OUTSPOKEN

John Cusack Talks ‘Love & Mercy,’ Drug Trips, and the Ways Obama Is ‘Worse Than Bush’

In a wide-ranging chat, the celebrated film star discusses his excellent biopic on Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, psychedelics, and why President Obama has let him down.

06.04.15 9:15 AM ET

“I just say what I think, and if people don’t like it, that’s OK.”

John Cusack has, at 48, lost interest in playing the part off-camera. He has no desire to pander to you, the moviegoing public, or the celebrity industrial complex. He recently called Hollywood “a whorehouse,” and has followed in the footsteps of his mom, embracing political activism via Huffington Post blogs and sitting on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He realizes that, by now, with a rich body of work that includes teen dramas (Sixteen Candles, Say Anything…), quirky comedies (Bullets Over Broadway, Grosse Pointe Blank), and whatever genre you’d call Con Air, you’ve made up your mind one way or the other.

And yet, in the new film Love & Mercy, Cusack will surprise you.

Directed by Bill Pohlad, the film chronicles the life of legendary Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, tracing his path through two distinct periods of his life: the 1960s, during the making of the band’s finest album, Pet Sounds, and the 1980s, as he attempts to escape the clutches of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), an overbearing psychotherapist. Paul Dano plays young Wilson, while the older version is portrayed by Cusack, who vividly captures the musician’s descent into madness and codependency—that is, until he’s saved by the love of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Jumping back and forth between two parallel narratives, it’s a subversive and thrillingly unique take on the well-worn music biopic.

The Daily Beast spoke to John Cusack to discuss not only the impressive film, but also everything from his thoughts on President Obama to those Breaking Bad rumors.

One thing I do admire about you is you don’t have a filter, and are outspoken about the issues of the day. A lot of celebrities pussyfoot around when it comes to even talking about current events.

No, I don’t care about any of that shit. All those people are just full of hot air and networking and stuff. If you’re speaking out about basic Rubicon lines that should or shouldn’t be crossed, if you can’t be against state-sanctioned murder being made acceptable or economic policy, making the difference between language and meaning so absurd that Orwell and Kafka laugh, these are not heavy-duty things, these are just basic, Cartesian things. They’re common sense, and were debated constitutionally a long time ago. 

A fellow Illinois guy—Vince Vaughn—made news headlines the other day for saying that guns should be allowed in schools to prevent school shootings.

The thing is, you’d say “What schools?” and “What version of America are we talking about?” If you look at the site called HeyJackass.com it’ll tell you about how many murders have happened in Chicago, giving you weekly and monthly updates, and you can probably find out how many murders have happened in Baltimore and all over the country. That’s not the kind of debate where you want to do a tit-for-tat with what two celebrities think about it, and in order to talk about it you have to do it in an in-depth way—you need to follow the money and see what the politics are. But no, I think that’s a bad idea.

I’m not sure if you heard the news today, but CNN conducted a poll concluding that George W. Bush’s approval rating is now higher than President Obama’s. 

Well, Obama has certainly extended and hardened the cement on a lot of Bush’s post-9/11 Terror Inc. policies, so he’s very similar to Bush in every way that way. His domestic policy is a bit different, but when you talk about drones, the American Empire, the NSA, civil liberties, attacks on journalism and whistleblowers, he’s as bad or worse than Bush. He hasn’t started as many wars, but he’s extended the ones we had, and I don’t even think Dick Cheney or Richard Nixon would say the president has the right to unilaterally decide whom he can kill around the world. On Tuesdays, the president can just decide whom he wants to kill, and you know, since 9/11 there are magic words like “terror,” and if you use magic words, you can justify any power grab you want.

Let’s talk Love & Mercy. Most music biopics follow the same tired structure—early years, success, dark period, redemption—but the thing I really enjoyed about Love & Mercy is its disjointed parallel narratives make it seem structurally fresh.

I think Oren [Moverman, the co-writer] has done a great thing, which is if you listen to Brian’s music, the standard chord changes go here, here, and here, and then Brian would do a chord change that shouldn’t work—but it’s new, and you go, “Wow, no one’s ever done that.” The structure had to come from Brian’s aesthetic.

Do you think drugs are a crucial ingredient in the artistic process? During the making of Pet Sounds, Brian was heavily under the influence of psychedelics, and when you look at many of the greatest albums ever—Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s, you name it—drugs played a role.

I don’t really know. All those things will lower down the doors of perception into the spiritual world—or deeper parts of the psyche depending on your ideologies or worldviews. In a way, every time you take a drug it’s like a prayer—you’re trying to get to a higher state of consciousness where things flow through you. It would be wrong to say that the music comes to you because of that, but it’s part of the experimentation. Drugs have been used shamanistically to go on vision quests, and there’s definitely a shamanistic quality to a lot of that music that I think psychedelics played a part in. And this is just my opinion, but I think that the medicines Eugene Landy was giving him did more damage to him than whatever he did in the ’60s. But, it depends. Acid is a serious fuckin’ drug. Mushrooms and peyote is one thing, but high-powered blotter acid can scramble your fuckin’ brain.

Have you ever had a profound psychedelic experience?

Yeah. A few when I was younger in my life, and then I started to do them without those things. I got into sweat lodges and these intense meditative things where you’d take your body to a place where you have these psychedelic experiences. But I did do acid and mushrooms when I was younger. There were two phases of that. When you’re a younger man, you want to come as close to death as you can without dying; you mix fear, adrenaline, drugs, and adventure in a way that’s pretty dangerous, and you’re lucky to survive. And the other aspect of it is if you’re more into the shamanistic ritual, and that’s probably a better way to go if you want to survive. I don’t have any regrets about any of my experiences because I’m still here.

How did you accurately convey this trying time in Brian Wilson’s life? Did he help guide you closer to that truth?

I think just by letting me have access to him, and to hang around him, feel him, and see how he navigates his way through the world. He has this antenna up and sometimes you think he’s talking to you, and sometimes he looks over your head—I think he’s checking out your aura and seeing colors and stuff. I think he’s a creature working with antennas that are more powerful than a lot of us, so I’m sure that can be overwhelming at times. The other thing is going back to the music, and every bit of him is in the music—especially Pet Sounds and the SMiLE sessions.

I spoke with Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy recently about the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club, and they told me you were in the final two for the role of Bender, which of course eventually went to Judd Nelson.

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Oh, yeah? I guess I didn’t get it! I can’t remember it, but I’m glad they remember it! I can’t remember the audition, but I do remember trying to get that part, and trying to be in it.

Speaking of would-be castings, there was a Hollywood Reporter story a few years back that claimed you’d passed on playing the role of Walter White in Breaking Bad.

No! Not that I’m aware of, but you never know what the agents could have done. It’s such a weird, silly thing though because why would anyone want to see that show without that actor playing it? I want him to play it, even if they offered it to me! He’s awesome.

I’m a crestfallen Rangers fan, but you must be excited for the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Oh, I think we’re going to win for sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blackhawks won the series 4-1. Maybe they’ll lose one game.

What about Jay Cutler on the Bears, though? As a New York Jets fan, I feel like I’m a bit of an expert on quarterbacks that are head cases, and Cutler really doesn’t seem to have it.

Yeah. I think they’re going to be bad for a long time. I have some friends who are pro athletes like Chris Chelios and stuff, and they say that the body language is not good. If somebody does something wrong, he’ll point them out and say, “You’re supposed to be over there!” and throw his hands up in the air. You don’t see people trying to play for him with the passion and enthusiasm of a real leader, and he’s never won a playoff game and he’s 32 years old, so he is what he is at this point.

Lastly, I would feel culturally remiss if I didn’t ask you about Con Air, which is just so deliciously over-the-top. It seems like everyone involved in that film just took a kitchen sink approach to it and went rogue.  

[Laughs] I was the first post-Heston non-Biblical action star in sandals. That was my goal, and I think I achieved it. There’s a very ridiculous sense of humor to that movie. To me, it was a really great time in Hollywood where you had people like Joe Roth running these big studios, so you could make Con Air or High Fidelity or Grosse Pointe Blank and make these big, fun summer movies, and it wasn’t so corporatized. It was a great time creatively.