As part of a large and talented Irish Catholic family in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Evanston, siblings John and Joan Cusack were encouraged to pursue an interest in the arts. Through a few early breaks in Chicago-based film productions, followed by extensive stints in theater and improvisational troupes, the Cusacks honed their acting skills and later embarked on distinguished careers in Hollywood. One of the few major young stars with consistently discerning taste, John has appeared in such memorable work as Stephen Frears' The Grifters, Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. Joan, in turn, has established herself as an exceptional comedienne, earning Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for her colorful roles in Working Girl and In & Out. Their paths have intersected eight times, most notably in an affecting turn as siblings in Say Anything…, and they do so again in High Fidelity, a faithful and bracingly funny adaptation of British author Nick Hornby's sharp dissection of the pop-culture-obsessed male mind. Transposing Hornby's story from London to Chicago, John (who also co-scripted with Scott Rosenberg and partners Steve Pink and D.V. DeVincentis) stars as the owner of a failing record store; he's approaching his mid-30s yet refuses to commit to a serious relationship. Sustained in no small part by his extensive music collection, he continues to have brief affairs and immerses himself in the mindless cataloging of pop arcana, only gradually learning to take stock in his life. Joan Cusack, who has a minor role in the film (and in this interview), joined her brother in a recent discussion with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: What was it about High Fidelity that struck such a chord with you?
John Cusack: When I first read the book, which Disney gave to me and my writing partners in Chicago to adapt, it was set in London, but since I grew up in Chicago, I could see the geography of each place that Rob [Cusack's character] would haunt. Wax Trax, Record Exchange… Those were record stores I knew that were exactly like those in the book. The music scene Nick Hornby described could be in any major city, so the locations and the characters are instantly recognizable. That's one thing about it, but the other is that many young men can identify with Rob's inner monologue, which is spoken through great, incisive writing. It's a very funny book, but he also captured this particular type of character with brutal honesty. And it's actually kind of strangely romantic in a way, so I felt the combination of all those things was really remarkable.
O: Could you describe this species of person you play in the film?
John: He's a male. [Laughs.]
O: But are his obsessions particular to the time?
John: I don't know. The book was written in the '80s, so Nick is a generation up from me. I'd have to say it's from the '70s on.
O: What's his behavior rooted in? Where does it come from?
John: Probably some genetic code. "I got that woman, and now I've got to keep the species going. Be procreative. Spread my seed." [Laughs.]
Joan Cusack: [Laughs.] But also he's the kind of guy who fears commitment and then allows music—which is about your soul in a way—or movies to take over and form a pop-culture soul. These men are interested in what's going on in culture and in popness and maleness, and they're as much a victim as women are.
O: So it's not specific to gender?
Joan: I think it is. It's this male victimization in a way, because they're caught in this fantasy that ultimately leads nowhere. They're completely unsatisfied.
John: Oh, they're not really victims.
Joan: Okay, then it's whatever's in his head that is making him upset. [Laughs.]
John: [Men] don't like to admit the fact that maybe somewhere deep down, there's a great loss that's been created. You see these men who are in their late 30s or 40s who haven't grown up. Nobody wants to be that guy, the 40-year-old with thinning hair and a ponytail who still hangs out in clubs and tries to pick up girls. You don't want to be one of those guys, yet you can't seem to give up this fantasy which you think can keep you stimulated 24 hours a day forever. So you're never satisfied. To grow up, you have to give up some of those habits and commit to someone you love, and that commitment will lead to a deeper, hopefully more satisfying and enduring love. That's all fine and good, of course, but it's hard to resist that rush of being with a new woman. So everybody has to go over that hurdle to reach adulthood. I know a lot of guys who are really far away from doing that.
O: And Rob?
John: Rob doesn't want to be alone or miserable, but he can't resist looking over his shoulder for that next girl to come by. The decision to commit to a relationship seems so simple, but why it so complex for everyone?
O: So in the meantime, he's constantly retreating to obscure music arcana.
John: Yeah, and wallowing in it, too. At certain times, I find myself repeatedly listening to music that might be really dark and introspective. Then I have to stop and say, "Hey, those are great songs, but there's other stuff out there." [Laughs.] I mean, how often can you listen to [Bob Dylan's] Time Out Of Mind? It's a great album, I love it, but there was a period when I was listening to it too much. I'm not 16 years old, I'm not contemplating death, so what am I doing? You can get sucked into it.
Joan: And not living your life. People do that with movies, too.
O: Stephen Frears [My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons] wouldn't seem like the obvious choice to direct this film.
John: Well, if you think about some of his earlier films, he's pretty good about sexual politics, and he's also really good at making films about characters who are emotionally stunted in some way and need to get on with their lives. Stephen Frears is the kind of guy who loves pain. He wakes up in the morning, rubs the sleep out of his eyes, and says, [affecting British accent] "Where can I find some painful truths?" [Laughs.] So if you think about it, as I did, he's probably just right for the material. And he really wanted to do it.
Joan: Plus, you guys had such a great relationship on The Grifters.
O: Throughout much of High Fidelity, you talk directly to the camera. Were you concerned about the perils of breaking the fourth wall?
John: Yeah, I was extremely concerned about it, because for every film that does it right, there are 10 that don't. The thing about Nick's characters that's so great is that they're really complex and contradictory. Rob is a slacker in denial—he's lazy, bitter, cynical, overly romantic—yet he's full of other insights that he can't really share with the world. His behavior doesn't seem to make sense, but he's not an unintelligent person. So the question becomes, "How do you show these other sides to his character?" You could try to get it across in conversation, but they're secrets, like non-religious confessions. Using voiceover seemed like an easy out to us, so we decided that breaking the fourth wall would be the boldest choice.
O: High Fidelity is the eighth film you've appeared in together. How does that typically end up happening?
Joan: I think originally it was because we were both here in Chicago, which is where John Hughes makes his films. [The two had bit parts in Sixteen Candles. —ed.] It's usually happened when John has brought me onto his films, like playing his sister in Say Anything… That was a big "acting" job. [Laughs.] And then again as his secretary in Grosse Pointe Blank. So mostly it's John's doing, though I did bring him onto Broadcast News for a second as an angry mail clerk. But we didn't start performing together until after we got older, because we're four years apart. Since we have, it's been really nice for me to have someone who has shared experience in Hollywood and understands it.
O: [to Joan] Could you talk a little about your improv experience with Ark [a group formed at the University Of Wisconsin that also included Chris Farley]?
Joan: I grew up doing a lot of improv at Story Theater and then, when I was in college, I took one or two theater classes. But the improv group was really great training. More than anything, it was a kind of humanizing theater, because we would still read J.D. Salinger and Chekhov and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The improvising itself was about learning to be creative without being self-conscious.
O: What are some of the concessions you have to make to have a career in Hollywood?
John: Nothing besides your mental and physical health; beyond that, I think it's pretty smooth going. [Laughs.] Well, you obviously concede a lot of privacy and stuff like that, but they give you a lot of money and you hopefully get to make art, so there's a trade-off. And the Screen Actors Guild pays for a lot of the prescription drugs, so you're covered for all that thorazine. [Laughs.]
O: To get back to High Fidelity for a moment, how much sway did you have in the music that was selected?
John: Quite a bit. It was really just me and a few guys choosing what we wanted on the soundtrack. But then to get the songs from the record companies was incredibly hard, because each big conglomerate has their own catalog, like the Polygram masters or the MCA masters. We dealt with this horrible corporate system where you'd have to pick the catalog that you thought had the best cross-section, then you'd have to work these side deals directly with the artist to get the stuff in the catalog that you absolutely had to have. It was pretty hard to get all the songs in, but it turned out exactly how we wanted it to.
O: Were the songs basically things you liked?
John: Yeah, plus some stuff taken from the book and other stuff the director liked. We had to choose whatever worked best for the film, and that included a range of things. So you had to get some good classics and some new stuff from The Beta Band or Drag City [Records, a Chicago label] bands like Smog and Royal Trux. You need classic rock, you need punk, you need reggae, you need hip-hop, you need country. These guys [the Championship Vinyl clerks] consider themselves the emperors of all recorded music, so you couldn't use just one musical genre.
Joan: [to John] As you were saying before, the music is really important to these guys. It isn't just background music: It's saying everything about who they are, too. It's like another track of dialogue.
O: There weren't any occasions when the songs underlined what was going on in a scene too explicitly.
Joan: No, it really just enhanced what was happening without calling attention to itself.
John: That's what we were hoping for, anyway. There were times when the studio would want to put their stuff in, and the record company, too. So hopefully, we kept a lot of corporate politics out of the mix.