January 30, 2007

A chat with John Cusack, star of ‘Grace is Gone’

John Cusack: John Cusack plays Stanley Phillips, a hardware store manager whose soldier wife is killed in Iraq, in the indie film “Grace is Gone.”“Grace is Gone” is a film with Louisville ties that had a hell of a week at the recent Sundance Film Festival, winning two prominent awards and getting bought by the Weinstein Co. for $4.2 million.The indie film, co-produced by New York-based Plum Pictures in association with Louisville-based Hart-Lunsford Pictures, stars John Cusack as a man whose wife, a soldier, is killed in Iraq. The film details his struggles in breaking the news to his two young daughters; it largely avoids polemics and lets the story speak for itself.“Grace is Gone” won the audience award at Sundance, based on balloting among Sundance film-goers, while writer-director James Strouse won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award. Another H-L film, “Dedication,” also had a good week at Sundance, selling for $3.5 million to the Weinstein Co. Hart-Lunsford is owned by Louisville businessmen Ed Hart and Bruce Lunsford.LEO got a few minutes on the phone with Cusack, who was in Park City, Utah, for the festival.LEO: This seems like an interesting role that spoke to you.John Cusack: It was a reaction to the war situation. The White House had just started banning photographs of the coffins coming home, and I thought, what a completely hideous thing to do. As an artist, the idea was to tell the story of the coffins coming home. In this world right now, that would be a pretty good story.LEO: It’s been about a year since you filmed, and the situation in Iraq has changed, as has the mood of our country. The timing seems good for putting out a movie like this.JC: Yes, and it’s kind of a tragic paradox — it may be good for the film, but it reflects a very sad kind of grim reality.LEO: To prepare for the role, you spoke to a man whose wife was killed in Iraq. What did you talk about?JC:  I just tried to ask him about his experience and what it was like in the first few days. I listened to him talk and tried to be open to hearing as much as he was comfortable sharing.LEO: What did he say that surprised you?JC: It was the vulnerability he showed me, how much compassion he had and how deeply he felt. We can imagine these things, but I was interested in things like what happened to his body: Did he sleep, did he not sleep? Was it like this, or was it like that? Did you find yourself having ups and downs? Just trying to explore what the stages of grief were for him. It was incredibly helpful to talk to him.LEO: Making a film based on a current war struck me as an interesting and courageous thing for you to do. Entertainers have taken political stands over the years — Vanessa Redgrave made a political speech at the Oscars, Marlon Brando sent a Native American girl to accept an Oscar on his behalf. More recently, of course, there’s the Dixie Chicks. So, entertainers who go out on a limb like that tend to get smacked. Did it seem professionally risky to make this movie?JC: There’s none for me, because when you put that into the context of the sacrifice that people are making, real sacrifice, the worst they can do is call me names. I guess they can have a certain influence over corporations that may not hire me, but it’s very hard to argue with the film because all it’s doing is saying, “Well, here’s the grief that families are experiencing.” And I don’t think the mood in the country now is such denial that we want to attack people that dare to express the free point of view, or as artists, explore realities. I’ve never been worried about that, because people have called me names before.CS: But you have observed this?JC: Oh, I have. I have taken a lot of shots. But you do. You can say what you want to do and say what you believe, and then, you know, you’re grown up, people are going to hit you. I can take the punch, come on. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com