For John Cusack, bringing The Raven to life was a personal passion. A fan of Edgar Allan Poe, he became fascinated by a script that painted the iconic writer as integral to arresting a serial killer. As the murderer is using Poe’s prose as motivation, who better to catch a killer than the man who provided him with the many gruesome ways to kill someone?
Cusack feels that it’s not the gruesomeness that often accompanies Poe’s work that has kept him popular for centuries, it’s something completely different. “I think Poe was a guy who took all of his suffering and all of his faults, but he was genuinely interested in going into the underworld and exploring these areas that most people are afraid to explore,” Cusack said recently.
“There’s something courageous about that. And he was completely flawed and (expletive) up. He said, ‘I could never believe in a superior being, because I could never believe in God because I couldn’t believe in anyone superior to myself.’ Yet he was always looking for that space between life and death. He was always looking for that other world, and I think that since he was abandoned by his mother, since he was an orphan, he put all that religious fervor into this eternal love he had for women.”
Poe’s adoration of the concept of love, something few know about, is shown in The Raven through his star-crossed romance with Alice Eve’s Emily. “He was always sort of searching for that. I think for him death and beauty were always inner-play. That’s why he’s the godfather of Goth.”
Cusack sought out Poe’s dark corners to fully illustrate and flush out a true-to-life characterization. “The way I relate to him is that space, that metaphysical space of his -- the dream within the dream element where waking ends and dreams begin. That space that he writes about is the most interesting to me,” Cusack added. “But, he was also such a genius that a lot of his writing was burlesque, and satirical. He was making satires of other people’s forms and styles. So he was not only a high esoteric poet, but he was writing pulp for Saturday afternoons. He was writing thrillers. I think he would have looked at Saw and said, ‘Yep, that was mine.’”
One of the things that compelled us about The Raven is how it showed Poe’s work as a critic, something in which Cusack portrayed him as taking quite a bit of delight. “He was brutal at it. One of the biographers said that it was not known that he said any good thing about any other living writer, English or American, living or dead, ever. So I think he was very theatrical. He felt like he was at war with the world, and his parents were actors, and so he sort of said, 'The world is my stage. I must either conquer or vanquish.' He was very dramatic,” Cusack said.
Although Poe is more known for his works The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum, Cusack’s favorites from Poe are far less popular. “I like his more absurdist stuff, King Pest or Hop-Frog. Then, of course, you have the great classic allegories, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death.”
Although quite familiar with the iconic writer’s work, it was the The Raven script by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare that proved all the preparation Cusack needed to effectively play a writing icon.
“The script was terrific. James (McTeigue, director) and I went through it with the writers and tried to pull as much of Poe’s own dialogue as we could from his letters and from his novels. We put that cadence and idiom into the kind of structure of this genre story which is basically a Poe story, where Poe becomes a character in one of his own stories. You have Poe deconstructing Poe,” Cusack said. “So even though it is fantasy, I was probably a little bit obsessed and it drove James crazy, trying to say, 'Yeah, Poe said this and he said this.' I was always trying to use his own vernacular and his own words as much as I could in the fictional setting.”
After portraying Poe, Cusack could not help but take away lessons about a man he will not soon forget. “He was a genius, kind of a bastard, and he was a rogue. And he was all of the things that you would think of him naturally. He was inward-looking, melancholy, soulful and all those things, but I think he was just this blasted soul,” Cusack said.
“He was kind of a wanderer, so I think everybody can relate to that. He’s become sort of an archetype, like a shadow archetype of the culture. He was a pioneer into the underworld. I think he was a fascinating figure. So I just thought, 'If I can immerse myself in that, if I can feel that, it would be a great challenge.'"