s short story “Just Before the War with the Eskimos.”


Piven, artistic director emeritus of the 35-year-old Evanston, Ill.-based theater group she co-founded with her late husband, Byrne, says Cusack was a perfect match for such a wry maverick role even then. But the actor’s father, Richard, himself a seasoned performer and the guiding force behind what became Chicago’s pre-eminent acting family, was concerned.


“He took me aside and said, `Is John going to be all right? I can’t hear him in the back,’” Piven recalls.


John was fine. Still is, in fact, and then some. But something about that image sticks: John Cusack taking center stage, speaking softly.


One reason is that the 41-year-old Evanston native does speak softly; on “Seinfeld” he might be referred to as a “low talker.” And for someone so well-known, his career has been somewhat low-talking as well: He occupies the limelight quietly. Much of this is by choice, particularly where his personal life is involved. Professionally, though, there’s a growing feeling among colleagues and observers that he could stand to make a little more noise. He may be coming `round on this matter as well.


Which is why, on a crisp January evening among Utah’s ski mountains, he was doing what he enjoys least: schmoozing and talking about himself. He had arrived at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City for the unveiling of a film that, if everything played out right, might crank up the volume on a film career that already has spanned 25 years and about 50 movies. “Grace Is Gone,” which lists Cusack as star and producer, actually is on the quiet side, too, but it marks a dramatic shift from the kind of bemused, detached role that has become his trademark.


He plays a slump-shouldered, doughy Midwestern suburban father named Stanley, who, unlike the actor, is a firm supporter of the Iraq war and would have been fighting in it if he hadn’t failed an eyesight test. Instead, Stanley’s military wife is stationed overseas, and he’s at home awkwardly parenting his two young girls. After two military officers arrive on his doorstep one morning bearing condolences, Stanley can’t bring himself to tell his daughters of their mother’s death and instead takes them on a spontaneous road trip to a Florida theme park.


This is not the kind of subject matter that packs them in at the multiplexes, a point reinforced by the box-office struggles of this fall’s other Iraq-related films. Written and directed by James Strouse, “Grace Is Gone” is just the sort of low-budget independent movie that requires a star to deliver it to audiences—and to a distributor, because “Grace Is Gone” arrived at Sundance without a deal for theatrical release.


Thus the movie’s premiere inside a Park City Racquet Club gymnasium-turned-auditorium was the first chance that any distributors would have to see it, and the specialty-film heavy hitters were out in force, among them: Peter Rice of Fox Searchlight, James Schamus of Focus Features, Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company, Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics. Their reaction might very well determine whether “Grace Is Gone” would enjoy a well-promoted release or go the way of many a Sundance entry: lingering on the market like some unwanted shelter puppy until, perhaps, a small distributor snatches it up for a limited theatrical or DVD release.


So between Cusack’s risky performance and the fact that his company, New Crime Productions, was on the financial hook, much was riding on his broad shoulders as he made his way into the sparsely populated press tent outside the club shortly before the screening. But if he was feeling the pressure, he wasn’t showing it, standing in his long, black overcoat and chatting amiably with 9-year-old co-star Gracie Bednarczyk, who plays the younger of his two on-screen daughters.


“I’ve been through this stuff for a while, so it’s not like my first time,” he said with a shrug. “It’s kind of beyond you in a weird way, how people embrace it or don’t. It’s got a lot of heat. Everything’s looking good, so there’s nothing to be upset about or weird about. I know we put our heart and soul up there.”


That said, he still wasn’t looking forward to stepping into that auditorium and seeing his work on screen. “I like to watch it other times when it’s not like press and buyers, all those people around,” he said. “I like to watch it more when it’s just people. But I feel OK.”


Mention “John Cusack” to random people, and the words “charming” and “boyish” often come out in response, even as he progresses through his early 40s. As my wife puts it, if you get any group of women together, at least one of them has a crush on John Cusack. Men also appreciate the confident yet not arrogant way he carries himself, his instinctive mistrust of authority, his casual magnetism and his sheer physical presence. He tops 6 feet by a few inches and knows a thing or two about kickboxing.


He has dated famous actresses without becoming tabloid fodder. He has acted alongside Paul Newman (“Fat Man and Little Boy”); Al Pacino (“City Hall”) and Gene Hackman (“Runaway Jury”); romanced Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the same movie (“America’s Sweethearts,” alas); and been directed by Clint Eastwood (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”), Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”), Woody Allen (“Bullets Over Broadway,” “Shadows and Fog”) and Stephen Frears (“The Grifters,” “High Fidelity”). Bono calls him on his cell phone, and he always seems to score excellent Cubs seats.


Being John Cusack sounds like a sweet gig.


Yet there’s something about him that, from the outside and perhaps inside, feels incomplete. For all of the praise he generates, he has yet to receive an Oscar nomination. (His older sister Joan has been nominated twice, for supporting work in “Working Girl” and “In & Out.”) He has acted in many movies but not a high percentage of great ones, or maybe even good ones. In an interview that ran in London’s Guardian newspaper in August, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve made 10 good films,” which prompted the writer to wonder, “But has he really made 40 movies that suck?”


Over the phone more recently, Cusack objected to what he saw as the writer’s negative suggestion, though he didn’t deny his own statement. “If you do 10 or 15 out of all of them that are really good, then that’s probably pretty accurate,” he said. “And then others have things that are probably OK in them, and some are dogs. But it’s still a good batting average.”


Such inconsistency has come as he, like many actors, tries to balance personal work (such as Menno Meyjes’ acclaimed but largely overlooked 2001 film “Max,” starring Cusack as a Jewish art dealer who briefly mentors Adolf Hitler) with more blatant bill-paying fare (the by-the-numbers romantic comedy “Must Love Dogs” in 2005). This summer’s trapped-in-a-hotel-room horror movie, “1408,” was a surprise hit, but “The Contract,” a thriller he filmed with Morgan Freeman and director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”), went straight to video, and Meyjes’ much-delayed “Martian Child” opened to mediocre reviews and paltry box-office figures last month.


Nevertheless, in some of the good ones, Cusack’s work has risen to the level of iconic, most notably as romantic young Lloyd Dobler hoisting that boom box over his head in “Say Anything” (1989). His angst-ridden puppeteer Craig Schwartz anchored the crazy/brilliant mind games of “Being John Malkovich” (1999), and many also fiercely identify with his characters in two movies he co-wrote: lovesick record store owner Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity” (2000) and conscientious hitman Martin Q. Blank in “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997). Even the dated teen comedy “Better Off Dead” (1985) still has its admirers; more than once at Sundance, fans enthused about it to Cusack, who wears a kind of polite grimace when the subject turns to his early years.


Cusack and his four siblings grew up in Evanston and trained for 10 years with the Piven Theatre Workshop, which emphasizes naturalness and truthfulness in creative expression. Cusack studied alongside childhood friend and future frequent co-star Jeremy Piven, whose parents, Joyce and the late Byrne Piven, founded and ran the program.


Cusack soon followed his sister and father into some locally shot movies, with all three appearing in “Class” (1983). Cusack’s breakthrough came a couple of years later when audiences embraced his trademark bristly charm in the romantic comedy road-trip movie “The Sure Thing.”


Like contemporaries Tom Cruise and Matthew Broderick, Cusack has never completely shaken his youthful image, reinforced in his “High Fidelity” character, who struggles to swap boyhood obsessions for adult responsibilities.


In “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” David Thomson writes: “It seems as if John Cusack has been adorably promising for close to 12 years now without quite establishing himself or seeming indispensable ... So when is he going to be emphatically grown-up?”


On the phone, Thomson described Cusack’s career as “an endless struggle to find the right parts for him,” perhaps because the actor may simply be too intriguing for traditional leading-man roles. “Cusack is better playing guys who’ve got weaknesses and flaws and bad hollow places that you’re going to find during the action. If you hold on a close-up of Cusack, there’s something in him that makes you begin to discover or see the weakness, whereas if you hold a close-up of (Gary) Cooper or (John) Wayne or someone of that (type), you see the strengths seeping out of them. But which is more interesting?”


Thomson said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Cusack win an Oscar in the next few years, probably for supporting actor. “My guess is he continues to improve. Take him around the age of late 40s or 50, and he’ll be really good.”


When told of Thomson’s comments, Cusack said: “That’s good, something to look forward to. Ten years from now, he’s saying I’ll be really good.” He said with a laugh, “That sounds good.”


But Cusack isn’t necessarily buying the writer’s argument about his limitations as a leading man. “The guys I really admire, like Pacino or Dustin Hoffman, they’re massive balls of contradiction and confliction, so I don’t necessarily know that that means you can’t be a movie star or a leading man in a strange way,” he said.


Catherine Keener, who co-starred with Cusack in “Being John Malkovich,” has no doubt about Cusack’s strengths as a leading man. “I’ve always perceived him that way,” she said. “People love him. They just really have a connection to him and affection for him.”


One Hollywood executive, who asked not to be named because he might work with Cusack someday, points to the fact that only one of Cusack’s movies, “Con Air” (1997), topped $100 million at the domestic box office, and he wasn’t even the lead (Nicolas Cage was). But beyond the numbers lies a larger point: Aside from the ensemble “Oceans” series, George Clooney has had his share of misses, yet his stature is on a different level from Cusack’s.


“Whereas Cusack’s highly regarded as an actor, Clooney’s not, in terms of range,” the executive said. “They’ve had similar box office histories, but one is considered one of the top male stars, and John isn’t.”


Why? Why does, say, Matt Damon seemingly have his pick of prime material, while Cusack’s films tend to play out on the edges? “What (Damon) has that John doesn’t have is a sweetness and a warmth,” the exec said. “Cusack, I think his anger comes through on screen more, and his sarcasm. Damon is more sincere, and sincerity usually translates to likability.”


Cusack actually can be a very warm actor, as in “Martian Child” and, ultimately, “Grace Is Gone.” Even when he’s playing a conniving bastard, you detect a caring heart; there’s a reason test audiences objected to seeing his crooked double-crosser bumped off in the initial cut of “The Ice Harvest” (2005).


But his characters tend to be repressing turbulent emotions, and even in person he’s guarded. While Clooney and Damon also project intelligence, they come across as open and engaging in person, down-to-earth and unafraid, and the press and public embrace them—people feel that they know them. Cusack, though unfailingly polite once you have his attention, is notoriously press-averse (as opposed to merely press-shy), and he has successfully kept the professional gossipers from delving into his romantic history or whatever else he might not want revealed.


“I don’t want to do any press,” Cusack said. “I do press because you have to for the movies.” His reasoning, which he has repeated over the years, is that too much information about an actor demystifies him. He also is a private person by nature, eschewing the party scenes in Los Angeles and Chicago, where he has homes.


“I don’t think he’s considered a huge player here,” said Bruce Bibby, who writes a Los Angeles-based gossip column, “The Awful Truth,” under the name Ted Casablanca. On the rare occasions Bibby has seen Cusack, “I liked him very much, but there’s definitely a wall.”


Cusack’s dislike of “doing press” extended to this article, for which he sat down for a couple of brief interviews at Sundance and a telephone follow-up months later. Otherwise, he avoided meeting under more relaxed circumstances away from scheduled publicity events. He also would not allow Chicago Tribune photographers to shoot a portrait of him even during his scheduled “Grace Is Gone” Chicago press day.


His attitude is well-known to friends, family and colleagues, who routinely greeted interview requests with an initial, anxious, “Is Johnny cooperating?” His sister, Joan, and mother, Nancy, declined to be interviewed, and one of his publicists subsequently called me expressing concern that I had been contacting his family members. (For what it’s worth, as a fellow Evanstonian I’ve known the Cusacks since childhood, and I’ve interviewed and written about John and Joan Cusack several times in the past.)


So Cusack doesn’t want people talking about him—except that he does. That is, he’d like to be in the mix for the awards that have eluded him thus far, and “Grace Is Gone” could represent a prime opportunity. “This seems to be one of those kinds of movies,” he said. “The subject matter is pretty emotional, topical. But (Hollywood) is also a pretty political system ... I’m inside the system, but I’m also not inside the system. I don’t go to a lot of parties. I don’t network that much. I’m probably not as good a self-promoter as I could be.”


Yet he does desire awards recognition, right? “Yeah, but I’ve often thought that if you’re not running for office, you can’t really be that upset that you’re not elected.”


Inside the Park City Racquet Club, prominent film sales agent John Sloss, representing “Grace Is Gone” at Sundance, leaned his lanky frame against the wall and assessed the film’s chances with this crowd. “I’m certainly optimistic,” he said. “It’s a small-scale movie, but it’s got big emotions at the end, and Cusack’s a revelation in it. This plays against all of his strengths. This is just him as a good actor as opposed to a charming, boyish guy.”


Distributors certainly were enthusiastic. “I love John Cusack,” said Mark Urman of ThinkFilm. “I must’ve seen `High Fidelity’ 19 times. He’s the man.” The bearish Weinstein, who as former Miramax Films co-president worked with Cusack on “The Grifters,” “Map of the Human Heart” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” also proclaimed himself an unabashed fan. “I think he’s in a renaissance: `1408,’ doing the romantic comedy with Diane Lane (`Must Love Dogs’). He can do anything, this guy.”


Strouse wrote “Grace Is Gone” with Cusack in mind after pitching the idea to Cusack’s production partner, Grace Loh. The Indiana-raised Strouse appreciated that, aside from Cusack’s “really amazing range” and “gravitas,” the actor, like the character of Stanley, is a fellow Midwesterner. In fact, Cusack insisted on shooting most of the film in and around Chicago. “I knew he would be right for it,” Strouse said, “and I thought maybe he would be hungry for a role like this too.”


Cusack said he wanted to make a movie in response to the Bush administration’s ban of photos of flag-draped coffins from Iraq, though he maintained that the character, as always, came first. “It’s going to sound pretentious, but to make a really good character in film, it’s the exact opposite of a military excursion,” he said. “Because in a military thing, you want to come in with overwhelming force. You want to know the mission. You want to know an exit strategy. You want to know as much as you can before you do it. To do a good character, you want to see if you can get into the (muck) and not know how you’re going to get out.”


Sundance programming director John Cooper, apparently reliving his initial reaction to “Grace Is Gone,” wiped away tears while introducing the film. As it plays, the auditorium is punctuated at various points by sniffles, and by the end many viewers tried not to look at one another lest they exposed their puffy eyes. The movie clearly had hit its target.


In the post-screening Q&A, Cusack gave a detailed answer to a query about how he developed Stanley’s inward body language, then, typically, punctured such serious self-analysis with a quip: “But that’s a very Bravo Channel answer.” The crowd laughed at this reference to “Inside the Actors Studio,” a show that he happily has yet to visit.


Cusack’s craft is something that’s often overlooked, at least among casual moviegoers. His acting comes across as so effortless that some people think he’s always playing himself, never mind that there’s a world of difference between, say, his art patron in “Max” and “Ice Harvest” crook. When I asked him what is most commonly misunderstood about him, he replied, “Probably that making it look easy is easy. There are certain kinds of performances where people’s veins are pumping, and they’re kind of acting in more primary colors. I like that stuff too, but I also like subtlety and nuance and those types of things. Maybe sometimes those things get taken for granted.”


Beresford and other directors praised Cusack’s ability to fine-tune his performance and to give them an array of choices. “When he would do a scene, he’d nail it in one or two takes, and he’d give me two or three more takes that were slightly different,” said Joshua Seftel, whom Cusack hired to direct his upcoming military/Iraq satire, “War, Inc.” “There was such precision to it, how they were different: Here’s one that’s slightly funnier; here’s one that’s slightly more serious; here’s one that’s slightly more concerned. He had such control over his instrument, his body.”


But Cusack’s exacting approach has been known to carry over into an on-set assertiveness that some filmmakers may appreciate more than others. “He has a little bit of a bad rep, being difficult to work with,” the previously mentioned movie executive said. “You can be difficult to work with if you’re worth it, but if it’s a character role, you can get someone else.”


Frears, however, found Cusack to be very director-friendly, both on “The Grifters” (1990) and 10 years later on “High Fidelity,” on which Cusack was a writer-producer. Cusack presented “good, strong opinions” on “High Fidelity,” Frears said. “He was also perfectly deferential and wasn’t threatening or unfriendly or anything like that.”


Strouse, who said he had heard of Cusack’s “difficult” reputation after the fact, had a similar experience on “Grace Is Gone.” “To be honest, it took like a week to really figure out, to find a rhythm, because he is guarded,” he said. “Maybe what people were calling (difficult) was just, he’s passionate. Whenever we had a disagreement, it was out of deep, deep passion for the movie.”


On “War, Inc.” Cusack collaborated so closely with Seftel, another first-time director, that the actor said he “definitely co-directed” it, though he was not listed as such in the film’s credits. Many of Cusack’s friends and colleagues assume he officially will direct before too long.


“He understands the parameters of production, he knows how to work with actors, he knows how to tell a story as a writer, and he’s a pretty great actor himself,” said Steve Pink, a childhood friend and former New Crime production/writing partner. “It’d be hard to mess it up.”


But ask Cusack whether he has any plans to direct, and he responds: “No. If you produce the movie and you starred in it and you are working with the director or hired a director, it’s very collaborative anyway. I’ve done that on a couple of films, so I feel like a filmmaker. I’m good.”


So what did Cusack and Strouse argue about on the “Grace Is Gone” set? In large part, politics. “John is a very outspoken liberal, and he wanted to get that out in some way that wasn’t quite right for the character of Stanley,” Strouse said. “I think that we found a balance.”


Cusack said he felt the need to turn up the political volume a notch, “because I thought you can’t have somebody who spends a lifetime believing in a certain kind of ideological mindset, and then have reality challenge that to its very foundations and not have the guy question that belief system. I just don’t think it’s authentic that a person wouldn’t.”


One of Cusack’s additions was a sly yet melancholy use of the phrase “Mission accomplished.” But in general, Stanley comes off as a war supporter and strikes some direct hits against his loafing younger brother, played by Alessandro Nivola, whose politics are closer to Cusack’s own.


Aside from acting, politics is Cusack’s true passion, even if he hasn’t embraced the public side of it like, say, his friend Tim Robbins. Cusack has written several blog postings for The Huffington Post (“He’s somebody you can engage in any subject any time of day and night,” Arianna Huffington said), and he struck up a friendship with activist journalist Naomi Klein, whose magazine article about U.S. companies’ aggressive plans for post-war Iraq partly inspired “War, Inc.”


“He called me out of the blue after he read that article and said, `I’m John Cusack, and one of the things about being John Cusack is I get to call whoever I want,’ ” Klein recalled with a laugh. “It was very, very surprising. John comes from a very political family, and he wants more politics in his life ... We’ve talked very regularly over the years.”


Cusack has befriended other politically active celebrities as well. One night while he was at Sundance, his cell phone rang, and—as he acted it out afterward—an Irish brogue bellowed from the other end, “It’s your conscience!”


“And it was Bono,” Cusack said, laughing. The U2 singer wound up visiting Cusack in his condo that night and attended the next morning’s “Grace Is Gone” screening. How does Cusack know Bono? They share some political interests, he said, and “he’s in some of those crazy weird circles I’ve gotten into.”


Cusack also was friends with a pair of iconoclasts who died unexpectedly: Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who died of a heart attack in 2002, and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who killed himself in 2005. Meanwhile, Cusack’s father died of cancer in 2003. In Cusack’s most recent four films, he played a widower (“The Contract”), a father who lost his daughter (“1408”), a widower (“Martian Child”) and a widower (“Grace Is Gone”). Anything conscious going on there?


“No, that’s the way it broke,” he said.


He did acknowledge that his recent experiences with grief informed his “Grace” performance. “Anger comes out, and rage comes out,” he said. “You go into denial about things. You can almost get happy; sometimes you even get giddy. And then all of a sudden the bottom drops out.”


Strouse said anger was the aspect of Cusack’s performance that surprised him the most, in part because the director didn’t see that quality in his own script.


“It’s interesting because that’s the first thing I saw,” Cusack said. So would he characterize himself as an angry person? “No, I wouldn’t. Stubborn and kind of Black Irish. I have that side of me that, I wouldn’t say, likes it but is a little too comfortable being in that position sometimes. I feel like somebody’s coming at me or trying to undercut me, you know, I’ve got the Black Irish thing.”


After the “Grace Is Gone” premiere, the filmmakers and cast went to dinner at Zoom, Robert Redford’s popular restaurant on Park City’s Main Street. Weinstein soon showed up, meaning business. By about 4 a.m., the negotiating was done and Weinstein had acquired “Grace Is Gone” for a reported $4 million. The mogul immediately headed to Cusack’s condo, and the two smoked victory cigars—“my last known vice,” Cusack said.


Although the film went on to win Sundance’s audience and screenwriting awards, Strouse, with input from Cusack and Weinstein, trimmed about seven minutes for the final cut, and Weinstein and Cusack enlisted Clint Eastwood to add a moodily jazzy score to emphasize Stanley’s turmoil.


The movie opens on Friday, but in a sense the awards campaign began when Cusack received the Chicago International Film Festival’s Silver Hugo for lifetime achievement in October.


Usually, such tributes are fairly elaborate and feature a clips montage spanning the recipient’s career. But with Cusack, a late addition to the festival schedule, the presentation took all of five minutes. Features film programmer Mimi Plauche read an introduction touting various Cusack movies (to corresponding cheers), festival founder Michael Kutza made some uncharacteristically brief comments and handed the statue to Cusack, who basically said thanks while deflecting praise to his young co-stars in attendance, O’Keefe and Bednarczyk.


Afterward, I ran into Kutza in the lobby and asked whether Cusack’s appearance was scheduled too late for the festival to cut together an on-screen tribute. He said no, actually, the festival had created “a beautiful clips package” with input from Cusack’s “people” at Wolf-Kasteler & Associates, who asked that this and that film be removed and this and that film be included instead. Then on the day of the tribute, Cusack’s representatives killed the clips package altogether.


After the screening, Kutza approached the star, handed him the prepared DVD. “You should look at this,” he said. “This is four minutes of the greatest moments of your life.”


Cusack, Kutza said, was gracious as usual and replied simply, “I will.”


Cusack will have to get more used to such tributes, because they’re the bread and butter of Oscar campaigns, and Weinstein, a master of the form, has one plotted out for his “Grace” star.


For Cusack, that means lots more schmoozing and talking about himself. “It’s a culture you have to immerse yourself in, I guess,” he said.


One of his newly scheduled stops would be—yes—a date with the fawning James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio.”


“I’m getting roped into that,” Cusack said.

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