Most filmgoers recognize John Cusack as the brooding sexy, sometimes sardonic leading man from such mainstream movies as his most recent, the 2007 Stephen King adaptation 1408. Many, however, also celebrate him as the subversive maverick starring in and sometimes making ambitious films ranging from Tapeheads (1988) to Say Anything (1989) to Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). And then there’s Max (2002), one of his personal favorites, in which he plays the Jewish patron to struggling young artist Adolf Hitler in Adolf’s pre-Nazi Party days. (“Come on, Hitler, I’ll buy you a glass of lemonade” is one of its quotable lines.)
With his new War, Inc. (which he co-scripted), a rollicking, surreal satire of recent US foreign and economic policy with an A-list cast including Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley, and (no doubt ending her career with Disney) Hilary Duff as a Middle Eastern version of Britney Spears, plus Cusack himself as a mercenary for a corporation much like Halliburton in a country much like Iraq, he goes way beyond Max. Beneath its black humor, bad taste, and explosive action, the film also explores such pressing issues as neo-con warmongering, the privatization of government, and the murderous consequences of both. These are subjects, I can tell, that Cusack is eager to talk about when I get him on the phone. But first I want to ask him a question that’s been bugging me since I saw the movie.
Is it true that you dropped a scorpion down Hilary Duff’s pants?
She dropped it down her own pants.
How can you do that?
I don’t know, there wasn’t any law against it in Bulgaria [where the film was shot], and Hilary read the script and she knew she wanted to do it. She’s really game. She’s like a pretty spirited wild woman. She’s pretty great.
How do you avoid getting stung?
Well there’s a scorpion wrangler in Bulgaria, which is a good job if you think how many scorpion wranglers could there be in Bulgaria. He’s probably got the market cornered there. But he had these scorpions and he took off the poison stinger, or he somehow neutralized the poison stinger, and Hilary put that scorpion down her pants.
Pretty funny stuff. This is the only Iraq War film that is a comedy. Do you think that’s why it’s been more appealing to audiences?
Well, I think there’s that, and also I think that there’s two ways you can go. That there’s this sense of inevitability about the whole thing, about Bush and Cheney and what they represent, which is this kind of 30-year movement from the far right to totally privatize everything that it means to be a state. I think people know that that’s happening, but they have a sense of inevitability that this is the way things are and it’s just too entrenched and it’s so depressing what’s happening and what America has been reduced to and the damage that’s been done to our military and the damage that’s been done to the image of America across the world. And it’s very depressing, so when you finish work, you know, you might not want to be reminded of that in a very serious and somber way.
But when you get a comedy or satire, and this isn’t like Wedding Crashers — well, sometimes it is, but it’s not like you’re supposed to just laugh and escape. You’re supposed to have nervous laughter and uncomfortable laughter and you’re supposed to think. But I think this type of a film allows you to reclaim your sense of defiance and your sense of outrage and the sense of subversion. It should be fun to tell the right people to go to Hell. It should feel good to tell the truth and run. So I think this allows people to get riled up in a healthy way. And I think that’s what absurdist comedy does, because it basically just takes current trends to their logical conclusion in a world that’s gone totally mad. That logical conclusion is surreal and insane — which is exactly what the Bush-Cheney world view is.
If Bill O’Reilly asked you to appear on his program to talk about the movie, would you accept?
What, Bill O’Reilly?
I don’t know what the point would be. I don’t know if he’d really be interested in talking about any of it.
He’d probably do the usual: set you up as a piñata and then not allow you to respond to any of his abuse.
You know, I’m Irish too, and I don’t take shit from people.
You could probably take him. You’re a kickboxer, right?
That’s right. The only thing is that he’s gotten his teeth kicked in so many times, intellectually speaking, it’s kind of like kicking someone while he’s down.
It’s kind of like picking on George Bush at this point.
But that man’s still got a lot of power, and that man’s still getting people killed.