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Joan Cusack has long been overshadowed by her more famous brother John Cusack, but there's no evidence that she's ever let it bother her; she's always seemed like a settled, down-to-earth person who chose marriage and children (two sons, at this point, born in 1997 and 2000 respectively) over larger fame. And yet she's maintained a steady career as an actor in film and on TV, with more than 50 roles over the past 30 years—most notably, her Oscar-nominated supporting-player parts in Working Girl and In & Out. Two themes have recurred throughout her career: roles as smart, perky, slightly ditzy, funny women in comedies, and roles playing across from John, often as his foil, supporter, or advisor. They've appeared in 10 films together so far; the latest is War, Inc., a blistering Iraq-war satire which John co-wrote, co-produced, and stars in as an exhausted assassin sent on a job in the fictional country of Turaquistan, where a sleazy Halliburton-like American company has all but taken over in the wake of an American invasion. Joan plays John's ground support, in a typically sunny role that's hilariously, deliberately out of place in the grim environs. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Joan Cusack about the film, why famous people aren't anything special, and how not having a family would make her crazy.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved in War, Inc.? What about that role interested you?
Joan Cusack: Well, you know, it's of course my brother's film. So that's the main thing. It's incredibly, incredibly difficult to get a movie made. I say that because the context means everything, and it's impossible to make a film like this today. He was able to get a third of the budget he got for Grosse Pointe Blank, and we had to film in Bulgaria to get it done. So I of course am on board with him, because I am supporting him. And we come from the same humor background, of Monty Python, Fernwood 2 Night, Mary Hartman, Blazing Saddles, and the same background of political activism, Dorothy Day. Together, those two visions culminate in War, Inc.
AVC: How do you feel about the movie's politics, and its take on Iraq?
JC: You know, I think that Naomi Klein and John did the best they could do in terms of looking at the business of war, and I think it's fascinating. I mean, the country was founded on free enterprise. There's good things about it, and there's obviously bad things about it.
AVC: Do you personally have to agree with a movie's political or personal viewpoint in order to get involved in it?
JC: You know, I think I'm more of a micro-person, so to me, the context and the framework of trying to do what you love and feel passionate about, in supporting your family in that way, is the most important thing to me.
AVC: The movie is obviously designed to stir up controversy, and John has been passionate about that in interviews—about his politics and what he wants people to take away from the film. But what about you? Are you comfortable with having your political beliefs publicly examined because of an acting job?
JC: I think it's nice to be able to talk about what's going on in the world in a work conversation like this interview, instead of, "What's so-and-so like to work with?" and the other standard questions that happen a lot in moviemaking. So I enjoy it. I think I'm more psychological than political myself.
AVC: What do you mean by that?
JC: I mean that I think I find the psychology of people more interesting than politics. I think the psychology of politics is more interesting than straight politics.
AVC: Have you been in many films in the past that have prompted interviewers to get into your beliefs and personal life?
JC: I think they always do that. But I understand that. You're curious about someone, or why they're doing what they're doing. Because everyone who gets to work in this field is so lucky, and it's such a rarified world, I understand that. At the end of the day, I'm interested in demystifying it. I think there's a million talented people out there, it's just a matter of luck a lot of the time. And good training, which we were lucky to have. And I think that's what people are curious about—other people, and what they're like.
AVC: Why is it important for you to demystify actors?
JC: Because I don't think it's very healthy to hold people to idealized views. I think that's a certain stage in life, something kids do. You have to go through that idealistic phase with your parents, but at a certain point, you need to see people as just people. And everyone's pretty similar. I think if you're in this business, like any high-stakes business, the highs and lows can make you a manic-depressive person, if you weren't that way to start with. 'Cause it's just so crazy on your psyche. A lot of it has to do with people thinking they're greater than someone else.
AVC: You've spoken often in past interviews about how important it is to you to have a stable, normal family and life. Do you feel you've managed that to your satisfaction?
JC: Um, yeah.
AVC: Have privacy or the demands of the job been ongoing issues for you?
JC: No. Well, I mean, it's hard. A relationship is hard in and of itself. And having kids is really hard work, but I think it's really meaningful, as is a relationship. But they all take work. So I'm grateful that I'm able to have the time to work at them. But it's not a walk in the park. I'm not in China.
AVC: In War, Inc., you play a specific comedic role that's pretty familiar for you: a perky, high-strung, strong-willed, secretly brittle woman. Do you think people seek you out specifically for that role at this point?
JC: I don't really know. I know at this point, I'm interested in doing things that I want to do, that are meaningful to me in some way. I think, because my kids are still pretty young, if something is meaningful and it's a good little part that I could do or feel that I can have fun with, then I'm interested in it. I'd like to be able to do a TV show or something and really have a voice in it.
AVC: What was your experience with What About Joan like? Was the show what you wanted it to be?
JC: You know, I was incredibly grateful to Jim Brooks to be able to get that show going. I think because the sitcom world was in, and continues to be in, identity crisis, if you will, psychologically, it was really hard to get through it and get to the place where it really all clicked. I remember being on some show, and someone who was on Seinfeld was there before me, and I asked, "How long did you guys work on that show before it clicked?" And they were like, "Two years!" But you can't do that now, you can't have a show on the air for two years, waiting for it to click. So that's why it seems that people are going around the world to find other shows that have been on the air for a long time, and copying them. 'Cause they can work out all the kinks somewhere, because the fact of the matter is, if you have to have a process, I think, to figure out how to make everything work together, you just don't get that. But maybe there's a way to do it. I'm hopeful, and I think if you're thoughtful enough about it, you can figure it out.
AVC: But you'd be interested in doing TV again?
JC: I'd love to do that. It's great for family, and it's great work, and I love the continuity of working with the same people, and I love the golf-analogy aspect of it: Every hole, you get a chance to figure it out. You know, that's fun.
AVC: You often get labeled as a "comedienne." Do you feel any particular way about that as a label?
JC: You know, I'm flattered by that. I think there's nothing better than laughing in life, so that's nice, to be thought of as someone who can make someone laugh. It's 'cause I think life is hard. You know, my dad was a really silly man. A great Irish silly man. And that's fine.
AVC: Do you think you enjoy doing comedy in a significantly different way from doing a dramatic role?
JC: I think just because life is hard, it does seem fun to have a break and laugh about things, so I think in the end, my instincts go there. But I think I love the M.A.S.H. view of comedy, where you have real things going on, and the comedy comes out of people surviving tough stuff, instead of the humor just being negative or cynical, dissing people. "Adolescent male looking for girl," I'm so over that, the I-can't-believe-it's-still-going-on kind of comedy.
AVC: What are a few roles that you really enjoyed doing personally?
JC: I can't tell you that—not about my own roles, because it's always so It takes a long time, it's always different parts of your life. But roles that I've truly enjoyed watching are A New Leaf with Elaine May and What's Up, Doc? with Barbara Streisand. I think those are great comedic performances. They make me happy.
AVC: Do you look at people like that in order to shape your characters or your own acting?
JC: I think you just are influenced by things in life, and that's what I grew up with. I just think they are well done. So it's fun. As a woman, you listen to more female singers, like guys listen to more rock bands. So in that way, they influence you because you're trying to create an identity; you look to others to model. Yeah, I think those are some fun people.
AVC: A lot of women in Hollywood complain that there aren't really any good roles for women, especially once you get past 25 or 30. Have you personally found that to be a problem?
JC: I think that a lot of women get out of the business because it's so not family-friendly. And so women that could be in there making good women-roles don't do it, 'cause they're smart and get out. But I think there is a consequence to that. I think us gals need to stay in and just change the way it works, so men aren't being workaholics and avoiding life and relationships, and they can make films in a reasonable amount of time, so you can have a family and a life outside of work. And have more balanced, content-driven, enjoyable movies.
AVC: Do you think there's any particular reason why stability and normalcy and family are so vitally important to you personally?
JC: Well, I think it's important to being a healthy person. So while you're here on the earth, you might as well enjoy it. And it's hard to enjoy things when you're crazy.
AVC: But it obviously isn't a drive for a whole lot of people in your industry. Even John, it seems. Which might have helped his career, if you compare his involvement in the film business at this point to yours.
JC: But I think we need to help these people, we need to help everyone understand that fame and money—it's just all the same things that everyone knows, religion knows, but religion ruins it. Not John, I think John is—I wasn't targeting him. Because I think he does know the importance of stability. I think people just get distracted, and you get very distracted when there's lots of fancy things around, and people have money. It's hard. Life's hard. Relationships are hard. If you can get distracted, you will.
AVC: The two of you were both interested in acting from a really early age, and performance seems to have been an important part of your family. You started your film career about three years before he did—was there ever a point where he might have given up on film work if he hadn't seen you succeeding, or where you might have given up if not for him?
JC: I think it helps to know another person in the business, because everything is such an illusion, so it's great to be able to go, "Oh my God! This is how it really is!" or "This is how it happens there!" You know, 'cause nobody knows any of it. People know more now in general, I think. So I think it was helpful to have each other. And to have my dad; he was in advertising, so he knew the other side to the business as well. So if someone turned you down at an audition, it wasn't necessarily personal, whoever got it—maybe it was nepotism, maybe they reminded them of their aunt or their whatever. So not to take it personally was helpful too.