John Cusack is a rare kind of movie star. Thanks to a lifetime of beloved characters dating back to his teenage years, Cusack is a celebrity who can also feel like, well, just this guy you know.
Consider Lane Meyer in “Better Off Dead” or Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything.” (For a darker comedic take, how about the depressed assassin Martin Q. Blank in “Grosse Pointe Blank.”) With Cusack’s movies you get the sense, over and over, that the performer himself is never too far away from the characters he plays.
Among Cusack’s most richly drawn characters is Rob Gordon, the lovable but slightly lost music store clerk in “High Fidelity,” the 2000 romantic comedy based on author Nick Hornby’s famous British novel from 1995. Set in 1990s Chicago, the film has become a kind of cultural touchstone for a generation of semi-hip reluctant grownups in pre-millennial America.
In addition to starring in the film, Cusack was one of the screenplay writers and a co-producer. He’ll be at Duke Energy Center in Raleigh April 20 for a special presentation of “High Fidelity” on the big screen followed by a moderated discussion and question-and-answer session with the audience.
It’s a big year for Cusack. In addition to the “High Fidelity” tour, “Say Anything” is celebrating its 30th anniversary. And Tuesday, TVLine.com reported that he is heading to television. He has been cast as the star of a new Amazon series called “Utopia,” a drama series from Gillian Flynn (“Sharp Objects,” “Gone Girl”).
Calling in from his hometown of Chicago, Cusack spoke with The News & Observer about “High Fidelity,” musical obsessions and navigating the current political climate.
Q: “High Fidelity” is now a genuine cult classic for those of us who came up in the 1990s. Like so many of your movies, there’s a kind of authenticity or emotional honesty to it that we really don’t see in movies much anymore. Did you have to fight to keep those sharp edges from the book?
A: Yeah, I think that’s the whole gig of making a movie, trying to keep that point of view and that voice. We were very lucky because, at the time we were making the movie, there were still vestiges of the old film industry. There used to be a time where things were run by people and not studios. Now the studios are just subsidiaries of these huge multinational massive corporations. That superstructure of the corporate culture comes down and everything gets test marketed and overanalyzed.
I had an opportunity to work with a guy named Joe Roth, who was a real friend to filmmakers, so we didn’t have the kind of interference you usually get with studios now. We tried to capture the essence of the book.
I also think about how ambiguity is something that’s not valued very much anymore films. I tend to find that the most interesting thing in a character. The guy can be sympathetic – he can be the hero, the protagonist. But he can also be flawed. That’s part of the essence of the book, as well. It’s like a male confessional.
Q: The story depicts this very specific thing that men do, at a certain age, where so much of how we express ourselves comes from our musical allegiances, like with mixtapes. Was that a deliberate goal in developing the movie, to explore how men express their feelings in this sideways kind of fashion?
A: Absolutely. In the original story, the British characters are obsessed with American soul music and, like, the Muscle Shoals sound. The record store I grew up in, we were obsessed with British New Wave and all the punk stuff — David Bowie, the Clash, the Jam, Echo and the Bunnymen.
Reading the book, I thought, if you switch those things and take away the British accents, those are the exact same guys. They’re 100 percent the same guys. Rob, in my version, was just the American Midwest version. I talked to Nick Hornby and said, “I feel like I can make this in Chicago.” He was like, “Yeah why not?” He said the book’s not just about the British thing. It’s about men everywhere.
I think we both tried to tap into these universal truths about certain kinds of men who sort of live through art and music and literature. They find themselves and part of their identity through the music and the stuff that inspires them.
Q: “High Fidelity” is also this beautiful little snapshot of a particular time and place, in this case your hometown of Chicago. You’ve got all these great location-shooting in the actual bars and shops and music venues.
A: A lot of those places have gone down. Like the Double Door, that the final scene where Barry [Jack Black] sings “Let’s Get it On.” That’s closed. A couple of the other places are still around. But yeah, it’s definitely a snapshot. It’s like a love letter to Chicago at that time.
Q: So with the Q&A session, you get a chance to interact with your audience, which screen actors don’t usually get to do. A lot of the standup comics who come through town these days talk about how there’s just a different energy in the rooms, there’s this ambient anxiety in the whole culture right now. When you’re taking this movie around, do you feel any of that?
A: Well, I do a little bit. I do feel like there’s a lot of fear out there. But I also feel like people have had enough. Sometimes when I’m there, I get the feeling that people just want to have a good time and watch the movie and not think about all that horrible stuff. I can completely understand. Because if you’re paying attention to everything, it’s so disheartening and brutal. There’s only so much you can take before you get just catatonically depressed.
But sometimes now, when we open it up to the audience, people will ask me about it. It used to be that if you said something about politics, there would be people who’d be like, ah, don’t talk about that. But now I feel like no one is doing that. When you say things like, “We have a white supremacist in the White House,” you don’t get any push back. It feels like people are looking for people to speak with courage and honesty about it.
So I do understand when people want to come out to a show and not talk about that and just have a nice night. But I also don’t shy away from it if people ask. I say whatever is on my mind and I’m pretty public about my feelings on all this. I’m happy to talk about it. It’s important to talk about it. I think it’s important to call things what they are.
What: “High Fidelity” with John Cusack Q&A
When: April 20, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Cost: $40 and up
Info: 919-966-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com