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MOVIES : Between Sweet and Deadly : John Cusack's made an acting career moving from good guys to rats, movies to theater, comedy to noir . It makes him hard to peg--and don't ask him to help you figure it out.

October 16, 1994|Michael Walker | Michael Walker is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

An acquaintance of John Cusack's from the Chicago theater scene, praising the 28-year-old actor as "a very centered art ist" and "an extraordinarily talented young man," adds a caveat.

"Johnny," says the acquaintance, likes to mix it up a bit, and predicts Cusack will arrive for this interview "just slightly inappropriately dressed, just slightly unshaven. There's always that element of the pose. He's a really strong character, and the character he plays is Johnny Cusack."

No surprise, then, when Cusack ambles into his publicist's office in Westwood sporting museum-quality grunge wear and perhaps two days' stubble on his pale, expressive face. Unlike most movie actors, he's bigger than he appears on screen--about 6-foot-2--and he moves with the rangy self-assurance of a basketball forward.

Yet no matter how amiable and fast-talking Cusack becomes once he is seated behind a table at a corner espresso bar, he remains ineluctably watchful. When asked, after a lengthy and informed disquisition about the film business, whether he is comfortable with his stature within it, he turns suddenly disingenuous. "I don't know what it is," he insists. When the question is put to him again, he just as suddenly answers with disarming candor. Score one for Johnny Cusack.

"He'll bring a commitment to something that'll be designed to push a button in you," says Cameron Crowe, who directed Cusack in 1989's "Say Anything . . . . " "He'll be checking you out. He'll want to know about your commitment."

It's the same unsettling ambivalence--the nice guy with the sharpened edge--that Cusack has honed to great effect on screen: as the small-time con squeezed by a manipulative girlfriend and his mother in "The Grifters" (1990); as the nakedly ambitious junior politician betraying his best friend in "True Colors" (1991); as the indomitable kick-boxer who defrosts the class valedictorian in "Say Anything . . . , " and as the skirt-chasing collegiate dignified by love in Rob Reiner's "The Sure Thing," the 1985 movie that lifted Cusack, then only 17 and a student at Evanston Township High School outside Chicago, into the serious-actor leagues after appearing in the likes of "Sixteen Candles" and "Class."

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The ease with which Cusack moves from light to dark, often in a single role, has endeared him to critics--Roger Ebert anointed him "one of the best actors of his generation"--and to thinking-man's directors like Crowe, Stephen Frears ("The Grifters"), John Sayles (1988's "Eight Men Out") and Woody Allen, who cast the dumbfounded Cu sack in a small but pivotal part in 1992's "Shadows and Fog."

"Some actors have a particular personality the audience likes," says Allen's casting director, Juliette Taylor. "John rides a certain line. People love to watch him--he's cute and sweet--but he can play dangerous. His persona isn't so identifiable that he's pegged with a certain personality. He has a big range."

Now, after last year's diffidently received "Money for Nothing," Cusack is back with two highly anticipated comedies: "The Road to Wellville," Alan Parker's adaptation of the T. Coraghessan Boyle novel, in which Cusack plays an embattled would-be corn-flake magnate, and the lead in Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," which opens Friday, as a pompously idealistic playwright beset by gangsters, armchair socialists and an uninvited collaborator.

"He's my kind of actor," says the newly press-friendly Allen, who was impressed enough after "taking a chance" with Cusack on "Shadows and Fog" to cast him in the far more demanding "Bullets Over Broadway." Cusack, says the director, "is an attractive young man and athletic, so he's got good physical presence. But he's intelligent, and he projects that intelligence on screen. More important than anything, when he does a character he sounds like a real human being, not an actor doing lines."

Cusack pointedly approached both Allen projects with a workmanlike attitude. "I'm pretty pragmatic about how you need to work, and you can't really work with someone if you put them on a pedestal. I had to tell myself: There's obviously a reason I'm working for the guy. You can't think, either I'm worthy or I'm not. You just gotta go do it. Otherwise you start editing your instincts. So I saved that for before and after--I was all freaked out."

Given Allen's minimalist directing style and willingness to let actors improvise, Cusack says, "You have this great, strange combination: the best script you've ever worked on, and a guy allowing you to do whatever you want. For a while, you don't take him at his word, and then you go, 'The guy said do what you want. I better start improvising a little bit.' "

Allen, clearly, was pleased. "If I'm having problems with a scene, he can use his ingenuity to correct it. I trust his improvisational ability. He stays with the character. It's never an artificial stretch or anything."

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