Filmmaking has become a much tougher proposition in recent years, according to Hollywood actor, writer and producer John Cusack.
The veteran star of acclaimed films such as Grosse Point Blank, Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity was in Abu Dhabi this weekend, not to promote his latest film but to host an exclusive "Dinner with..." event at Emirates Palace on Friday, as part of the Abu Dhabi Food Festival.
“I’ve been in the Middle East before and I love the art and architecture,” he says of his visit. “It’s my first time in UAE and I’m really looking forward to getting out to the desert tomorrow.”
However, does his appearance at a food-themed event rather than a red-carpet film premiere suggest that he is disillusioned with Hollywood, or that good roles are getting harder to find.
"It's got a lot harder to make films," says the 50-year-old, whose big-screen career began in 1983 in the film Class. "The business has changed a lot in the past 10 to15 years.
"When Joe Roth was in charge at Disney [from 1994 to 2000], he let me make Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity as studio movies, then I'd do a Con Air or another blockbuster. He was happy to let me make an art-house movie then a blockbuster and it could all be done with a handshake deal.
“Now if you want to make a film there’s much more negotiating everything for maybe a two-year period. There’s a very different feel.”
With studios increasingly relying on sequels and reboots as safer investments in challenging economic times, an increasing number of movie A-listers have been making the leap to TV, where big budgets and critical acclaim for shows from the likes of Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime are increasingly turning the tables on the traditional view of TV as the poor relation of cinema. Cusack has done little TV during his four-decade career – but he does not dismiss the notion.
"If they ask me, sure" he says. "I haven't really done a lot of TV. I did a film for HBO [The Jack Bull], and a lot of the movies I've made as a producer have been for cable, but I'm sure I'll end up there. I've been approached for a couple of TV things, but nothing I've wanted to do so far."
Cusack has played some iconic roles during a career that includes close to 100 films, but perhaps the one image of him that stands out above all is the iconic boombox scene from writer-director Cameron Crowe's 1989 romantic comedy, Say Anything. Cusack's character Lloyd Dobler serenades the love of his life, outside her house, to the sounds of Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes, which is playing on a ghetto blaster he is holding over his head.
The scene is one of the most copied and parodied of its era, while posters featuring the image were popular in student’s rooms at the time. Cusack himself recreated the scene at a 2012 Peter Gabriel concert in LA, and is clearly not concerned that it remains one of his defining moments as an actor.
“I figure it’s a good problem to have really, that somebody likes what you did, that you make a film when you’re 21 with terrific people, and people are still talking about it 30 years later,” he says. “It’s flattering that you did something that made people happy. I don’t really watch them [the homages/parodies], but I hear about them. I can definitely think of worse problems to have.”
Cusack's career has taken in a wide range of diverse roles, including teen heart throb (Say Anything, The Sure Thing), grown-up romantic lead (Serendipity), wisecracking hitman (Grosse Point Blank), political drama (City Hall), disaster movies (2012) and art-house puppeteer (Being John Malkovich), and most points in between. Are there any he wishes he had landed, or regrets turning down.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “I don’t really think that way. I just feel really lucky to have done what I have done and have the career that I’ve had. Sure, sometimes you think, ‘Oh that would have been fun’ – but I really try not to think that way.”
It was rumoured that he missing out on the role of Walter White the critically acclaimed TV drama Breaking Bad.
"There was a rumour that they wanted me to be in Breaking Bad – but why would you want to mess around with someone who was perfect for the role?" he says. "He was so great. I'm not like, 'I want it to be me,' as if I don't already have enough. I'm happy when other people have success."
Cusack has a similarly relaxed attitude towards the films he makes that don’t meet his own high expectations.
“Sometimes I’ve been in movies that ended up a little different to how you wanted it to be, and I may be a bit disappointed, but if people like it that’s all fine – they don’t know what it might have been like done another way,” he says.
“Sometimes the reverse is true too, and when a movie comes out people don’t like it – then five or six years later people start to see it differently and understand it more and like it and say, ‘That was a great movie’. You’re saying, ‘well you didn’t like it when it came out’ – but you can’t afford to be that fickle. You just have to be relaxed about it because you just never know.
The actor says he still has a youthful hunger for his job – when the right role comes along.
"Sometimes it is just sort of a job, because sometimes you do just need a job, just some genre piece and you probably don't put as much energy into those," he admits. "But if you get something really good, like when I got to play Brian Wilson in [2014's] Love and Mercy, he's a real bona fide genius and he's still around – he and his wife were there at the movie – and when you get something like that, it's just as exciting and intense and fun."
Cusack has also been putting his energy into political activism in recent years – he is on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and in 2014 travelled to Moscow to meet NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, along with Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg.
The meeting spawned a collection of essays and dialogues, co-written by Cusack and Roy and published in 2015.
“I surely don’t know if he’ll ever be able to go back [to the United States],” says Cusack. “I hope maybe he’ll be able to travel through Europe one day and at least get that sort of freedom, but I really don’t know if the deep state of the US is ever going to be ready to have him back.”