John Cusack has acted in 78 feature films to date, starring in many of them (“Being John Malkovich” and “High Fidelity”) or playing key roles in pictures with estimable ensemble casts (“The Grifters,” “Shadows and Fog,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Con Air”).
However, it’s the 52-year old actor and political activist’s 13th motion picture, the 1989 romantic dramedy “Say Anything…”, which remains a seminal and sentimental favorite of many who came of age in that era.
“Say Anything…” was the directorial debut of filmmaker, writer, journalist and actor Cameron Crowe, who in 1982 had written the screenplay to the similarly beloved coming-of-age flick “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
The film lost money in its short theatrical run, but charmed many influential critics at that time. It would later go on to enjoy a healthy cult following that eventually turned into mainstream acknowledgement of its warmhearted look at the messy realities of the tumultuous emotions and crossroads which can envelop teenagers during and immediately after their high school graduation.
On May 15 at the Johnny Mercer Theatre, Cusack will appear live on stage immediately following a special public screening of “Say Anything…”, where he will take questions from the crowd about that film — and the totality of his career.
It’s just one of many such events the actor is participating in around the country. In anticipation of this rare opportunity for fans to interact directly with a beloved movie star, we spoke with Cusack, who called from his native Chicago.
Do: How many of these special live appearance screenings of “Say Anything” have happened so far?
Cusack: “I’ve been doing some for the past year. We’ve been doing “Say Anything…”, “Grosse Point Blank” and “High Fidelity.” We’re sort of rotating those in and out.”
I’ve seen that William Shatner has lately been touring in a similar format, doing a live Q&A after screenings of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Were these live screenings of some of your best-loved films your idea, or was this pitched to you by the promoter?
“The promoters approached me, and I think they had already done a bunch of films that people seemed to love over the years. I know John Cleese has toured around with the Monty Python movies and Mel Brooks had done the same with some of his films.
“I guess Shatner’s doing it, too. They asked if I wanted to do it with some of my films, and I said, well if people are having a good time, sure. You know, usually during work, when you’re making a film, you have to go off and do a million Q&As and appear at screenings just to promote the movie coming out. I’m not usually one that looks back too much, but I thought that if people would enjoy it, you know… “It’s a good gig. And easy and fun. And the Q&As are pretty rowdy. So, I said let’s just do a few and see how it goes. If people are having a good time, then I am happy to do it.”
I guess it went well.
“It’s been going well so far, yeah.”
How many of these events have you done so far? Dozens?
“No, I’d say probably five or ten.”
Is the first time the crowd sees you after the film is over, or do you come out and introduce it beforehand as well?
“After the film is over, I come in. There’s a kind of moderator they get from NPR or somewhere, and then they ask me some questions and then they take questions from the audience. Then afterwards I think there’s a way to get a picture [with me] if people want one.
“They watch the movie for, what, two hours? Obviously we don’t want it to be too long a night, so we talk for about 45 minutes and then do some pictures. The whole thing runs for about three or three-and-a-half hours.”
What’s been the most surprising thing about how these shows have been working out?
“Well, it’s not really surprising, but usually, as far as the Q&As go, the audiences are pretty smart. They’ve seen a bunch of your films and know a bunch about them. So they have very specific questions they want answered. Sometimes we’ve had moderators who were just like local morning radio shock jocks, and at one point one of those folks were asking all these very basic, Wikipedia-type questions that everybody already knew and the audience started booing the moderators.
“I know for sure it’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation by yourself, so I always tell the moderators to just ask whatever they want. They should assume the audience doesn’t need a biography of me starting from my first film.”
Yeah, if they’re buying a fairly hefty ticket and getting a babysitter for the night, the odds are they want to drill down immediately.
“Yeah. It’s not surprising, but obviously whoever the moderator is and what sort of questions they ask affects the evening. Sometimes if they ask questions that seem a bit too hackneyed, I just say, ‘Let’s open it up to the audience.’
“Then they start asking questions and are very specific about what they want to know. So, I think it’s pretty fun when the audience gets to speak. They go from super technical things about the mechanics of filmmaking to just absurd or silly. It runs the whole gamut, but people seem to have fun with it, and that’s the most important thing.
What are the biggest differences in your current approach to the movie business and the way you dealt with it back when you made “Say Anything…”? I was wondering what sort of advice the modern-day John Cusack would give to his younger self that might have had a positive impact on your performance in this film?
“I wouldn’t give any advice on that film. The movie business has changed so much, that you have to think of it in a different context. Back when we made that movie, a lot of the players in the industry were still there from the 60s and 70s. Back when cinema was still very vital. It was much less corporate, much less market-tested. There was much less of an advertising influence on the film business.
“The studios were still companies where that was all that they did. They weren’t owned by huge conglomerates. I guess they were, in a way, but that kind of corporate culture hadn’t yet filtered down to the movie business. Not too much, at least. It was a very different time. The movie business of today doesn’t really resemble the one that existed all those years ago.”
You made that film “Hot Tub Time Machine,” with Crispin Glover. I’m a longtime admirer of his unique approach to acting and his immense dedication to that craft, and I wondered if you could share any memories or anecdotes of working with him on that picture.
“Well, yeah. I produced that, and although there were a bunch of writers involved, I sort of wrote that piece too. Then they kept rewriting it. So, as soon as we came up with that role, I thought of Crispin right away. And I’ve worked with him twice over the years and am just a huge admirer of his. It’s just something you know — if you cast him, it’s gonna be a home run.”
Have you had a chance to see the ultra-indie films he’s directed that he tours around with himself? They’re very edgy and provocative in a confrontational way.
“I haven’t seen those, but I would love to.”
Back in 1997, you spent several weeks here in Savannah starring in Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I remember that time very well, as the actors’ makeup trailers for the production were parked behind my apartment.
Do you have any particular memories of that shoot?
“It was a wonderful time.”
Have you been back to Savannah since then?
“I have been back to Savannah. I love it there. Nothing but great memories of Savannah for me.”
I know you’re flying in and then jetting out. Will you get to spend any time here at all?
“Well, I’m in New York for a day, then Savannah the next day, and the off to somewhere else. I’ll probably get to spend the day there, though. I would say that Savannah and New Orleans are two of my favorite towns."
If someone met you at a party and said, “John, I gotta tell you – I’ve never seen a single one of your films. If I was only going to see one, which would you point me to?” Is there one specific feature that you feel shows off your acting skills in the best possible light?
“Honestly, I wouldn’t limit it to one. I’ve been lucky enough to have been around long enough that I’ve done all sorts of genres of films and combinations of genres. I’ve done dramas and thrillers, horror films, psychological thrillers, comedies, straight dramas.
“So, I’ve been lucky enough to do some good work in all the different forms. I mean, look, some of the ones we’re playing are certainly ones that people really, really like. So, I might as well say one of those.”