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A Guy Who'll 'Say Anything'

April 15, 1989|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — If you are 22 and a rising film star, don't live in Malibu, and never qualified for the Brat Pack by punching out a geek at a Hollywood punk-rock club, odds are you'll be billed as a maverick.

John Cusack is such a person. He even lives in Chicago. This week he was in New York, doing interview after interview to drum-beat for "Say Anything," a quirky new romantic comedy that opened Friday.

Tall, polite, possessed of rapid-fire speech, he wryly complained about "talking about myself for three weeks now." That an actor can so complain indicates a fine outlook on life.

Another good sign: He has a Chicago theater company and talks of maybe producing Dario Fo's "The Accidental Death of an Anarchist" or an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Theater keeps you normal? "Yeah, it does. But you also have to keep a perspective on the whole thing, to know that acting isn't the end-all of life."

In "Say Anything," he plays a decent, whimsical, boundlessly upbeat kid who upon graduation from high school pursues and falls in love with the beautiful class genius (Ione Skye).

All this time, he is planning a career in kick-boxing which, as he tells her bemused, divorced father (John Mahoney), is "the sport of the future."

Other than that, the lad has no fixed address for the future, although he knows that "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything."

Cusack, who has the innocent Irish face of a very big altar boy, beams when a visitor ventures that his "Say Anything" character had the same exuberant nonconformist spirit that Jason Robards showed in "A Thousand Clowns" more than 20 years ago.

"That's a great compliment," says Cusack, a fan of that film and that actor. "I'm honored by that analogy."

He has been a busy man--12 films in six years, starting with "Class." His dossier includes "Sixteen Candles," "The Journey of Natty Gann" and his first starring role in "The Sure Thing" in 1985.

He didn't want to grow old in coming-of-age roles, though. So last year he did John Sayles' "Eight Men Out," about the great baseball scandal of 1919, and "Tapeheads," a black comedy about the music video business.

The latter was with his pal and ally in stage, Tim Robbins, who played the big baseball player with the tiny brain in "Bull Durham."

Having bid adieu to to teen roles, Cusack initially said no dice when approached for "Say Anything" by its director-writer, Cameron Crowe, the ex-Rolling Stone scribe who wrote "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

"I was worried about repeating myself and working with a first-time director," Cusack said. "I had a lot of trepidation."

He didn't want to be in another teen genre film. It took a while--and the fact that the film's executive director is James L. Brooks, writer-director of "Broadcast News"--before he said yes.

This is true, Crowe said in a separate interview. "He said, 'I've graduated' . . . to his credit, though, he kept his foot in the water for a long time while he got to know me. He didn't want me to make him what he calls the Charm Monster."

The operative phrase for Cusack's character, indeed the film, is "optimism as a revolutionary concept," a phrase director and actor have made sort of their interview mantra.

In the movie, Cusack lives with his older sister--played by his older sister, Joan, the Staten Island secretary of "Working Girl" and frenzied production assistant of "Broadcast News."

They are the best-known of five Cusack kids who grew up in Evanston near Chicago and started acting with a local stage group, the Piven Theatre Workshop. The other three--Ann, Bill and Susie--also are working in the arts.

Their father, Richard, a documentary maker, also has taken up acting, appearing in "Eight Men Out" as the stern judge who in a courtroom scene tells Cusack: "You're out of order. Sit down and shut up."

Cusack has another new movie, "Fat Man & Little Boy," which stars Paul Newman, due out late this year. In it, he plays a nuclear physicist who worked on the nation's first atomic bombs.

He mildly frets that he hasn't acted on stage for three years, although last year in Chicago he directed a gonzo satire co-authored by Tim Robbins and Adam Simon, "Alagazam . . . After the Dog Wars."

"It's about a small-time freak show taken over by a defense-entertainment corporation," he said. "The show has a tough, honest pitchman who tells white lies, but also showers the audience with bits of truth. . . . It's also about how television has kind of centralized the nation and homogenized it--the same country sharing the same kind of images--and how dangerous that can be."

What bugs him most about movie scripts he's offered?

That many of them "are just kind of devoid of any integrity or creativity, that they're just a genre film. Genre to me means making money off someone else's original idea.

"In Hollywood, it's really hard to take pride in what you do. You see the Oscar ceremonies and it's like kind of a bad acid trip. . . . It's things like that, and some of the scripts you get sent that really give you the fear, make you think you don't want to be an actor."

It is unlikely that Cusack will move west soon, even though it is said that one needs to live and take meetings in Hollywood or one will . . . well, just not be \o7 happening\f7 . Cusack would disagree. That he has been in 12 films since age 16 would tend to support his position.

"Ah, I'm not really an L.A. kind of guy," he says. He does have a girlfriend who lives in Los Angeles, singer Suzanne Melvoin, daughter of jazzman Mike Melvoin. "I have a lot of friends out there, and there are a lot of good things to be said about L.A. But I just don't feel like driving around in a car for half a day.

"And I really do like the city of Chicago. I don't know if I'll stay there forever. But it's doing just fine so far."

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