After almost three decades in Hollywood, John Cusack has got his method down pat when it comes to selecting his movies roles. "I just do what I want to do, and if people watch them, then great. If not, I figure just keep doing what you want to do." If he's never quite been the A-list star like some of his peers, the 45-year-old has an arguably more eclectic CV to compensate. Roles in Grosse Pointe Blank, The Grifters and High Fidelity express an effortless cool mixed with a beguiling vulnerability.
Much the same could be said for his latest, as the iconic American author Edgar Allan Poe, "the Godfather of Goth" as Cusack calls him, responsible for such celebrated stories as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of Red Death. As any Poe fan knows, he died in 1849, shortly after being found on the streets of Baltimore in a disorientated fashion. His whereabouts in the preceding days remain a mystery, as does the cause of death, with conspiracy theories ranging from rabies to a lesion on the brain.
"I can understand the hook but I find that to be the least interesting part of Poe," claims Cusack, dressed in jeans and a black fleece when we meet in a London hotel. "It's just like one of his stories. Without any tangible explanation, in some kind of foggy mystery, he just went off. It's a suitable death for a man like him." In The Raven (named after Poe's 1845 poem), the film offers a more fanciful explanation for Poe's last days: that he became entangled with a deranged fan, who is using his stories as the basis for a series of grisly murders. It's not the first time Cusack has played a writer (he was a fictitious playwright in Woody Allen's 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway) or a real-life person (the billionaire Nelson Rockefeller in Cradle Will Rock), yet The Raven is more a fictionalised take on a literary life.
"That conceit is very Poe-like. Poe has to deconstruct Poe in order to catch the person who is creating him, writing him or ghosting him. And then he [the killer] asks Poe to write a new story based on the crimes. Then it becomes a real metaphysical can of worms!"
While Cusack notes the opportunity to play Poe is "high cotton for an actor", the film's director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) reckons he sees why playing the author intrigued the actor. "If you get talking to John, then people he hangs out with - his mates - are people like Damien Hirst," he says, "people who are like Poe who try to mix the horror with the beauty of life. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a bit of the life of the artist - the extreme highs and the extreme lows."
Cusack, who has acted as a producer on a number of films he's worked on, is also credited as the co-writer on several, beginning with the 1997 comedy Grosse Pointe Blank. But has he felt the terror of the blank page, as his Poe does in The Raven? He nods. "I've been in that process where I've felt burnt out in the art forms I've been working in. You don't feel like you have anything to say or anything to offer. There's nothing interesting coming out."
Raised in the upper middle-class area of Evanston, Illinois, Cusack was born into an artistic Irish-Catholic family. His late father Dick Cusack was an actor, writer and documentary filmmaker, while his four siblings all act - most famously his older sister Joan, who has appeared with her brother several times. "As long as they let us keep doing it, we'll do it," he smiles. "I figure someone will stop us soon." They first co-starred in 1984's Class – Cusack making his screen debut as a juvenile prep school pupil – before appearing in a series of classic 1980s teen films together, including The Sure Thing and Say Anything.
Cusack, who has never married and manages to keep his romantic life largely under wraps, is happy not to be an adolescent actor in today's internet-driven age. "I feel bad for these young guys who are kids, who are well known now. The media is so incredible; you can't even be a silly 22-year-old just because you've made a couple of movies. A guy gets drunk in a taxicab and it almost destroys his career … sounded like a good weekend to me when I was 18."
Like Poe, Cusack remains something of a mystery ("I don't do scandal," he says, "and if I have them, they're not public"). All we have to go on are his choices. He'll soon be seen in The Paperboy, a death-row drama from the Precious director Lee Daniels. And then there's a reunion with his Con Air co-star Nicolas Cage in The Frozen Ground, playing the real-life serial killer Robert Hansen. "It wasn't a space I would want to stay in," he admits. "Between Poe, The Paperboy and this, I spent a lot of time in the underworld. I'm happy to be back out of there."
The Raven opens on Thursday in the UAE