"Even though I'm not sure what it means, I'll take it. I'm glad if people feel like I'm stretching outside my box, whatever that box is," he concedes with a smile during a recent interview in New Orleans.
"I don't know what my type is, really, except what the studios are willing to pay me money to do," Cusack continues, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm offered a lot of romantic comedies, which I don't enjoy doing as much, but it's not like I'm not always looking for totally different things to do, be it The Grifters or Being John Malkovich or whatever."
The latest in a series of legal thrillers based on the books of John Grisham, Runaway Jury casts the actor as a seemingly straightforward member of that titular 12. Although gradually revealing some pronounced ulterior motives, he spends a good deal of his time in the early parts of the movie quietly observing the dynamic courtroom goings-on from the jury box.
"There's obviously more than one thing going on with him, but I liked the challenge of finding things to express or show without the benefit of a lot of dialogue. It was kind of nice to pipe down for once, because usually I keep playing characters who just never shut up," admits Cusack, who perfected his trademark "nervous talking thing" in the teen classics The Sure Thing and Say Anything... (using it to further effect in more recent films such as Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity).
Years in development -- the project was originally conceived as a vehicle for Edward Norton and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Cusack and Rachel Weisz roles -- Runaway Jury has been freely adapted from the Grisham bestseller to the extent that the cold, heartless tobacco company in the novel is now a cold, heartless gun manufacturer instead.
"I think that was a smart move, because it allows the movie to be its own thing, something different from the book," the actor notes, pausing long enough to light a cigarette. "It seemed like The Insider had already tackled the whole tobacco issue. I mean, sure, secondhand smoke kills, but I don't know if it kills more people than assault weapons."
Otherwise, the new movie is fairly faithful to Grisham's patented David-versus-Goliath formula, in which the sundry corporate Goliaths may change but the nobly put-upon Davids invariably prevail. For his part, Cusack says he doesn't feel the predetermined outcome undercuts any of the film's dramatic tension: "After all, Goliath wins all the time, so why not have David win a few times, at least in the movies?"
Among the personal and professional perks for Cusack was the opportunity to share the screen (however limitedly) with veritable legends Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman (as a high-powered jury consultant and a high-minded attorney, respectively). "They're two of the great icons of American film, right among the very elite. It was similar to the sensation I felt working with Al Pacino (in City Hall), because I grew up watching their films, and they made me want to become an actor myself," he recalls.
"I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of people I grew up admiring, and I'm rarely disappointed when I finally get to meet them," Cusack elaborates. "More than learning from them, I'm just inspired by them. They're so tenacious and passionate about the work, still hungry to try making it good rather than simply resting on their laurels. Being around that, you can't help but realize why they're so great."
He smiles again. "The other cool thing is, beneath it all they're like almost any other actor. They get nervous and insecure, too. You have to figure, if it can happen to people of their caliber, then it just might be part of the human condition, or at least part of the acting condition, you know?"
What makes Cusack nervous? After a pause, he replies, "Well, I probably don't get as nervous as I used to. At a certain point, you just realize that there's nothing you can do to make something like Serendipity into something like Max. Things are what they are. They're similar, because they always require a certain amount of commitment on your part to get into the flow and keep it engaging. But they're each different, too, because sometimes the stakes are higher, or sometimes the movie's more about ideas or things that hold more meaning in people's lives."
While it's true a major studio release like Runaway Jury is no little-seen art-house film like Max, Cusack insists they both serve a purpose -- and he has built his adult career on trying to maintain a balance between them. "You know, one big commercial movie like Con Air can be worth two or three Maxes," the actor acknowledges.
"Sometimes, the only way to finance a film about Hitler and modern art or whatever is to leverage the success you have on a mainstream action movie. There's a direct correlation between your box office profile and your ability to do something that probably wouldn't be made at all if you didn't have that leverage."