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A Tower of Self-Control

John Cusack has passed on sure-fire box-office winners in his quest for roles in edgy, offbeat films--some of which he's produced. 'How much money do you need?' he asks.

April 18, 1999|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell is a regular contributor to Calendar

The valet and the doorman are talking about the actor who just walked by.

"You know who that was?"

"Yeah, that was, uh, I know I've seen him."

"Yeah."

"It was him."

It was him, as it often is in Los Angeles, a tall somebody, early 30s, with dark hair and pale complexion, more than plain but less than preening. It was, in fact, John Cusack, a somebody to anybody who follows movies closely or just gets out now and then to see one of the really good ones he's made. And today in Santa Monica, Cusack is dressed not unlike Lloyd Dobler, the uncorrupted and ungroomed hero of "Say Anything," the original romantic comedy that secured a place for him in Hollywood 10 years ago.

Lloyd's uniform consisted of a long tan overcoat, worn over a T-shirt and reaching down nearly to his high-top sneakers, and that would describe what Cusack is wearing on this blustery March afternoon, only, unlike Lloyd's, his overcoat is dark and looks like it might have once been pressed.

Film actors tend to be smaller in person than they appear on the screen ("Sylvester Stallone, he's so short!"). Cusack, at 6 feet 3, is bigger. Like many of the characters he has played, he is accessible to a stranger, proud but unassuming. He wears his fame, like his clothes, in his own singular style.

Inside the hotel bar, deserted at this hour, he orders a big bottle of mineral water and leaves his coat on. "A real movie star is somebody that you just want to have dinner with," he says, grappling with the public fascination with actors, a fascination shared sometimes even by other actors. "You see something in them that you're curious about and you want to sort of figure them out.

"But I feel like you can know a lot about a person from their art. I don't think you can know the entire person, and I think you can see somebody who can be a wonderful artist who you don't respect in their personal behavior. But I think you can know something about their intrinsic qualities. I think if you can give a good performance, the well you are drawing from is yourself. You have to have some of that stuff."

Ranked somewhere below the Toms (Hanks and Cruise) in marquee value, too old to be a teen star, too cerebral to be an action hero, Cusack soldiers on, saluted by discerning reviewers and a widening cult of fans, building a career aimed not so much at stardom as personal satisfaction in the stories he is getting to tell on screen. A few years ago, a movie magazine accused him of not living up to his potential in the Panavision race for fame and bond-issuing wealth, faulting him for passing up the chance to be in the hits "Indecent Proposal" and "Sleeping With the Enemy."

His admirers are just as likely to say he made the right decision. As is he.

"I've seen things that I've turned down or wasn't offered that were very successful movies at the box office," he says, "but I saw them and didn't like them. I'm at peace with what my tastes are. How much money do you need? I don't collect cars."

He did appear in producer Jerry Bruckheimer's exploding jailbreak cartoon "Con Air" in 1997, for which he offers no apologies ("I'm not going to defend it, it's the kind of movie that it is"). But "Con Air" is the exception in a career that at age 32 has included leading roles in such smaller-scaled pictures as "The Grifters," "Eight Men Out," "Grosse Pointe Blank," "Bullets Over Broadway" and "City Hall." Later this year he will be seen in two other offbeat films, "The Cradle Will Rock" and "Being John Malkovich."

Cusack's newest film, "Pushing Tin," a comedy-drama about air traffic controllers directed by Mike Newell, opens Friday, and he's also visible this month on HBO as the star of "The Jack Bull," a nontraditional western directed by John Badham that Cusack produced.

In many of his films Cusack plays characters both edgy and nice, pumped up yet laid back at the same time.

"People say that I have a persona in film, but I don't know what it is. They say, 'Yeah, you know, you do this thing.' But I don't know what that is."

"The thing that I love most about John's acting," says Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed "Say Anything" (and "Jerry Maguire"), "is when he lights up with the idea he's presenting in the film. He just lights up! He has a burst of passion and energy that's like nobody else. And it's funny."

*

Newell, the British director of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Enchanted April," and "Donnie Brasco," says that Cusack is "prepared to be engaged."

"He's one of the most gifted actors I've ever worked with--as opposed to a star. The difference is that stars can't be someone else. They cruise like some iron-plated warship through other people's plans for them. John likes to sit on the floor during setups gabbing with the crew, and what I think he's doing is simply sizing up what the opportunities are, rather than cutting himself off and being resplendent in his trailer."

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