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As Poe, John Cusack takes flights of fancy in 'The Raven'

Actor discusses embodying the rebel poet and Baltimorean

By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

10:08 AM EDT, April 25, 2012

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John Cusack didn't come to Baltimore when preparing to play Edgar Allan Poe in "The Raven."

In fact, he says he's never been here.

But when asked whether this city, Boston, Philadelphia, New York or Richmond has dibs on the author's reputation, Cusack, 45, answers without hesitation.

"Baltimore!," he said. "Is that even a question?"

For Cusack, the only other city that comes close to having a hold on Poe is Boston. After all, he was born there.

"But I think people generally would have to concede that Poe is a Baltimore guy," he said.

Cusack has dotted his career with eccentric, funky and creative characters, including the puppeteer in Spike Jonze's "Being Charles Malkovich" and the playwright in Woody Allen's "Bullets over Broadway."

But they haven't been as rich and multifaceted as Poe, the always-penniless author who invented the detective story, raised Gothic horror to peaks of lyricism and profundity, wrote the most popular poem of his day — "The Raven" — and became one of America's first literary celebrities.

As Cusack begins riffing on Poe, bringing up great writers of all eras, you wonder how the actor didn't wind up in Allen's "Midnight in Paris."

"Have you read Hemingway's 'A Moveable Feast?'" Cusack asks in an enthusiastic rush. (The book was an inspiration for Allen's City of Light smash.) Cusack finds it fascinating that when Fitzgerald and Hemingway spoke about the craft of fiction they were highly conscious of the "price tags" their stories carried in the literary bazaar.

"You'd think they were pure artists above all that, but they had to sell," he said.

If Hemingway and Fitzgerald were keen on establishing their market value, Poe was downright desperate to do so. In mid-19th century America, a writer could go broke from being famous. Copyright law was limited here and nonexistent internationally.

"It's like the same thing that's happening today, when all information is supposed to be free," Cusack said. "Poe was world-famous for his poem 'The Raven,' but because he had no copyright, all he got paid was a couple of bucks for the poem."

So Cusack suffuses Poe with tragicomical seat-of-the-pants urgency and inventiveness. And he doesn't stint on the melancholy, either. He and director James McTeigue made sure to insert a classic Poe line that encapsulates his pensive sadness: "I have often thought I could distinctly hear the sound of the darkness as it stole over the horizon." Both Poe's mother and his wife — his cousin, Virginia Clemm — died young of tuberculosis.

Cusack drew on Peter Aykroyd's "Poe: A Life Cut Short" for insights about Poe's changeable, prismatic nature.

"Poe was a paradox in so many ways," he said. "He could be esoteric and highly intellectual and he was one of the greatest writers in the English language. But he was also a pulp writer of Saturday-afternoon thrillers and horror. And he was aware of everything, including the difference between his pop work and his serious work, and his standing with other critics."

So how does an actor set about conveying these insights — especially when the script hinges on a serial killer who copies the graphic tortures in Poe's own popular works, from "Murders in the Rue Morgue" to "The Pit and the Pendulum?"

Well, Cusack says, "You've got to start with the text and challenge it as much as you can." He credits McTeigue with helping him "make sure the language and texture" were as true to Poe as possible.

They used a saloon scene, Cusack says, to depict the "manipulative, grandiose, and alcoholic" aspects of Poe's personality. And they attempted to angle fictional characters like his pale, beautiful lover (Alice Eve) and her forbidding father (Brendan Gleeson) in ways that would bring out the writer's convoluted romanticism and disdain for authority, literary or otherwise.

Shooting a fantastical period piece in Serbia and Hungary last winter was, he swears, "Great fun. Working in cold nights on cobblestone streets — you knew you definitely were not in Kansas any more. When I came back for Christmas, I scared my family for sure. They were like, 'What happened to you?' Edgar Allan Poe happened to me. I was really emaciated and I looked like I hadn't slept for weeks."

At one point in the film, Cusack gets to recite the actual poem "The Raven," but Cusack feels "a little mixed" about the scene.

"My director had the idea to do it like Poe was on the autograph circuit, so it's brightly lit and he's got a Monday-morning hangover; he's sipping from a flask, staring at all these high-society women," he said. "It's an interesting conceit because it shows the most famous poet in the world hustling for meal money. It's almost as if he's on the celebrity golf tour."

And his controversial choice to give Poe a goatee?

"We thought, when you do iconic characters, there's a danger of becoming two-dimensional," Cusack said. "We wanted to get away from the postage-stamp version of Poe. We instinctually wanted something different, so we wouldn't be caught in a visual cliche."

Cusack offers his latest creation to his audience in a playful spirit.

"I think it's a fun, imaginative movie about an important writer," he said. "I don't think it's an important movie about an important writer. I hope it has layers and textures, but, after all, to be like Poe, it has to be highbrow and lowbrow."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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