A madman stalks the streets of 19th-century Baltimore, killing city residents in frighteningly elaborate ways ripped from the pages of history's most terrifying tales, and only one man can hope to solve the crimes and stop the terror: Edgar Allan Poe.
That's the set-up for "The Raven," the new thriller starring John Cusack as the gothic literary icon in theaters now. We recently talked with Cusack about Poe, his friendship with Hunter S. Thompson and what music he listened to while on set in Eastern Europe.
So, how did you react when you got the call offering you the chance to play Poe?
I was pretty excited, to tell you the truth. I thought usually that would go to someone else who had bigger box office than me, but I was glad that I got my turn to get one of those choice roles, so it was pretty cool.
How faithful do you feel to stay true Poe as a man, and where do you take off as a fictional character in a fictional film like this?
Well, I thought the conceit of the movie is, I think, a way in which it's kind of Poe-like in that it's a story that puts Poe in the center of one of his own stories. He was also at the center of many of his writings, first-person (stories) about a man going insane and he was writing. And also journalistically he wrote about himself the way the Beat generation and Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote did, so he started about every genre there was literarily.
But at the same time, by creating a fantasy almost like "Amadeus" (1984) or something, I'm not saying it's as serious or important a movie as "Amadeus," but you learned a lot about classical music (through that film) but in actuality there was no Salieri and Mozart, that didn't exist, they didn't have that relationship, that didn't happen, it's a construction, but you learn a lot about classical music.
Well, by having Poe have to deconstruct himself you learn a lot about his writing and what his intention was, what he was trying to do, because all of his attitudes towards the stories that he wrote and towards the people in his life and towards the proxy authority figures and the women, his thoughts about death, his thoughts about his own melancholy, all those are taken from his own writings, so it's actually pretty accurate in a fantasy setting. His opinions and thoughts about himself are very accurate.
And he did go to West Point, he held a swimming record, he was sort of athletic, he was a drunk, he sort of navigated between the high literary world and the low-brow world, he was super competitive with other writers, he was very vain and brittle, he was disagreeable, he was melancholy and looking inward, he was kind of extravagant and grandiose, he saw himself as kind of a rock star and kind of an aristocrat but then he also was a vicious addict, he was a man full of paradoxes and a man fill of so many contradictory forces in him, so I think we kind of did a version of him that is accurate in a fantasy setting. Believe me, I read everything about him.
Listing all of his various facets and his contradictions as a man, that has to be a great hill for you to climb as an actor, rolling all of that up into one two hour performance.
Yeah, well, obviously it's not a linear biopic so you're not telling the story that way, but I think if you can kind of capture an essence of him, I think that that's pretty good.
Scenes like the ones where he's raging against the editor of the Baltimore Patriot, I couldn't help but think of your friendship with Hunter Thompson. Did knowing Hunter as long as you did inform your take on Poe at all?
Yeah, it did actually. You know, I thought of him and remembered him a lot. Yes, certainly, I certainly did.
Because you get a similar feeling there, this ahead of his time genius in the world of periodicals, either magazines or newspapers.
Yeah, I think Hunter was a lot more fun, they were very different men, but there was a ferocity to their minds that I think was probably unmistakable and undeniable, a ferocity of their talent and an intensity of will that is very similar. You know, Hunter was a peacock in a way but he was very loyal, he was very tribal, he was very generous to me and to other people, he had a lot of friends. Poe didn't like men, if there was a man there he was distrusted or he was competition. I think he liked the company of women, he liked to be adored by women, he had very few male friendships, but Hunter had a bunch, Hunter was generous and hilarious, but they were both dangerous people, in many ways.
You had mentioned, in comparing the film in some ways to "Amadeus," how "Amadeus," even though it's not the most historically accurate piece, introduces audiences to classical music. The same can be said by turning elements of Poe's writings into a grisly, gory summer horror film, you're introducing audiences today to Poe's work.
And also to say this is where it all started. I mean, even Sherlock Holmes traces right back. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said Sherlock Holmes is based on Inspector Dauphin, which was Poe's version of Sherlock Holmes. I mean, that's just fact, you know? I think that's right.
Also, you know, "Midnight in Paris" (2011) isn't a true story, but it makes you want to go read Hemingway again and go read Fitzgerald. After I saw "Midnight in Paris" I was like, "I want to read 'A Moveable Feast' (by Ernest Hemingway), I haven't read that in a long time," and it's fantastic to read, then you read about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his battle with alcohol and how he was always worried about making money and how much money and what was going to sell and stuff. You know, we think of these icons in sort of two dimensions when they were really more three dimensional so I think it's one of those types of movies, too, where it's fantasy but there's a lot of reality in it.
As an artist, how do you respond to the element of the film where Poe's most commercially successful works are the ones that come back to haunt him?
Yeah, I get that, like they're saying "just do another," people want you to do what you've already done in the business and they don't have too much of an imagination and not a whole lot of loyalty, so they say, "Well, if what you did before was successful, do it again," and you're like, "Well, I already did that, I want to do something else," so I think any creative person can relate to that, too.
Can you tell me a bit about shooting "The Raven" in Budapest and Belgrade, telling a Baltimore story, a very American tale, and shooting it in Eastern Europe?
Well, I think it was good, because you wanted to get as deep into the sort of psychic space of Poe and that underworld space of Poe as you could. By going to Serbia and Hungary at night and being on those little cobblestone streets you definitely didn't feel like you were in America where you were going to come back at night to your regular life and turn on the TV and see ESPN. You felt like you were at the South Pole or something, so it was a way to really lock yourself into that world. I just read, read his stuff all the time and I stayed alone, it was fun.
When you were overseas, I know you're a big music guy, were there any particular artists or albums you found yourself listening to to get in the groove?
Yeah, I listened a lot to the Lou Reed "The Raven" (2003) album, I found that to be analogous, similar to what we were doing, and then I tended to listen to Donovan a lot, I listened to "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (1968) a lot, I found that to bring a sort of side to some sort of sensual dance he did with death, something about that song and some of those writers and some other writers, too, obviously Dylan and Tom Waits and a lot of other people too, but for some reason I really liked the Lou Reed album and some Donovan, I thought it was very interesting.
Those are really good choices, Donovan and Lou both combine this poetic lyricism with this very unsettling, creepy undercurrent that I think works very well for the film and for Poe.
Yeah, you know, usually I sort of make soundtracks in my head and they give me a through-line independent of what the soundtrack is actually going to be, but I would have loved it if they would have used that song in the movie, but I guess they couldn't afford it or didn't want to break the aesthetic.
How was it working on set with the raccoon who played Poe's pet raccoon?
Oh, it was fine, I just pretended like it was my pet and hoped he wouldn't bite me. He didn't.
It's interesting, you said Poe didn't have a lot of male friends, but in the few scenes you have with the raccoon he definitely has a bond with him.
Yeah, you know, he had a cat that used to sit on his shoulder when he'd write, but I think the raccoon is just an invention, sort of an homage to the fact that there was one theory that he might have died of rabies, so we just used the raccoon instead of the cat.
There you go back to taking different aspects of his story, both the facts and the legends, and blending them into this true-life fantasy.
Yeah, that's right. You know, I think there was an internal logic to the choices and they were provocative that way.
And John, on another note, I saw there's an upcoming film where you're rumored to be playing Richard Nixon, "The Butler." I wanted to see if there was any word on that.
Yeah, I'll do that to work with Lee (Daniels, director), I'd love to.
That's fantastic. Have you started thinking about approaching the character of Nixon?
I haven't figured that out yet. None of the characters in it are really the central characters, strangely the presidents aren't, it's the story from the point of view of the butler, he goes through about five presidencies, so there's going to be about seven or eight people who are going to be playing the presidents and the first ladies, we all have little moments but it's not our stories, really.
That's exciting. Do you think Hunter would get a laugh out of you playing Nixon?
I think he'll be cackling from on high. I'll definitely read (Thompson's) "The Great Shark Hunt" (1979) again and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72" (1973) for sure.