He is known for outstanding acting in quirky, intelligent movies -- but John Cusack will now play the lead in '2012', the biggest blockbuster of the year. Evan Fanning asked the star how growing up in the middle of an Irish-American family helped govern his choice of roles and gave him a radical view of the world
IT'S late in the day and John Cusack's energy levels seem low. In fact, it's almost dark outside, and he has been cooped up in this London hotel room answering questions for most of the day.
There's an icy atmosphere as I enter, although it's not so much coming from Cusack as from the air conditioning which is seemingly set to "arctic". No wonder he's wearing a heavy coat as he stands up to greet me, all six foot, four inches of him. Perhaps the chill setting is some sort of reverse interrogation technique designed to stop journalists getting too close.
Not that Cusack seems to need any outside help in dealing with journalists. He's 43 now, well able to handle himself, being one of Hollywood's most enduring stars in a business more transient than a bus station.
He declines another coffee and begins typing out a fairly lengthy message on his BlackBerry, while I wonder if I should start asking questions or wait until he's finished. I decide to wait but then start fretting that our precious time is hurtling by while he's sending emails. I would be sweating now if it wasn't so cold in here. Maybe the air-conditioning tactic is working already.
He finishes his message and slumps in the chair with an air of resignation. It's not that he's a reluctant interviewee -- he answers every question as honestly and succinctly as he can -- it's just that Cusack never seemed like the kind of actor who wanted his own life intertwined with his movies.
That's fair enough, except now he's starring in what is one the biggest studio films of the year, a film that demands promotion. The mother of all disaster movies is a somewhat meaningless term but, if ever it was appropriate, it is in relation to 2012, the new film from disaster king Roland Emmerich.
The movie is as if all the tornado, hurricane, earthquake, meteorite, landslide and tsunami movies that ever existed spawned a child with an evil army, some ancient mystical beliefs (2012 is the year the Mayans predicted the world would end) and a special effects studio. The result is unquestionably one of the most spectacular things you could ever wish to see on a cinema screen.
It does seem a slightly odd place for Cusack to pop up, however. He has been in blockbuster movies before (the hugely underrated Con Air being one) but, in recent years especially, he has drifted more and more towards the smaller independent movies, with varying degrees of success.
But here we are discussing a multimillion-dollar movie, the kind of film that will cause producers, agents and executives to have their phones glued to their ears next weekend as they receive updates on the hour from box-offices across the globe.
Cusack is pragmatic about being part of such a money-making machine. "If you get offered it, and it's the biggest movie of Sony's year, and it's one of the most successful directors in the world, you have to be smart and say it would be crazy not to do it," he explains.
2012 is certainly a long way from some of Cusack's best loved performances in films such as Grosse Point Blank, Being John Malkovich, High Fidelity or Say Anything, his breakthrough role back in 1989. At least in terms of its scope. Cusack still manages to bring his everyman personality to the proceedings.
There have been popcorn flicks before, of course -- Runaway Jury, Serendipity and America's Sweethearts to name three -- but even Cusack admits that this is "a different movie from anything I've done before. It's pretty epic."
So what goes into a choice of role for him these days? Much of his output over the past few years has failed to make any sort of impression with some films, such as the Iraq-war-themed drama Grace is Gone and the political satire War, Inc landing in the "straight to DVD" column.
"Different things at different times," he responds. "It's usually what you can do. If you can, you make your own movies; have you got the money for them or have you got them together? Or what's the best role you've been offered? Or if you're not hot and you can't get things going, you have to try and be in a more commercial movie. So it's all those things. It just depends."
As he has had to work hard in the past to raise money to get certain projects off the ground, I wonder if there was a comfort in accepting the role in 2012 knowing that this was one movie that would not be struggling with funding. "No. It's more that you think if you do [big studio films] and they're successful, it's going to make it easier for you to do what you want to do down the road."
I express surprise that even at this stage in his career he struggles to find the kind of roles he wants. "All the time," he replies, "but I've also been really fortunate. I think everybody feels that way. It's not like you always have five great films waiting for you and you think, 'Which one do I feel like doing?'
"You're always trying to get a good film or trying to get something with a pulse or trying to create it or trying to work with some filmmaker who you love. It always feels like you're struggling. Struggling to find that next step."
Cusack was raised in Evanston, Illinois, in an Irish-American family. One of five children (his actress sister Joan has appeared with him in several films) of Nancy, a teacher, and Dick, a writer and documentary maker, he was very aware of his Irish heritage while growing up. "We always felt that," he says.
How? I ask.
"Just Irish relatives and Irish s*** in Chicago. We knew all the poets and all the stuff. There's a big Irish community there."
Last August he returned to Ireland with his family for his mother's 80th birthday. He used the trip as a chance to see more of the country than previous visits had afforded him, travelling from Dublin to Kerry and on to Galway. You may have seen the pictures of him posing with a three-wheel motorcycle (actually called a Can-Am Spyder) which he travelled around on. "My family was in a van and we had a couple of bikes, so we had a little caravan going to different places in our family's past," he explains.
His father passed away in 2003, but it's easy to see that certain traits have been passed on. Dick Cusack counted renowned political activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan among his close friends, and they were regular guests in the Cusack house.
Along with his close friend Tim Robbins, Cusack has been one of the leading left-wing campaigners in Hollywood. He writes a blog for the Huffington Post in which he has been fiercely critical of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration and, increasingly, Barack Obama's time in the Oval Office.
I ask if this personality trait is a direct result of being around the likes of the Berrigans as a child. "Probably, yeah," he replies. "I was around a lot of those people. They're pretty brilliant people and smart people -- and so I would imagine so."
Cusack is at his liveliest when discussing politics and the ways in which the Obama regime has disappointed and the things they need to do to bring about the fundamental change he feels is called for. He leans forward in his chair and the pitch of his voice, low and considered throughout, suddenly rises.
"I think that right-wing America thinks that any Democrat is an invading army and that's fundamentally what my criticism of Obama would be: that he doesn't understand that he's no different and that there's going to be no reconciliation with the right wing in America. They're going to try and destroy him every day he's in office, every second of every day, every week of every year that he's in office, and they'll never stop. Because that's what they do."
Despite this obvious passion, he feels that his reputation as an outspoken figure is a slightly false one. He merely facilitates the questions being asked. "If people keep bringing it up then I answer the question, so then it's like I'm bringing it up again. I didn't always bring it up, but people bring it up to me, but that's cool. I'll answer it, I don't mind. So I think I'm outspoken, but I'm not trying to force my view on people."
He is adamant that 2012 is not a political movie in any way. "I think it's entertainment that hits on the zeitgeist of people's fears and paranoia about the future and it certainly alludes to the realities of global warming. But it's not a political film. It doesn't really preach at you at all."
With his blogs and political activism I wonder where acting fits into his world. Does he need always to have a film project on the go, or is he content to busy himself with his side-projects? He seems a little unsure. "I usually like to be doing something. I don't know. I get antsy after a while. I like to travel and do other things. I don't like to always be acting."
One place you will never find him is anywhere where he might be considered to be exploiting his celebrity status. He keeps himself fiercely private. His relationships (he has been involved with Minnie Driver and Neve Campbell in the past) are never documented in any magazines. He's rarely seen on any red carpet.
Has he ever come close to marriage, fatherhood, a different kind of life? "I've come close once," he says without revealing to whom, "but I haven't had kids yet."
Would he like to have children? "I think it's more specific to the person rather than just as a general idea."
So is he happiest being single? His answer is typically cryptic. "Well I'm not always single," he says with a smirk. "It depends on who you are, who you're with and what your situation is. Some times it's good and some times it's bad."
With that he rises from his chair to signal our time is up and shepherds me out of the ice-box. I want to know more. I wish we had more time. I knew I should have questioned him while he was sending that message.
'2012' opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday