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Just go ahead, John Cusack, and Say Anything to me

Lloyd Dobler, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul, my … interview subject.

Okay, to be fair, John Cusack has come a long way since the days when he won the hearts of a generation by blasting Peter Gabriel on a boom box over his head in the rain wearing a trench coat and karate pants. (Just in case you were born after 1985, that's a reference to the movie Say Anything.)

In addition to coolly refusing to get married and becoming a member of the Twitterati – 860,811 followers at press time and counting – he's made a bunch of movies, many of them excellent. ( The Grifters, High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank and Being John Malkovich spring immediately to mind.) While there are admittedly some duds in the bunch (let's not dwell on Must Love Dogs or Hot Tub Time Machine), for the most part Cusack has managed to maintain his dignity over 23-plus years of working in Hollywood.

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If you think that's any small feat, just compare his oeuvre with his fellow John Hughes movie pin-ups – Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez (how would you like to be best known as "Charlie Sheen's brother"?) and Jon Cryer (worse yet, his "former sitcom co-star"?).

No doubt about it, Cusack emerged from the 1980s more unscathed than most of the so-called brat pack, and now, 2½ decades later, he's sitting across from me in a suite in London's Dorchester hotel, drinking a calorie-free morning Red Bull and attempting to win me over the way he's been waiting to all these years. Okay, the truth is he's here to promote his new film The Raven, a highly fictionalized horror biopic of Edgar Allen Poe, in which he stars as the drunken washed-up 19th-century poet himself.

The plot places the real-life Poe at the centre of a fictional thriller loosely based on the movie's titular poem. Intrigued? So was Cusack, who describes his initial reaction to the script in ecstatic terms. "I thought it was an incredible conceit – a sort of highbrow popcorn thriller with this incredibly juicy literary character at the centre of it."

The challenge, he says, was in getting the words just right. "Not many people today, or even back then, are as articulate as he was. These days we all have a collective agreement we're all going to speak in fractured sentences and understand each other. But it wasn't like that in Poe's time. There was a real form and voluptuousness to language that I was determined to capture."

Cusack did that by researching and playing with his performance and lines. "I wanted to max out the character. So I'd go back into one of his short stories and pull out a character's line and put it in his mouth at one point in the script. I just really got into finding the idiom of the time."

Director James McTeigue ( V for Vendetta) later tells me about one scene, now cut from the movie, in which Poe gets tossed from a barroom and rolls into the gutter muttering to himself. With each take, Cusack ad-libbed a different quote. "Most were from Poe's poems, but one was in French, another was in Latin. I think he even threw in some Hunter S. Thompson for fun," he says, laughing. "He was playing around but he was really serious about embodying the spirit of Poe."

Taking things seriously is both Cusack's raison d'être and weakness, emanating as he does from a pre-ironic age, before blasé cleverness trumped earnestness as the key to the thinking gal's heart. There is, after all, nothing slackerish or tongue-in-cheek about Lloyd Dobler and his ghetto blaster.

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The real-life Cusack, on the other hand, seems a bit … not prickly, exactly, but on the defensiveness spectrum. There is a lot of anxious, actor-generated eye contact as we chat. He leans forward, elbows on knees, brow furrowed and looks deep into my eyes in a way I find slightly unnerving, suggesting as it does hours spent in coffee houses and the company of expensive shrinks. He has a charming, scattershot sort of intelligence and a compelling need to connect, but you also get the sense that, if wounded, he could turn very cold very quickly. I bet those soft brown eyes do harden up, and fast.

I'm projecting on Cusack, of course, which is what celebrities are there for – but which is also slightly unfair, especially with an actor who's done nothing worse than start off as a lightning rod for his generation and proceed to some pretty fine films after that.

His "choices," as they say in the business, have for the most part been both artistically interesting and strategically canny. You get the sense he's an actor in it for the long haul, and his stated philosophy backs this up.

"I sort of have a standard of cultural debasement I try not to go below, and then I have long periods of self-flagellation when I decide I'm going to sell out, and then I get lucky and get something like Poe," he says, adding that, even for a famous actor in command of his craft, there are many factors beyond his control – and he's okay with that.

"Sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not. I'm not talking about with people in general but the ones who write cheques for movies. You go up and you go down." He gives a cheeky, Lloyd Dobler smirk. "You know what, though? I think I'm coming into vogue again."

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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