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John Cusack - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of John Cusack - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

John Cusack

Personal details

Name: John Cusack
Born: 28 June 1966 (Age: 49)
Where: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Height: 6' 3"
Awards: 1 BAFTA and 1 Golden Globe nominations

All about this star


So many actors claim to despise the film industry. All that matters is big profits, they say, the Lowest Common Denominator is King. Yet very few do anything about it. Very few use the industry with intelligence, playing the tawdry game but using their money and influence to get classier projects off the ground. Fewer still dare to use their celebrated position to criticize government policy. One who does is Tim Robbins, who'll accept a whacking pay packet to appear in trash like Mission To Mars, then spend time and money on his theatre group and pet projects like The Cradle Will Rock. Another such maverick is Robbins' close friend, John Cusack, action star of Con Air, but also the co-writer and star of indie hits High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc. Superstar, artist and concerned citizen - a difficult balancing act.

Considering his background, how could it have been any other way? Cusack was born on the 28th of June, 1966, in Evanston, a northern district of Chicago, right on Lake Michigan. His father, Richard, worked in advertising then, in 1970, seeking a more substantial life, formed a production company and moved into documentary film-making, quickly winning an Emmy for The Committee, an examination of the abortion debate. He'd also try acting, later appearing in his children's first movies, then later such blockbusters as The Fugitive and While You Were Sleeping). John's mother, Nancy, gave up teaching maths to look after the children - in order, Ann, Joan, Bill, John and Susie.

Richard and Nancy had moved to Chicago from New York in 1965. As time passed they grew ever more radical, becoming close friends with the renegade priest and infamous and oft-jailed anti-Vietnam war protestor Philip Berrigan. Oddly for Irish-Catholics, they believed in "a kind of Joseph Campbell theory of pursuing bliss. Whatever excites or makes you happy is what you should be doing". And what excited the Cusack kids was acting. When John was but 3, Ann (5 years his senior) would organise plays for the siblings to enact.

John remembers life at home as one continuous performance. There were a lot of laughs, many emanating from the hilarious Joan, but the kids were not just messing about. At 8, John joined the Piven Theatre Workshop, run by family friends Byrne and Joyce Piven and housed in an Evanston school Richard had converted into the Noyes Cultural Arts Centre. Ann and Joan were already regulars, as was the Pivens' son Jeremy, who'd become a lifelong friend of John's, appearing in many of his movies (most notably in Serendipity), and as the doctor-cousin in Ellen. John watched his sisters in shows then, finally, made his own debut, in Chekov's The Darling. He recalls "these wonderful lights, like a dreamscape". Though he'd originally wanted to play baseball, now acting was to be his life and, come the age of 10, he began to fuel his desire with regular attendance at a revival cinema in Evanston, soaking up European films, black and white American classics, Kubrick double-bills, anything, everything he could.

John, described by an old friend as "a pudgy little kid", was hugely enthusiastic - though "not pushy". He was funny too, which allowed him to "get away with stuff". He hated life at Evanston Township High School, despising The Establishment and feeling like an absolute outsider. But he threw himself into extra-curricular work. With his mother's help, by 12 he was getting himself radio ad work and voiceover jobs. By 14, he'd appeared in many stage productions and was already known as a "brilliant and generous" improviser.

Soon came the movies. Joan was first, appearing (alongside Richard) in My Bodyguard, in 1980. And both Richard and Joan would appear (briefly) in John's debut, the Brat Pack public school sex comedy Class, filmed during summer vacation when John was 16. Here Andrew McCarthy had an affair with room-mate Rob Lowe's troubled mother, Jacqueline Bisset. John played one of their wise-ass school-buddies. In one memorable scene, nearly caught smoking by a teacher, he performs that neat smoker's trick where you hold your cigarette with your tongue, hiding it INSIDE your mouth. Very smooth, very Cusack. Understandably, Cusack would find it difficult to return to school after spending time on-set with a star of Bisset's magnitude, making him all the more determined to pursue a career in film.

Next came two more Brat Pack vehicles. First there was John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, starring Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, then Grandview USA, with C.Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Then, with John still in High School, came the first real starring role, Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing. Here John was Walter "Gib" Gibson, a boy who decides to drive cross-country for guaranteed sex. Along the way, he meets an entirely different type of girl, and his ambitions change. The film was well-received but, more importantly, it introduced John to co-star Tim Robbins, another extremely tall maverick. Robbins would be a huge influence on Cusack's career and attitudes but, for now, he was a drinking buddy. During the filming of The Sure Thing, they would often "snarf" together, that is, make a hole in a beer can, pop the top, drink the contents in one, then crush the can, John Belushi-style, on their foreheads. Once, foolishly, Cusack managed to cut his head quite badly. Reiner, fortunately, forgave him.

John enrolled at New York University, but stayed for just one semester. Offers were coming his way - he'd turned down Oliver Stone's Platoon to continue his academic education - and it seemed foolish to miss out. Teen movies were hot, he was a charismatic teenage actor - he had a window of opportunity and he knew it. Sadly, aside from small roles in Reiner's Stand By Me and the excellent Broadcast News (another of Joan's), his movies were forgettable fare. Then things changed - fast. In Tapeheads, Cusack again encountered Robbins, as the pair played failed security guards who near-accidentally start a successful video production company. Now close friends, Cusack visited the Actors Gang theatre Tim was running in Los Angeles and loved the energy, the experimentalism and the spirit of adventure. "It was mesmerising," he recalls "I decided to take that style and do it in my home town".

And he did. Along with school-friends Steve Pink and DV DeVincentis (who, with Jeremy Piven, would later become Cusack's main support in Hollywood) he formed New Crime Theatre in 1988. Like the commedia dell'arte, they would wear masks and white-face, aiming their words and actions directly at the audience. In the late Eighties, Cusack would direct the satirical Alagazam . . . After The Dog Wars (co-written by Robbins) and Ivan Goll's Methusalem, a class struggle drama, for which John was cited at the Joseph Jefferson Awards.

And now the movie roles were getting better too. Having lost the lead in Ron Howard's Willow to Val Kilmer (he'd later turn down the Bill Paxton role in Howard's Apollo 13), Cusack would score a spot in John Sayles' baseball flick Eight Men Out, playing Buck Weaver, innocent but condemned along with the other members of the Chicago "Black Sox" who threw the 1919 World Series. Then came another Chicago role (Cusack LOVES his hometown) when, in Shadowmakers, alongside Paul Newman, he played a University of Chicago physicist working on the atomic bomb. These were John's first "adult" roles.

But the teen-star thing was tough to shake. Inbetween these movies came Cusack's biggest hit yet, Say Anything. Having hated High School so badly, and having wanted to leave for so long, Cusack was reluctant to go back, even for work. Besides, he was a theatre director in his early twenties, and very mature and experienced for his age. So he initially turned the film down, causing first-time director Cameron Crowe to visit him in Chicago. Crowe was surprised to find that, unlike the Hollywood Brat Packers, Cusack actually had a life. Rather than constantly obsessing over the next role, he'd sit around with his friends discussing the politics of The Clash (Cusack would later claim it was The Clash who first taught him to think for himself, to rebel and to work at being your own man, though his home environment surely primed him for such a revelation), or studying the latest albums by Public Enemy and Elvis Costello. Crowe, himself a former Rolling Stone journalist, was impressed and finally managed to persuade Cusack to take the part by describing the lead, Lloyd Dobler, as "a guy who chose optimism as a revolutionary act, but wasn't na've to what was going on in the world".

So, Cusack did it, and made of himself an unlikely sex symbol. As the super-witty semi-loser Dobler, trying to win the hand of the incredibly beautiful and brainy valedictorian Ione Skye, he was superb. But what stole him so many hearts was one supremely romantic moment when he holds a boom-box above his head and plays her Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes. Most women between the ages of 25 and 40 STILL love him for that.

But Cusack wanted out of the teenie roles, and next came a defining part, as Angelica Huston's con-man son in Stephen Frears' super-cool The Grifters. This saw Cusack where he wanted to be. He'd grown up watching Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Redford and Newman, actors who applied themselves to complex roles. These were ACTORS, not celebrities. You NEVER saw them on chat-shows discussing their love-life. He resolved to follow their grand example.

If, that is, he was to act onscreen at all. After the tepid reception afforded to True Colours, where Cusack played a sneaky wannabe politico, he was unsure about his direction. He accepted small roles in big productions, like Woody Allen's Shadows And Fog, Robbins' hilarious satire Bob Roberts, and the fabulously moving Map Of The Human Heart. But there was nothing major till Allen asked him to play the young stage writer in Bullets Over Broadway. Cusack was brilliant - curious and cocksure, amused, fearful and shocked - particularly funny in his dealings with the masterfully over-the-top Dianne Wiest. He was back.

Next he was a thoroughly quizzical visitor to Anthony Hopkins' stool-obsessed health farm in The Road The Wellville, then played opposite his hero Pacino in City Hall (both co-starring Bridget Fonda). Then came the roles that made him. Cusack maintains that "for my best opportunities - other than America's Sweethearts - I've had to write my own movies". And that's what he did now. He'd formed a film production offshoot of New Crime Theatre back in the early Nineties, and struck a two-year deal with Paramount who, keen to make movies "like Sliver", rejected all their proposals. But Cusack and his school-chums persisted, and wrote a comedy thriller called Grosse Pointe Blank, about an assassin who, as cover for his latest killing, attends his 10-year High School reunion. They took it to Disney, and offered to make the movie for a mere $15 million, if the corporation "let it be what it is". Combining Cusack's love of Monty Python and John Woo, the film was a great success, and introduced him to co-star (and lover) Minnie Driver.

Now Cusack's attitude had changed. He'd always loathed the insincerity of Hollywood but, realising he had to be there to get movies made, he moved to Los Angeles (though he kept a place in Chicago). He'd always refused to make blockbusters, and had turned down the Woody Harrelson role in Indecent Proposal. But now, realising one big role could allow him to make three Grosse Pointe Blanks, he took on Con Air, as the sandal-wearing agent chasing Cage and Malkovich's crim-packed aircraft across the States.

From here on, Cusack alternated mega-movies with smaller, more personal projects. He played reporter John Kelso, verbally jousting with Savannah smoothie Kevin Spacey in Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil (he also found time for a relationship with director Clint Eastwood's actress daughter Alison - he's also dated Claire Forlani and Lili Taylor). Then came all-star war-pic The Thin Red Line, and the excellent Pushing Tin, where an ultra-competitive Cusack waged war against fellow air-traffic-controller Billy Bob Thornton. He even appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. Looking surprised by the adulatory applause, he was asked by Letterman why he'd never been on before. "Traffic. Bad traffic", came the reply.

In between these high-budget productions, there was the (where else?) Chicago-set Hellcab and the classy TV western The Jack Bull, written by Cusack's dad and made by New Crime. John played Nelson Rockefeller in Tim Robbins' political theatre drama The Cradle Will Rock and, bearded and long-haired, he was the super-intense master-puppeteer who discovers a portal into his ex-co-star's head in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Then came another New Crime production, with Cusack starring as record-shop owner Rob Gordon, recalling his disastrous relationships and swapping elitist musical jibes in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, directed by Grifters-guy Stephen Frears. Cusack's past as a music-obsessive (he's now good mates with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani and Liz Phair), allowed him to choose the score.

Next, he reappeared with High Fidelity girlfriend Catherine Zeta-Jones in America's Sweethearts, also starring Julia Roberts and Billy Crystal. Here Cusack is a major star who's split from fellow star and lover Zeta-Jones just before the release of their next movie, Crystal having to hide the fact from the press. It was a massive hit, with the third highest first weekend take ever enjoyed by a rom-com. Then came more high-profile romance, with Kate Beckinsale in Serendipity, a thoroughly charming venture enlivened by Cusack's comic duels with an outrageously affected Eugene Levy. Then, naturally, it would be back to the art-house, with a brief role in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, and then Max, originally titled Hoffman. This was a controversial piece where Cusack played a suave and sophisticated art dealer in Munich who takes pity on a struggling artist named Adolf Hitler (the pair were both WWI veterans, Cusack's character having lost an arm in the conflict). The movie would be attacked by various Jewish groups for "humanising" Hitler, but the furore died down once the Jewish Defamation League had actually seen it - the group would, with gratifying honesty, apologise to the producers.

Arriving hot on Max's heels would come Identity, an ingenious thriller where Cusack played the chauffeur of movie star Rebecca De Mornay, whose limo knocks a woman down during a storm and takes her and her family to a nearby hotel. Here the tempest traps ten people (amongst them cop Ray Liotta and his killer prisoner Jake Busey) who, naturally, begin to drop like flies. But are these murders, or just freakishly timed accidents? Director James Mangold cleverly changed the story's perspective to keep the audience guessing and earned himself a surprise Number One hit.

Having appeared alongside Johnny Depp in a documentary about his friend Hunter Thompson, Cusack next stepped up for another of those Buy More Time roles when he took the lead in John Grisham's The Runaway Jury, where a woman would sue a gun manufacturer when her husband is killed in an office massacre. Gene Hackman would play an evil jury consultant for the company, attempting to fix the trial's outcome, with Cusack as a loose cannon juror conspiring to sell a favourable verdict to the highest bidder.

Pulling out of a starry remake of the Seventies thriller The Stepford Wives, his place being taken by Matthew Broderick, Cusack would instead take on Must Love Dogs and The Ice Harvest. The first would be a straight-down-the-line rom-com with Cusack as a recently divorced boat builder rivalling Dermot Mulroney for the affections of kindergarten teacher Diane Lane. The second would be more interesting, reteaming Cusack with his Pushing Tin co-star Billy Bob Thornton. Here Cusack would play a mob lawyer in Wichita who, along with porn-dealing associate Thornton, steals millions from gangster boss Randy Quaid. Pursued by a hit-man, unable to trust his partner and having to carry drunken brother-in-law Oliver Platt, Cusack would tread a fine line between weariness, decency and cold-blooded savagery as the movie slipped between comedy and gory violence.

2006 would prove a difficult year as Cusack suffered a filmic failure and the attentions of a stalker. In The Contract, he'd play a father hiking in the woods with his surly young son when they stumble over Morgan Freeman, an assassin just escaped from custody. An ex-cop and hoping to impress his boy, Cusack decides to take Freeman in, and thus embarks on a journey made all the more dangerous by Freeman's tailing cohorts. Sadly the movie would go straight to DVD, but Cusack would gain something from the year when he attained a restraining order against one Emily Leatherman, who'd later be ordered to stay away from Tom Cruise.

Though Must Love Dogs had turned a modest profit, Cusack had not enjoyed a hit since Identity. 2007 would see that change. It would also see Cusack giving free rein to both his art and politics. The year would begin with Grace Is Gone, a New Crime production snapped up by the Weinstein brothers at Sundance. This was a quiet but nonetheless powerful comment on the invasion of Iraq, Cusack playing an ordinary Joe store manager whose soldier wife is killed in the conflict. Unable to tell his young daughters of their loss, he takes them on a road trip to Florida, trying to pluck up courage along the way. Following this would come the hit thriller 1408, after Stand By Me Cusack's second stab at a Stephen King piece. Here he'd play a writer renowned for debunking apparently supernatural manifestations, whose latest target is the Dolphin Hotel's Room 1408 where four people have died and a maid has gouged out her own eyes. As the creepiness begins, Cusack's mettle is tested, particularly by an appearance from his dead and deeply-mourned daughter. It would be a superb performance, Cusack carrying every scene as he begins to lose first his cynicism then his sanity.

Next would come Martian Child, reuniting Cusack with both sister Joan and Oliver Platt. Here he'd play a widower who forms a family with friend Amanda Peet and adopts a child, a boy who claims to be from Mars. Once again he'd lose his cynicism as the child's claims are gradually (apparently) justified. Having acted as narrator on the summer camp romance Summerhood, Cusack would then return to weightier matters with his second New Crime production of the year, War, Inc, this time partially written by Cusack himself. Extending the ideas of Grosse Pointe Blank, this would see him as a hitman assigned to kill the CEO of an oil company in the Middle East, as cover co-ordinating a glitzy show featuring the wedding of tacky pop star Hilary Duff and the son of an arms dealer. Assisted by sister Joan and hampered by reporter and possible love interest Marisa Tomei, he'd cleverly plan his assassination, the movie taking swipes at politicians, war profiteers and the wholesale Americanization of different societies. Heavily influenced by Dr Strangelove, it would be both funny and fascinating.

2008 would see Cusack back in the mainstream when lending his voice to the title character in the animated Igor, playing a hunchbacked lab assistant dreaming of becoming a mad professor and winning prizes at the Evil Science fair. He'd remain populist with Jan De Bont's Stopping Power, inspired both by Speed and The Sugarland Express, where Cusack is forced to drive without stopping . . . ever.

Aside from writing and making movies, Cusack is a keen kickboxer (he took it up for the part in Say Anything) and an extreme sportsman. He's been helicopter-snowboarding in the mountains of British Columbia, and went surfing in Hawaii with surfing legend Laird Hamilton. Cusack went out on the big waves, even though it was only his second time. Wiping out spectacularly, he was rolled and, very dangerously, pulled under, only to emerge unscathed with a big smile on his face. Very smooth, very Cusack. In the love stakes, 2002 saw him end a 4-year affair with Scream star Neve Campbell (many said she was too young for him) and take up with Meg Ryan whom he'd met some 6 years before when they were both providing voices for Anastasia.

There was also an underground movement to push him into politics. Cusack makes his liberal leanings well known, and publicly castigated Michael Moore for not supporting Al Gore and thus helping George Bush slime his way into the White House. 2002 would see spring up, a site dedicated to the great man's political potential. Cusack, meanwhile, kept his good works quiet. Very few realised that, through New York's Schoolhouse Foundation, he had helped fund three new public schools in the city. When he did speak out, as he did around the release of Grace Is Gone, it was with gravitas and humanity, making clear his distaste for the behaviour of George W Bush's government.

As it stands, John has still not received the professional accolades afforded to sister Joan - twice Oscar-nominated for Working Girl and In & Out. But as a gambling man (while filming America's Sweethearts in Nevada, he and his driver once won $20,000 in a single evening), he would surely put money on himself one day winning at least one of those golden statues. As a great actor, and a daring producer, he stands a better chance than most. As for the presidential question, well, it looks like it's a straight race with Will Smith and Arnie.

Dominic Wills

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