John Cusack Channels Poe in The Raven
by Jay S. Jacobs
Originally posted April 26, 2012.
John Cusack has spent decades now playing a stunningly diverse group of characters — everything from romantic comedy to serious drama to the occasional action film. In the process, he has appeared in some of the most iconic films of the last few decades, including Say Anything, The Sure Thing, Sixteen Candles, Bullets Over Broadway, High Fidelity, Stand By Me, Better off Dead, Con Air, The Runaway Jury and even Hot Tub Time Machine. However, it has been fairly rare that he has worked in horror. Therefore, you know that when he does dip his toe in, it will be for an interesting project.
Cusack’s latest role is playing the literary giant Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven, a spooky film which imagines the writer’s final days before his mysterious 1849 death. In the movie, a madman starts killing people, mimicking methods described in Poe’s stories and poems. At first the police suspect the author, but quickly they realize that Poe is probably the only one who can give them insight into the madman’s mind. Then when the killer kidnaps Poe’s one true love (Alice Eve), the deadly game takes on epic proportions for the brilliant author.
We were recently lucky enough to be one of a few media outlets to sit down with Cusack in the atmospheric Greenwich Village pub The Vault at Pfaff’s — which opened only a few years after Poe’s mysterious death — to discuss the new film and the mysterious scribe who inspired it.
There are so many different ways people perceive Edgar Allen Poe. What in the script or your research did you find to portray him in this different way?
You can never do a definitive version of somebody. Certainly not in one book or one movie or one song. I don’t think we’ve ever seen the writer Edgar Allen Poe. We’ve seen “The Raven” or some of the stories. We’ve seen “The Pit and the Pendulum” or “Fall of the House of Usher” or some of those types of things. But what I read about him were his letters and his biographies. There were some surprising things. The movie is a blend of fact and fiction. The conceit of the movie, I think, is very Poe-like in that it about Poe getting wrapped up in one of his own stories. Becoming enmeshed in one of his own creations, which is sort of thematic Poe. He was always trying to figure out the difference between waking and dreaming, living and dying, sanity and insanity. He was trying to get into that place beyond and look into that place. I thought that allowed him to sort of deconstruct his own work, I guess, in that way. Then you have all this stuff you can actually use, because you know what he thinks about all of his stories. He wrote about his stories. We know he’d thought about Wordsworth and Longfellow. We know what he thought about other writers. We know how much he loved Virginia and the way he lived for her. All these authority figures. We know what he talked to his editors like. So we put them all into this fantasy. It’s a mix of real Poe and fantasy Poe. But so is Poe. (laughs)
How much did you know of his work before getting involved in the film?
I knew a lot about it. I usually read about it in English class, and I don’t know if you really take anything [like that too seriously]. You dismiss it. Okay, that’s part of the curriculum. Then you want to go find the real stuff, outside of school. I liked him. I liked anything to do with the (long pause) other world. Anything that had a mystic quality to it, or a supernatural, quasi-supernatural kind of feel. I always was interested in that stuff. I loved Poe’s work for that.
Poe did spend a lot of time writing things that were very gory and very wild. Were there any stories or poems that you read that aren’t widely known that really moved you?
“Ululame.” I don’t know if I’m saying it right. It was great. A great poem. All of his poems are great. “The Raven” is a great poem. If you just look at it, read it again, pay attention to the writing, wow! Great writer.
Which elements of Poe’s personality or life did you connect with, if any?
I think people can connect to anybody who is outside the box. He was really brilliant and almost sociopathic sometimes in his plights. He was at war with everybody. He wanted to go against the grain.
Can you relate to that?
Actors, you don’t want to go with the herd. Why are we acting? We just want to prove that we’re different. Why do we all like Kurt Cobain? He was miserable and depressed and he was anxious. He wanted to just leave. He didn’t want to be a part of society. He wanted to be on his own. But he was like a patron saint. He didn’t want the houses and all that stuff that we all have and we relate to it, when we’re not pretending to be perfect. Poe was like the patron saint of the artistic and the doomed. There’s something great about that.