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The passion of John Cusack

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  • John Cusack produced, co-wrote, stars in black comedy "War, Inc."
  • Satire challenges corporate outsourcing in Iraq-like country
  • Cusack: "I didn't just sit around making romantic comedies"
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- It's not that John Cusack isn't trying.

Cusack

John Cusack put on three hats -- producer, writer and actor -- for his latest film, "War, Inc."

In his latest film, "War, Inc.," the 41-year-old actor plays a corporation-hired hit man charged with assassinating the CEO of a competitor. In his career, he's also played a beleaguered playwright ("Bullets Over Broadway"), a lonelyhearted record store owner ("High Fidelity"), a U.S. marshal ("Con Air") and Nelson Rockefeller ("Cradle Will Rock").

But ask many people -- including some moony-eyed CNN.com staffers -- about their image of Cusack and they immediately respond, "Lloyd Dobler": the good-hearted, boombox-holding, kickboxing hopeful the actor played in 1989's "Say Anything."

But Cusack said he doesn't mind being most closely associated with a role he played when he was barely out of his teens.

"It's nice to have done something 20 years ago that people still are fond of," he says in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "It's a high-class problem." Gallery: The best and worst of John Cusack »

Nowadays, however -- besides continuing to expand his acting range -- Cusack also is raising his voice politically. He's written several entries for the news blog site The Huffington Post and hasn't refrained from expressing his views on the Iraq war and the Bush administration.

He's merged his career with his political passions -- movies such as "Grace Is Gone," in which he played a man who loses his wife in Iraq, and the black comedy of "War, Inc.," in which he stars, as well as produced and co-wrote.

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The latter, set in the near future in an Iraq-like country called Turaqistan, which premiered Monday at New York's Tribeca Film Festival and open in New York and Los Angeles on May 23. Video Watch a trailer for the film »

The ideas behind "War, Inc." have been on Cusack's mind since he read Naomi Klein's 2004 article "Baghdad Year Zero," about the widespread corporate outsourcing in the war-torn country.

"I wanted to do something about the war in Iraq ... sort of a real-time response," says Cusack, warming to his topic. "I wanted to make an incendiary political cartoon."

His focus, he says, was to highlight the use of the war as a new market for American corporations and the control those companies have had over Iraqi rebuilding operations.

The problem for Cusack the producer was finding the money. Black comedies are notoriously hard sells, and films even obliquely about the Iraq war have been box-office poison. Cusack and his cohorts worked with a budget of about $10 million, according to media reports. The cast, including Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley and Hilary Duff, worked in the spirit of a low-budget production. Video Watch Duff put a scorpion down her pants in "War, Inc." »

"It was not your typical production," says director Joshua Seftel, best known as a documentarian ("Lost and Found," "Ennis' Gift"). "We were very ambitious. We did a lot in a short amount of time."

"War, Inc." stars Cusack as Brand Hauser, a hit man sent to Turaqistan by a former U.S. vice president (Dan Aykroyd) who now heads a defense contractor called Tamerlane. In Turaqistan -- where his cover is trade-show manager -- he meets a journalist (Tomei), a Middle Eastern singing star (Duff) and an old CIA hand (Kingsley), getting entangled in the intersection between politics, capitalism and pop culture.

The film was co-written by Cusack, Jeremy Pikser (who co-wrote the Warren Beatty political satire "Bulworth") and absurdist storyteller Mark Leyner ("My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist").

Cusack says he has no expectations that the film will be universally welcomed. "When you make a satire, you expect that half the people who see it will be offended," he says. "It's meant to be provocative."

But the actor makes no apologies for his activism, lashing out at the Bush administration's handling of the war. He says his character was partly based on the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, "with those black construction boots and the Brooks Brothers suit."

He says that making "War, Inc." was a necessary move for his peace of mind. "At least I could say, besides voting and being politically active, that I didn't just sit around making romantic comedies," he says. "So we got a bunch of people together and went to Bulgaria, did what we do, which is make movies, and we tried to make something experimental, provocative and weird."

Director Seftel, who was introduced to Cusack by writer-director Alexander Payne ("Sideways"), says the actor's passion made the film happen.

"It's great to work with someone who puts their blood and sweat into [their work]," he says. "This film would not have happened without John."

Seftel says he hopes that "War, Inc." inspires the same kind of passion.

"I think this film is filled with ideas, and I hope that it gets people thinking about things a little," he says.

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Cusack is blunter. He hopes for some word-of-mouth support and sees the film -- in both its subject matter and let's-make-a-movie aesthetic -- as a way of turning anger into art.

"You read this stuff, and you say, 'Why do I have to pretend that these people aren't destroying our country?' " he asks. "So out of that sense of outrage we decided to try to make a little punk rock movie." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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