John Cusack claims to have little in common with Edgar Allan Poe.
But clad in an all-black outfit and answering questions thoughtfully between long drags of a cigarette in a lonely room deep in the bowels of McCormick Place during the recent Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, Cusack could be a contemporary update of the tormented author whose Victorian-style cape the actor dons in"The Raven," opening Friday. That is, if he still had the jet-black goatee he grew for the role.
"It was really itchy," Cusack said.
Cusack could be describing his own career in film when talking about the oeuvre of Poe, whose serious essays, critical writing and satires were massively overshadowed in popularity by his bloody short stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."
"He's a mixture of the high esoteric ... this intellectual acumen and sophistication with some pop sensibilities," Cusack said of the 19th century author.
That sentence rings just as true for the 45-year-old Evanston native, who mixes eclectic work in quirky indie fare like "Being John Malkovich" and "War, Inc." with crowd-pleasing roles in popcorn films where he survives doomsday Mayan prophesies ("2012"), makes grand romantic gestures with boom boxes ("Say Anything"), and takes a dip in a "Hot Tub Time Machine."
"The Raven," meanwhile, lies somewhere in the middle ground between art-house biopic and Hollywood-style thriller. The film is set in 1840s Baltimore during the last days of Poe's life, in which he was found in a poor state of health and babbling incoherently on the streets. He mysteriously died soon afterwards in a hospital at the age of 40.
Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") takes material that could have been made into a period-piece costume drama and transforms it into a hodge-podge of horror/mystery/biopic meta-narrative. "The Raven" reimagines Poe's final days as the setting for a fictional murder mystery in which a serial killer uses Poe's macabre stories as the backdrop for his killings. A young detective named Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) reluctantly enlists the author's help in solving the case and Poe gets pulled into the mix further when someone close to him becomes the murderer's next target.
"It seemed like a good way to tell the story, Poe getting caught in one of his own stories," Cusack said. "It's always nice to talk about real-life subject matter in a different way because biopics can be really boring."
For Cusack, there was little boring about playing Poe, who he calls "The Godfather of Goth" and credits for inventing the horror genre of entertainment.
"You can see his tentacles so many places in the culture," the actor said. "The abyss is kind of romantic, and Poe knew it and people like Kurt Cobain knew it. He was the perpetual orphan of the world, a blasted soul, wandering around graveyards and stuff. People can relate to that freakish iconography; we all know we have the same things in us. He's the Patron Saint of the Doomed, and that's a pretty cool character."
But taking on Poe was also a big challenge for Cusack, whose hotheadedness and darkness is a sharp contrast from the actor's unflappably cool demeanor.
"It was definitely a challenge, but actors and artists, they take what's inside of them and pull in their own fears and vanities and put it in a new form," he said. "Poe was sort of a vain guy, so … I mean some of the stuff you have to draw on isn't very pleasant, you know?"
Poe always seems to be near a bottle of hard liquor in the film, but Cusack admitted he didn't need to go on a bender to understand that part of the character. "I've been on enough of them in my own life in the past to know what that's like," he said.
Cusack isn't quite done playing temperamental alcoholics from American history. He's slated to portray former U.S. President Richard Nixon in "The Butler," an upcoming film about a White House butler who served eight consecutive presidents.
His approach to that role?
"I haven't figured it out yet. We're still working on it," Cusack recently told vulture.com. "You can never really do one definitive thing on a person. Not one movie, or even one novel can really sum up a person—it's just one angle."
Ryan Smith is a Redeye special contributor.Copyright © 2015, RedEye