He’s been a Hollywood star since his teens, but thankfully John Cusack was never like the characters in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars. A brutal satire about the players, wannabes and has-beens of Hollywood, Cusack plays Stafford Weiss, a self-help guru who peddles his therapies to the weak-minded. Father to the foul Benjie (Evan Bird), a rehab-hopping teen star of the Bad Babysitter franchise, Stafford is just one of the soulless ghouls that haunts the Hollywood Hills in what is Cronenberg’s first real foray into Tinseltown terrain.
For Cusack, it represents yet another impressive notch in a career that’s seen him work with Stephen Frears (The Grifters, High Fidelity), Woody Allen (Shadows And Fog, Bullets Over Broadway), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line) and Clint Eastwood (Midnight In The Garden of Good And Evil). Here, Cusack explains why Maps LA is full of desert crazies …
You were a star in your teens, like Benjie. Did you relate to him?
I was older than him [when I started acting], and I wasn’t in a huge Hollywood franchise…But just the idea of being that young and having that much pressure on you [is] terrible to think about. I remember being a couple of years older … and what a head trip it was – and that was working with good people and having a pretty good introduction to it … The film business was a lot different back then; it was more like personalities ran studios, it was a little bit more of the old movie mogul thing. It was intense but not so corporate or cutthroat. I didn’t know…I was a young guy. But I worked with John Sayles and the great cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs…so I was lucky. But if you start off as [starring in] Bad Babysitter and you were trying to protect a franchise…oh my god!
Was Hollywood a familiar place to you back then?
No, no. It wasn’t. We lived in Chicago … I’d never been to California. I had no experience of it. My sister [Joan] and I started working in Chicago, around 16, 17, in high school – because they happened to be making films about teenagers. Before that, they never made films about young people. And now? You can’t even show a 28 year-old woman without someone saying, ‘She’s menopausal, right?’! It’s gotten so crazy. When I was a kid, it was, ‘Oh, there’s a movie about young people’, but it wasn’t a genre.
What did you think of Bruce Wagner’s script when you read it?
It’s so well written. The script was surprising and inevitable, and that’s what I think tragedy is…. It’s a very singular piece of writing, and Bruce is a very meta synaptic-firing writer. And David is this very precise formalist, so I thought, ‘That’s going to be a really interesting mix.’ … I talked to David about how he liked to work, and then tried to figure [things] out…I did think about what it would’ve been like if I’d started then, and I had really had crazy parents and I lived in LA. I tried to think about, ‘What would be the worse possible father? The most damaged version?’
Did you find it funny?
You groan – it’s like a bone on bone. It’s like a hit in a football game. You hear it and you go, ‘Oh! That’s terrible!’
Do you see a relationship between therapy and acting?
I think a lot of actors feel that the act of doing those things is somehow therapeutic for them …you need to get some things out… Then there’s an instinct as an actor to … go into the most dangerous places they can and then hide it. So it’s an intuitive thing, to go towards the flame – so we must know that there’s stuff we better get out.
How would you describe Stafford – a charlatan?
Yeah, sure. An exploitative charlatan of Biblical proportions!
But are these types very prevalent in LA?
Sure. I was doing a film that’s going to come out on Brian Wilson, Love And Mercy. Interesting film. You talk about the California of the Fifties and Sixties – Joan Didion says there is a Chekhovian sense of loss and uneasiness in the air – as if all the people there thought we better make it here, because if not, we’ve run out of continent! And I think there’s that sense of that frontier mentality, which is, ‘This is our last stop!’ People that come towards LA and fame…where else are you going to go? Go up to Alaska? Go be fucking Grizzly Man? There’s a real desperation there. So I think that environment leads to all sorts of free, original thinking, but also desert crazies! And all the people that prey on those people. We were just noticing in LA that there were these things – agents and managers. Then I realised there were these things called ‘life coaches’.
Did you know much about them?
Well, I knew about Tony Robbins. I loved the ‘personal power’ things. I don’t know much about Tony, but it seems like he has this act of will – like Scientology. He wants you to control your thinking, and they’re all half-true things, but it just feels bat-shit crazy and culty. That’s just the way it feels, right? I know Scientology is bat-shit crazy. These evangelising shrink coaches…it’s got to be only in LA, right? … It’s the place where the guy who ran The Source – a health food restaurant – started a cult in the Seventies and they were called the Source Family and he proclaimed himself a divine being and he had followers. It was a cult! So LA’s got something special!
Your character seems very cynical…
That’s what Bruce writes. The first thing he writes is, ‘Say what you want about the Dalai Lama but the man’s a pro.’ He’s not even considering that he might mean it … There’s an element that every human interaction is a transaction. It’s all currency. What am I going to get? What’s my angle? And that’s connected to showbiz. It’s also connected to the con, the grift, and just ugly power politics.
Without giving the usual ‘he was fabulous’ answer, how was David Cronenberg to work with?
He’s precise, super-precise, and super-fabulous, super-wonderful, super-warm…he’s the most amazing, generous, kind, decent, loyal, loving human being…and just totally, fantastically fabulous! Seriously, though, he’s a trip, he’s really intense. But he actually is a really nice, friendly guy.
What helped you to survive Hollywood?
I don’t hang out there … I think if you survive in the business, you probably get the joke after a while. I think there are people that are pretty nice, but they do tend to live other places! That’s how they survive.
Were you worried about biting the hand that feeds?
No! I don’t care about any of that shit!
Talk about Love And Mercy. Were you a fan of The Beach Boys before?
Yeah, but I wasn’t interested in them until I investigated the music more. I got into the surf music and Dick Dale and all that stuff – and it came from Phil Spector and his sound, the Wall of Sound… Brian Wilson was in this race, almost, with the Beatles. It was just him, The Beatles and George Martin, and they were creating the next century of music as they went. And how much Wilson influenced the Beatles…he really did Sgt. Pepper first with the Smile Sessions, and McCartney heard it, and you can hear the next fifty years of music in those Smile sessions and in Pet Sounds. He was a real bona fide genius and still going strong. He’s a lovely guy.
You got to know him?
Yes, I’ve become close with the Wilsons, and I actually got to sing with them. It was kinda cool. It was at the wrap party and Brian said, ‘Johnny B. Goode – you’re going to sing with us.’ And I said, ‘I don’t normally sing’. He said, ‘You’re gonna be great.’ You can’t not do it, right? … you don’t want to say the Mozart of rock’n’roll said, ‘Come up and sing back up’ and you were too much of a coward to do it. So I shamed myself into doing it
How do you choose your films?
I’m up to do anything if it’s with a good filmmaker and a good script. I think that movies are like dreams. You can play any role in the dream, and there are lots of different dreams.
What do you do when you’re not acting?
I travel a lot. I’m on the road a lot anyway, but I like to travel, just try to annihilate yourself, get out of your head. What else do I do? … I just try to meet other people who are doing totally different things. I work with this group called the FPF – the Freedom of the Press Foundation – working for the First and Fourth Amendment freedoms, protections for journalists, whistleblowers…so I use my brain in a different way that doesn’t have me out in front as much. And there are some great people on the board, including Edward Snowden. So we talk to him. That gives you a sense of where you get out of thinking about yourself all the time.
How did you get involved with that?
I’ve had a lot of friends who are writers and journalists, and I’ve dabbled editorially in journalism, in different places, and done advocacy work. Hunter Thompson was a very good friend of mine before he passed away. I’ve just known a lot of writers and journalists who are friends. I think what happened with the NSA revelations, and the prosecutions of whistleblowers across the board, has been a real assault. It’s had a real chilling effect. If you’re interested, look up the FPF blog site and they’ll tell you about the board, the mission statement and the organisations we support. So that’s something that I do, in my political advocate life.
MAPS TO THE STARS IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD ON 2ND FEBRUARY 2015, COURTESY OF ENTERTAINMENT ONE.