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John Cusack Channels Poe in The Raven

Updated: May 6, 2023

John Cusack at the New York press day for The Raven at the Vault at Pfaff’s in Greenwich Village.

John Cusack Channels Poe in The Raven

by Jay S. Jacobs

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 is 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.

What about his romantic side?

Oh, doomed women. He fell in love with doomed, dying women. His mother, his stepmother and his wife all died of tuberculosis. They were all kind of fragile, physically. He loved beauty and he loved women. I don't think he was a playboy. I don't think he was out screwing around on his wife or anything. He just loved. He wanted rich people to... he wanted patrons more than lovers, I think. He wanted the Gertrude Stein of the day. He wanted the rich people to pay for him and stuff. The intellectuals, he wanted admirers as much or more than sex, really. Of course, he was romantic in that I think actually he loved his wife. The women he loved; he loved a lot. Their purity. Men, he was competitive with. Well-read. Taking on the establishment.

One of the main establishment characters in the movie was played by Brendan Gleeson. What was he like to work with?

So good. So good. All the actors were so good in it. So great. I was a huge fan of his.

Another need — as a producer of this film you can probably relate to this — was Poe's need to get money, and the things he had to do to get it.

Totally. Of course, it is. If you read his letters, in most of them he's always saying that he's in desperate circumstances and he needed some money. He was scrounging for money his whole life. Literally, saying he's going to just eat a dandelion salad. Food, drink, basic necessities, he was always on the verge of ruin. And he was world-famous. He wrote "The Raven." It's because there were no copyrights. He wrote "The Raven" and it went all over the world. It got to Europe. He actually got invited to the White House. He was a well-known poet and intellectual. It's just that nobody could really make a living as a writer. If you tried to make a living as a writer, you'd do the stories in the paper or you'd do a poem or write the horror stories. They were very successful, but he got probably paid by the word, one time around, and that was it.

He spent a lot of time in bars, too...

Yeah. I think he was kind of a binge alcoholic, from what I've read in many sources. He'd stop for a while to write; he'd get it together. Then something would happen, and he'd be off.

If Poe were still alive today, what questions would you ask him?

I don't know if I'd ask him anything because it's all there in the writing. And I don't think you'd probably get a straight answer if you did. It would be dependent on where you met him. If you met him on his first cocktail or if you met him when he was hung over. Who knows where you'd get him? He seemed to be by all accounts pretty mercurial. He could be overcome by the needs. He was very passionate and didn't have a lot of control over his emotions. Things got the better of him. Sometimes he could be very polite and a real gentleman. Then something would happen, the other guy would come over to him and all of the sudden he'd be furious about something.

Would you say he's the most damaged character you've ever played?

Aaaaaaah. (long pause) Yeah. Yeah. Probably.

What kind of challenges did that present?

Well, he was a genius. Most people aren't really geniuses. You'd better have an insight. He had a pretty serious appetite for self-destruction, for sure. I think it was also the romance of the abyss. There are not many people who have had the worst nightmare you can think of. Most people would then say, "Wake up, wake up, wake up." He was like, "Oh, great, go in deeper." There are not many people like that. Poe, William Burroughs, and Hunter Thompson. There are people that do that, but there are not that many people that can do that. Who wants to go to try to find the romance of the abyss, or the attraction to destruction. He's the godfather of Goth, for sure. And the detective genre. He started satire, science fiction. He [inspired] Jules Verne. He was the first person to be called the imp of the perverse. He needed to do the exact wrong, perverse thing. He was pretty out there.

Poe was a very complex character. What was the process to come up with that and then to recover?

Just go all in and submerse yourself in it. Then try to find your way out. I knew I got to finish it, so it was either go goth or go home. He was a mixture of things, too. He wasn't just sober. He was kind of funny and witty. His mind was real clear at times.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Poe while doing research on him?

I'd forgotten that he actually invented [all those styles of writing] ... you can see the seeds of his influence in so many different places. In so many different genres. Music and cultural. Literature. You can see what began with the origins of him. It branches out into so many different directions. I had forgotten that. When you look into it, you can really sense it. He created forensics and the detective genre before Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on Inspector Dupin in "Murders in The Rue Morgue." He did parodies. Not parodies, but he did hoaxes, journalistic hoaxes where he would do these stories that didn't happen. Based on these balloons that would go into outer space. It was sort of like a War of the Worlds thing. He would put them out there. They were punks, pranks, and super science fiction-y. Then Jules Verne kind of got up on that and did that a little bit. He would do satires, burlesques of other people's writing styles. Obviously, he started the horror genre, the gothic horror genre. He did other styles, too. He did these first-person confessional things about the beast in him, which hadn't been done. And romance. He made a romantic version of destruction. He would talk about death and beauty. And he was completely brazen, coming like that from a whole tradition of writers where they would tell the whole world that they're the best and they were better than anyone else. He would destructively put it all out there. His courage, he would say that he couldn't believe in a God, because his whole being revolted to the idea that there was anything in the universe superior to himself. And he said that in print when it was really difficult to print things. (laughs) Really? It's not like an off-hand remark. It was an idea he just put out there. He was crazy. He was so provocative and nuts.

People take Poe very seriously. What do you think people are going to think of Poe the action hero?

I think they'll probably like it. Some of them, maybe not. I don't know. Roger Corman certainly took the burlesque satiric side of him and turned it into these camp movies in the 60s. This takes his terror much more seriously than those, certainly, but there is an element of burlesque and vaudeville and mashing up genres and mind fucking that goes into Poe's things. There could be a straight biopic that could be a good version of this, too, but I thought this was a very good film...

Since this is a fictional look at the last days of a real person, how much did you have to tread the line to not go too far from the truth but still make it an interesting story?

I don't think you're really bound by it. This is a dream about Poe. It's based on what his stuff feels like and what what he wrote feels like. Lou Reed made The Raven [a musical based on the poem] and he just started re-writing the poem. He was inspired by what Poe wrote. This was our best version of a dream about Poe. Other people can make theirs, too.

What story were you most looking forward to seeing on the big screen?

"The Pit and the Pendulum," I thought. I said that's hard core. [Poe] would be laughing about Saw. He'd say, "I'll show you Saw." I always like the mystical side of his work. I love the undead and the people that target death. I like supernatural Poe. I like "Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death," "Hop-Frog," "The Imp of the Perverse." I like those things. That's my sweet spot.

Has this inspired you to make any future supernatural films?

I did. I made Stephen King's 1408. I really liked that. I got into [Twilight Zone creator] Rod Serling, [who is like] a direct descendant of Poe. I'd imagine Stephen King would feel a great allegiance to Poe. I've done others. Identity was one that had sort of a meta vibe, too.

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: April 26, 2012.

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