Man of Few Words
Serendipitious Encounter with John Cusack
By Bert Osborne

Let's hope this movie doesn't have the obligatory "Cusack soaked in the rain" scene.

Interview most actors, and they don't know when to quit going on and on trying to convince you that their new movie is the greatest thing, if not since sliced bread itself, then at least since their last movie came out (when they gave you pretty much the exact same spiel, only with different names filling in all of the same blanks). The late Jack Lemmon, may he rest in peace, once looked me straight in the eye and swore he'd put The Odd Couple II on a par with "anything I ever did with Billy Wilder."

Surely, there must exist a happy medium between THAT and between THIS: John Cusack sheepishly hawking his new film Serendipity (opening Oct. 5). Something just doesn't seem right during a recent interview in Los Angeles. For an actor who has built his career on playing ingratiating underdogs and antiheroes whose most common character trait is what someone in Say Anything... once described as "that nervous talking thing" he does, Cusack's mumbling man-of-few-words act is particularly disappointing and frustrating.

It might be one thing if he were still plugging this summer's vastly inferior America's Sweethearts. But Cusack has nothing to be embarrassed about with Serendipity, a winsome modern-day "fairy tale" about fate and true love as refreshing as that other romantic comedy was forced. Under the direction of Brit Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song), Cusack plays another of those inherently likable roles of his, and he exudes considerably more screen chemistry opposite the lovely Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor) than he did with Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones combined. Move over, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

So why should it be like pulling teeth to get the 35-year-old actor to, well, say anything? "I thought this was a pretty clever fairy tale, and I really wanted to work with Peter and Kate, because I've always been such a fan of their work," Cusack says, filling in those aforementioned blanks. "I also liked the idea of doing a more commercial movie. Every couple of years, it's good to do a date movie or a popcorn movie or whatever, because if they're successful, sometimes the studio people will let you do other things. It's smart to balance the two."

Indeed, Cusack had been acting for more than 10 years - graduating from teen comedies like The Sure Thing to meatier dramas like The Grifters - but it wasn't until he co-starred in the box-office blockbuster Con Air that he acquired the "clout" to produce (and star in) a couple of his own screenplays, Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity.

(In an interview at the time, Cusack elaborated on the subject more freely than he's willing to on this day: "As an actor, I was just an actor, but as someone who could help create a film, I had become a prospect. I wouldn't say it changed my attitude about the industry, but it probably shifted THEIR perceptions about ME. Once they give you the money to make a film, and you do it responsibly and everything works out, they take you more seriously," he said.)

Having sidestepped the Brat Pack stigma which seemed to saddle so many of his '80s contemporaries, Cusack continues to defy easy classification. He's utterly sweet and charming in Serendipity, and yet this is the same actor who so believably inhabited that grungy and dour puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, too. Not surprisingly, perhaps, conventional Hollywood stardom seems to have eluded Cusack thus far. Ask him to speculate about it, and he shrugs his shoulders. "Who knows?"

(In another interview from several years ago, Cusack said, "I'm pretty low-key. I just want to work with the best people I can, and I try to avoid all the rest of it. I'm an actor, not a media personality, and I don't define myself based on my last box-office success or failure. I've always had certain long-range plans in terms of my career. It's not just about cashing a paycheck.")

OK, with time running short, let's grasp at some straws, shall we?

Does Cusack share the belief in romantic destiny so disarmingly espoused in this new movie of his? "I don't know. I kind of feel like fate and free will exist together. I never know if things are happening because I'm LETTING them happen or because I'm MAKING them happen, you know?"

Does he have any favorite romantic comedies? "The first thing that comes to mind is What's Up Doc?, but don't ask me why."

What can he tell us about Adaptation, the new movie in which he reunites with director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman from Being John Malkovich? "Well, I haven't seen it yet, so I'm not sure."

Is he working on any new scripts of his own? "Yeah, but nothing I really want to talk about."

Here's the real question: Where's Jack Lemmon when you need him?