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Why John Cusack loves Edgar Allan Poe

By Mike Ayers, Special to CNN
updated 11:41 AM EDT, Thu April 26, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Cusack plays author Edgar Allan Poe in "The Raven"
  • Poe is at center of a murder investigation, where the killer gets inspiration from Poe's work
  • Cusack: "A story that is fiction that tries to get you inside the head of Poe"

(CNN) -- Best known for quirky rom-coms like "Say Anything," "High Fidelity" and "Grosse Pointe Blank," John Cusack returns this weekend in a gothic murder mystery entitled "The Raven."

Cusack plays author Edgar Allan Poe. But instead of treating the story like your standard biopic, the author finds himself at the center of a serial killer investigation, where the killer is using Poe's work for inspiration. In a rare instance in which a film portrays a writer as an actual hero, the downtrodden Poe becomes integral in solving the case, with Cusack portraying the famed writer in a very serious and dark manner.

CNN recently spoke with Cusack about channeling Poe and the mash-up styles "The Raven" uses as inspiration.

CNN: Edgar Allan Poe is quite insane at times. Do you relate to him at all?

John Cusack: It's funny, we were talking to people and somebody says that Poe reminded them of Kurt Cobain. Everybody has some tangential relationship to [Poe]. He represents this singularity and a defiance, intellectually so rebellious, and so tragic and sad. He's almost like an archetype of a young shadow ... he's the Godfather of Goth.

The reason he's so famous and stands the test of time ... he led an eccentric life, and a really sad life; tormented, but he represents some sort of collective sorrow. Poetic, luminous quality. Anybody who wants to be an artist in any way, an actor or a writer, in trying to express the world in some way, Poe is the blasted soul, the perpetual orphan out there who houses all of those feelings. He's become that. I think that's what he represents in the collective way.

CNN: You mentioned Cobain -- both died and their work has lived on, assimilating in different ways into the collective consciousness.

Cusack: Yeah, I can see [Poe's] writing influencing Hunter Thompson, who I knew and was a friend. His influences are all over: From literary, music, fashion, everything with this writing about the space between life and death, between being awake and dreaming. When he was 20 years old, he said "I could not love, except where death was mingling his with beauty's bated breath." So he's always juxtaposing almost idolatry -- the eternal feminine and the harshness of the world. He's always caught in that space.

CNN: And although he was published, he was poor mainly because copyright isn't what it is today in terms of royalties and paying artists.

Cusack: There was no copyright at all, so he got paid $6 for "The Raven" and then it went all over the world. He was one of the first persons to try and make a living as a writer. It was almost impossible. Writing for pennies per word. He was really destitute and struggling. At one point he was eating dandelion salads.

CNN: "The Raven" itself is very dark and gruesome at times.

Cusack: Well, we always went back to the source material. We thought the construct was very Poe-like, where Poe becomes a part of one of his stories and swept up in one of his genres. I thought that conceit was very smart; you have to have Poe deconstruct his own stories to find the killer.

So, not only do you get to use all the attitudes about his own work, but you also have the other thing, "Am I going insane?" bit. The dance with the abyss, the madness, the mental illness. You have all those things and try to do a story that is fiction that tries to get you inside the head of Poe. It allows for more scope than I think a biopic would.

CNN: It's a very meta-treatment of his life and work.

Cusack: It's one of these weird things, if you go into it thinking this is "The King's Speech" or a "Masterpiece Theater" version of a really depressed guy ... if you do the research, he was very brutal and mercurial in his moods. He wasn't this inward looking sorrow master.

If you understand his writing, he was an esoteric poet on a master level, but also writing pulp for Saturday afternoon thrillers. Someone said, "Why hasn't the story of Poe been done?" I don't think anyone's figured out how to get the breadth of him. This was a way to get into him, his stories and mix it with some fantasies. You're right in when you describe it as a meta-treatment. That is what we were going for. People need to understand what they're seeing or looking at is the film that we intended to make. It does need a little bit of context; you need to have read Poe a little bit more than English class to get what we were going for.

CNN: Poe was alive when horses were the main source of travel. Do you feel comfortable acting while riding on horses?

Cusack: Yeah, yeah, I don't mind doing that stuff. I love it all. I'm good with horses.

CNN: How would you classify "The Raven"?

Cusack: I think it's a mash-up of a few things: Horror, thriller, a bit fantasy, but it's also a character study and a look at the creative process. Styles and genres that Poe made. There's a tendency to put things in these boxes, but I think Poe was doing a lot of things. He created a lot of these genres.

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