There's no career in contemporary Hollywood quite like John Cusack's. Who else moves as easily from big-budget studio productions like Con Air, Midnight In The Garden of Good And Evil and America's Sweethearts to indie hits like Being John Malkovich, while taking time to write, produce and star in films like High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank? At 36, he's been a star for 16 years, since Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing in 1985.
He specializes in intelligent insecurity. (It's no accident he played the Woody Allen character in Allen's Bullets Over Broadway.) In his new film, Max, he takes the role of Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer in Munich in the days following the first world war who befriends an angry young artist named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). It's not a comedy, though Cusack's comic gifts give the tone of the film an intriguing ambiguity.
Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, Cusack is quick to credit the screenplay and direction of Menno Meyjes.
"It was a terrific script. It arrived fully formed. Max definitely has that ambivalence."
Referring to the fact that Max, an artist before the war, had lost an arm in combat, Cusack remarks, "He was very much an injured prince, someone literally blown off his horse by the machine age."
Max marks an unusual step in Cusack's filmography. He rarely plays anything but contemporary Americans; the only time he's played a character from the same period in history as Max was as Chicago White Sox third baseman Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out. Background was necessary.
"I researched the period of European history thoroughly. I looked at a great book called Rites Of Spring: The Great War And The Birth Of The Modern Age, by Modris Eksteins. I was fascinated by the idea that modernism had been forged in the fire of the first world war. From that point of view, you could see the Nazi aesthetic -- Hitler went to war against modern art yet stole from the avant garde."
On one level, Max is a cautionary tale about the dangers of pushing people to live up to their potential. Max meets the young Hitler and sees their shared fate as products of the the first modern war's horror, and talks to him about going deep into his soul to convey how war felt.
"People who were gung-ho came back wanting to be sure they rethought what their fathers had taught them, because that had led them into the slaughterhouse."
That's the origin of Max as a character -- that ragged, restless, injured quality that modern art sprang from.
"The commonality of Max and Hitler is that they were both drunk on art, and they both believed that the way out was through art. What I think is brilliant in the script is the fact that Max's impulse is to take the energy of this horrible little racist man and bring him up to the higher ground. Otherwise, he'll never get out of the trap.
"He has that impulse to address the regressive energy that Hitler represented. What Max asks Hitler to do with his art is beyond his capabilities, so his hate, frustration and anger have no other outlet but politics.
"You can never predict the future. The situation in the film is like me going out to Venice Beach and talking to a homeless guy on the boardwalk, and 13 years later he's the president."
Aside from starring in Max, Cusack served as executive producer on another festival entry, Never Get Outta The Boat, a shot-on-video film about a halfway house for recovering junkies. It's not the sort of thing one expects to see Cusack's name on.
"I tried to get the money together. A friend of mine had written it and another wanted to direct it. I'd never seen that world portrayed that way before, and you never see films about that way station between heaven and hell. A lot of friends had asked me to get involved with scripts before, and I usually don't, but I thought this was a fascinating thing. And it was a wonderful script."
Next on Cusack's plate is a project that demonstrates the compromises he makes for his art. He's starring in the film version of John Grisham's The Runaway Jury.