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John Cusack: Two movies, two dad roles

With a filmography littered with teenagers, bachelors and guys trying to get the girl, John Cusack the dad is a new entry. In two new films this fall, Cusack plays parts where fatherhood is central.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With a filmography littered with teenagers, bachelors and guys trying to get the girl, John Cusack the dad is a new entry. In two new films this fall, Cusack plays parts where fatherhood is central.

“It signifies I’m getting older,” Cusack, himself still childless, said with a laugh during a recent interview.

The 41-years-old actor, though, appeared remarkably the same as he did in 1990’s “The Grifters.”

“I don’t feel any different,” he said, smiling. “Recover a little slower, but that’s about it.”

Cusack first stars in “Martian Child,” opening Friday, as a science fiction writer who adopts a shy, eccentric boy. Next month comes “Grace is Gone,” a Sundance Film Festival hit in which the actor portrays a former soldier who delays telling his daughters that their soldier-mother has died in Iraq by taking them on a road trip.

In “Martian Child,” he essentially keeps his usual screen persona: witty, aloof, idiosyncratic. It’s easy to envision his character as the grown-up version of Lloyd Dobler in 1989’s “Say Anything” or the slightly older incarnation of Rob Gordon from 2000’s “High Fidelity.”

In “Grace is Gone,” though, he gives a quiet and grief-filled performance for which he’s getting considerable buzz, courtesy of a Harvey Weinstein-orchestrated Oscar campaign.

Living in the ‘24-hour petting zoo’The duality of the roles is typical of Cusack, who tends to alternate between studio pictures (1997’s “Con Air,” 2001’s “America’s Sweethearts,” 2005’s “Must Love Dogs”) and more offbeat indie fare (1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” 2002’s “Max”).

“I keep trying to explore stuff that I like and balance the business with personal passions,” Cusack explained.

Clearly differentiating between the motivations behind “Martian Child” and “Grace,” he said: “One the studio wanted me to do, and the other was a script I really loved.”

Not one to ever totally go Hollywood, Cusack has referred to fame as a “24-hour petting zoo” and lamented how studios view him as a “brand.”

“It’s only when you try to get jobs or get certain things made from the studio that you realize what that is,” said Cusack, who speaks barely above a whisper. “You just understand it when people tell you ‘No.’ It’s mostly just more what they think will make money. That’s really it. ‘Can we get Johnny Depp?’

“I’m interested in doing stuff that people I admire do, which is try to explore being human and admit that you’re human,” he said. “At least admit it in film, if you can’t do it everyday in life.”

For some, living up to the glib charm of Cusack’s earlier roles (particularly Dobler) is difficult. Writer Chuck Klosterman once labeled Cusack the “neo-Elvis,” claiming a generation of women will forever be in love with him.

Possible Oscar nomination?But while “Martian Child” recalls that side of Cusack, “Grace is Gone” (for which he was also a producer) reveals a new dimension to the actor. Writer-director Jim Strouse (who wrote 2005’s “Lonesome Jim”) wrote the part with Cusack specifically in mind.

“I just thought it required some things I knew that he could do but hadn’t been asked to do,” said Strouse. “He’s got so much energy in life and on screen and he kind of can’t contain himself. I just thought it would be interesting to see him say very little — kind of the opposite of everything he’s known for and so good at.

“He was really excited,” Strouse added. “When I first met him, his enthusiasm reminded me of a child almost.”

Others have been enthused as well, including Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., who has shepherded numerous small films to Oscar success.

“I truly believe he has a breakout performance in ‘Grace is Gone’ and I hope that he will be recognized this awards season,” Weinstein said in an e-mail.

Asked about his thoughts about a possible Oscar nomination (which he’s never received), Cusack replied: “It’s good for the movie and would be great for me. It’s kind of like the prom, right? You wouldn’t want to admit that you want to go, but you probably secretly want to be asked.”

The role is notable also for taking a different approach to material usually treated politically. Though Cusack is himself an ardent critic of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration (he’s blogged about both on the Huffington Post), he plays a patriotic ex-soldier. Any anti-war message in “Grace” is purely related to the pain war causes families.

“Film isn’t just a megaphone for your opinions,” said Cusack. “You’re trying to explore something that transcends you a little bit, hopefully.”

In “Martian Child,” his character remarks that every work of art is somewhat autobiographical. When asked how that applies to himself, Cusack said he identifies with how his character “is tying to find meaning and transcend his own ... not selfishness, but he’s looking for more of a purpose.”

Film critic David Thomson in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film” wondered of the ever-youthful Cusack: “So when is he going to be emphatically grown-up?”

With “Grace is Gone” and “Martian Child,” Cusack may have answered that question.