Irish-American actor John Cusack says he leapt at the chance to play 19th century poet and author Edgar Allen Poe in “The Raven,” a moody mystery about a string of murders inspired by the works of the master of macabre himself.
Known for his likable every-man roles in films like “Sixteen Candles,” “Say Anything,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Con Air,” “Pushing Tin,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “High Fidelity,” “America’s Sweethearts,” “Runaway Jury” and “2012,” the 45-year-old Evanston, Ill., native offers perhaps his most daring performance to date as Poe, the Boston-born literary icon Cusack described as the “godfather of goth.”
Among Poe’s works are the poems “The Raven,” “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” and short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Murders at the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Premature Burial” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” An alcoholic who experienced staggering personal losses throughout his short life, he died from unknown causes in 1849 at the age of 40.
Helmed by “V for Vendetta” director James McTiegue, “The Raven” is a fictionalized thriller in which Poe teams up with a Baltimore detective, played by Luke Evans, to pursue a serial killer. British actress Alice Eve plays Poe’s love interest Emily, while Irish film star Brendan Gleeson plays her father, Col. Hamilton.
“I just thought, as an actor, playing Poe and getting under the skin of this very complex genius … I think any actor would want to play him, and think it was a great challenge and opportunity,” Cusack told reporters at a recent Los Angeles press conference. “I was just up for it 100 percent.”
To prepare to play the famously troubled scribe, Cusack said he immersed himself in his real-life writing.
“I think the script was terrific and then James and I went through it with the writers and some people and tried to pull as much of Poe’s own dialogue as we could from his letters and novels, so we put that cadence and idiom into the structure of this genre story, which is basically kind of a Poe story where Poe becomes a character in one of his own stories.
So, you have Poe deconstructing Poe,” Cusack explained. “So, even though it is a fantasy, I was probably a little bit obsessive and drove James crazy. I was like, ‘Poe said this and Poe said that.’ I was always trying to use his own vernacular and his own words as much as I could in a fictional setting. So, we were trying to square that circle in a way.”
So, what did the actor learn about Poe through his experience of making “The Raven?”
“I think his feelings of abandonment and loneliness from losing his mother, then his stepmother and then his wife, I think he felt like he was sort of this orphan of the world,” Cusack observed. “And he was this genius and kind of a bastard. He was a rogue and he was all the things you think of him naturally like inward-looking and melancholy and soulful and all those things. But I think he was kind of this blasted soul. He was kind of a wanderer and I think everybody can relate to that.
He’s become a sort of a shadow archetype of the culture. He was like a pioneer into the underworld. I think he was a fascinating figure.”
The actor admitted shooting the film in Hungary and Serbia during the winter and largely at night took its toll on him and it was weeks after production wrapped before he was able to shake off the gloomy character.
“I just sort of felt like I became a vampire and I would sort of cling to Alice and I don’t know if I was disagreeable, but I might have been,” Cusack confessed. “It felt like a bender, but in a good way; kind of a cool bender. I know when I finished we were at the airport in London and James said, ‘You’ve got to go home, man!’ And I went back home and I did scare my family. They said, ‘What the [expletive] happened to you?’ I was pretty strung out … It’s the kind of thing where you have to go all in. I think whether you like the film or not, I think we all went all in … It seemed like the only way to go.”
“The Raven” opens nationwide
Friday. It is rated R.