Film and TV

Say Everything: John Cusack Speaks Candidly on Movies, Music and Politics

John Cusack
John Cusack Photo by Mills Entertainment

Lloyd Dobler famously did not want to buy, sell or process anything for a career, but if he could have peered 30 years from high school graduation into his future, might he have envisioned himself emphatically advocating against war profiteers and dubbing the American president a “cheap, regional crime boss?”

The world will never know because Dobler isn’t a real person, he’s a fictional character whose story essentially ended with the ding of an airplane “No Smoking” sign at the close of the 1989 classic rom-com, Say Anything. John Cusack is the veteran actor whose engaging performance brought Dobler to life. He is a very real person with very real thoughts about modern America. The actor shared some of those thoughts with Houston Press ahead of a Sunday, June 16 visit to Jones Hall to screen Say Anything and field audience questions about the film.

Cusack’s played more than 70 roles in films, movies he excelled in before Say Anything (Lane Myer fans, stand up) and since (High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank, Being John Malkovich, others). But the lovable, love-smitten Dobler was Cusack’s breakout role. Dobler became the romantic ideal for a generation of movie watchers, thanks to deft touches by the film’s writer/director Cameron Crowe and because of Cusack’s portrayal. His work in the film was so effective it spawned something called the “Lloyd Dobler effect,” which culture pundit Chuck Klosterman and Psychology Today have written about. The phenomenon tests real-life romantic relationships against the high bar set by the movie character.

It also means sometimes fans mistake Cusack for Dobler. Unlike Psychology Today, he doesn’t devote think-pieces or even much thought to these behaviors.

“I’m sort of outside all of that, so I wouldn’t really know. I think people equate you with certain aspects of yourself, with certain roles you play and obviously there’s got to be some of you in each little thing you do,” he said. “It doesn’t really affect me, so I wouldn’t really have anything to say on it, really.”

“Maybe there are some times,… “ he continued, “if you’re at the dinner table with someone else and somebody walks up to the dinner table and thinks that they want to have a moment with you and they don’t even look at the person you’re talking to. Then you say, ‘Excuse me, I’m having dinner.’ Maybe that’s not what they expected from a movie character, if they thought they were going to jump into a scene. I think that just has to do with fame more than anything with that particular character.”

Fans know if they’re ever actually invited to dine with Cusack, there are some favored topics for discussion. He’s a renowned music aficionado, so we ask what he’s listening to these days.

“I like Lucius, and then Gogol Bordello is real fun to listen to, those guys, yeah, that’s a terrific band,” he said and noted that seeing the “Immigrant Punk” band live “is as close as I’ve come to the old Fishbone shows, which were as good as anything I’ve ever seen, ever.”

His true passion of late has been political activism. He’s vehemently anti-war and pro free speech and freedom of the press. He’s written extensively on the subjects for the Huffington Post and in Things That Can and Cannot Be Said, the 2016 book he co-authored with Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. His Twitter feed should be required reading for current poli-sci majors (especially any with film minors).  Just weeks ago, at a Chicago Cubs game, a fan in the stadium posted a photo they alleged showed Cusack sitting during a military salute. Cusack responded by Tweeting, “I stood up- just not on que - like an Obedient pet.”

“I didn’t sort of stand up at attention like an obedient pet for commercials from armaments dealers,” he said of the event. “Of course, you know, you support the troops who serve but you also want to take a moment of silence for the dead, for the victims of all these endless wars that are all over the world.”

He said the social media call out and ensuing pile-on by MAGA supporters was “a jive, hit job smear piece from a bunch of scared losers.” The military salutes have been game day staples at Cubs games since the team and Boeing signed a multi-million dollar partnership to present the recognitions.

“I was like Jesus, the arms company doesn’t even have the courtesy to take their name off the billboards,” Cusack said. “They’re paying an enormous amount of money to conflate the military with these sporting events and it’s just teaching people to be obedient, stand up. And why wouldn’t they have a moment of silence for the people who had to go fight or die in wars? And usually they’re not dying for our freedom or our country, they’re dying for the profits of these companies. And you know, most vets agree. That’s why most vets are happy to have people try to bring their brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers home from overseas and these wars. We’ve been in Afghanistan for what, 20 years now?”

Cusack said his interest in activism began when he was young.

“My father went to school with the Barrigan brothers who were the radical Jesuit priests who were the activists opposing the Vietnam War, so I guess I got educated to the realities of the war from World War II veterans and anti-war ‘60s activists,” he offered.

click to enlarge Cusack defended himself against criticism aimed at him following events at a recent baseball game - TWITTER
Cusack defended himself against criticism aimed at him following events at a recent baseball game

We don’t know if the overly optimistic Dobler would be hopeful about the American political horizon. Remember, he’s not real. But Cusack said he thinks “It’s on a razor’s edge.”

“The one thing I like about the climate right now is that all this venom and hatred and ugliness is out in the open, it’s out in the open for everybody to see and if people want to roll over and succumb to this, they’ll get what they deserve,” he said. “But, there’s no way you can pretend like you don’t see what it is. You’ve got a guy who’s basically lying everyday and he’s got people who he’s beating into submission to normalize the lie and to tell everybody, ‘See? We can lie and it doesn’t matter. You can catch us in a thousand lies and it doesn’t matter.’ If people want to put up with that, then they really will have just rolled over and that’s quite a thing, to roll over power to a cheap, regional crime boss like Donald Trump.

“It exposes what the GOP was and in a sense what the Democratic party was because the pre-Trump landscape is the landscape that gave us Trump,” he continued. “This war on journalists and the war on whistleblowers using the Espionage Act didn’t start with Donald Trump, it started beforehand with Bush and Cheney and then Obama didn’t give any of those powers back and he was harder on whistleblowers than all the previous Republican presidents combined. The GOP is a deathcult for sure and Lindsay Graham was right, that Donald Trump will destroy that party and it’s proven them all to be the frauds that they are.

“But if we use this moment of kind of like utter finality across the board to reshape our politics – that’s why I’m hoping that Bernie Sanders can win the nomination – then I think we have a good shot. But, if people succumb to this sort of lawlessness then we don’t really have much of a shot because democracy is going to be going down the drain the next few years.”

Cusack knows that sort of candor might lose an actor some fans. Maybe he feels there’s too much at stake to worry about that, or maybe he’s counting on the goodwill of the inexplicable “Lloyd Dobler effect.” We circle back and suggest people simply have an affinity for him, some imagined connection that makes them feel close to him.

“It’s very nice. Look, it’s much better than the alternative, I guess,” he says, with a laugh. “I guess it’s some validation of your work a little bit, or how you’ve tried to live. Whatever it is, I’m very grateful for it. I don’t fully understand it, but I certainly don’t take it for granted.”

Society for the Performing Arts Houston presents An Evening with John Cusack and Screening of Say Anything, 4 p.m. Sunday June 16, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. $39.50 and up.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.