Joan Cusack and her little brother, John, have co-starred in ten films together since the early 1980s; this week they join forces again to skewer the military industrial complex, the corporatization of America, and the teenybopper-pimping machine that is pop culture.
Cusack has made a career out of cinematic larceny, long stealing scenes in films like Working Girl, In & Out, and Grosse Point Blank, in which she played secretary to brother John’s high school reunion-attending hit man. That delicious Girl Friday crackle is back in War, Inc., which sees Joan assisting John’s hot sauce-swilling undercover assassin as Marsha Dillon, a ruthless agent forced to hide behind the guise of a Type-A corporate event coordinator.
We spoke with the Oscar-nominated actress about her Tomatometer, the psychology of George W. Bush, and the personal little film that may or may not be a sequel to Grosse Point Blank.
So I’m with Rotten Tomatoes…
Joan Cusack: Yes! What’s my percentage?
Well, your overall Tomatometer is at 53%…
However, Toy Story 2 — in which you star — is our best-rated movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s currently at 100 percent).
JC: Wowww…So I’ve got that going for me! Well that’s pretty good.
Of the reviews that have come in for War, Inc., one of the recurring comments is that you give the funniest performance in the whole movie.
JC: Aww, well that’s nice. Well, I tried! We need comedies in the world! We need to laugh, it’s all so hard.
Did you know at the time, while you were filming, that you’d be the funniest thing in War, Inc.?
JC: Well I don’t know if I am the funniest thing in War, Inc. But I know that I trust John — is it implicitly, or complicitly? Implodingly? Impetusly?
JC: No! That’s too weird…but I know it’s so, so, so incredibly difficult to get a movie made, especially a political satire in the time we’re in. So I just went and was like, “Whatever you want me to do, I’m ready to go!” Which is actually really fun because you get to just totally relax and trust someone, and not worry about anything. So I didn’t really worry about my performance at all; I just went and had fun. It was fun; you know, at this point in my life it’s like, I want to do stuff that’s meaningful. So it was meaningful to support him. And it’s fun to be around interesting people. And he’s always around interesting people.
John not only stars in War, Inc., he also co-wrote and produced it. Did he bring you in very early on?
JC: We have a relationship, so I knew about the movie outside of just working on a movie. I knew about his passion for it; he’s incredibly passionate about, and grateful to be able to make movies and do things that he loves and feels deeply about. And he’s just a total movie junkie; he loves movies. So Dr. Strangelove and all the movies that we talk about and love and think are fun are just part of our life. I knew about this movie for a long time.
Did you have any hand in shaping your character, Marsha Dillon?
JC: Well I tend to come from a more psychological [angle] — that’s sort of my passion. I mean, I’m interested in the psychology of politics as well — and obviously I’m interested in what’s going on in the world — but my passion is more the psychology of people. I did bring up the idea of George W. Bush wanting to please his father. [In War, Inc., Cusack’s Marsha Dillon gives away a book “written” by Dubya about relating to his father, George Bush, Sr.] That could be a reason why he may have gone to Iraq, too; he wasn’t the chosen son — Jeb was the chosen son — he was the drunk son. So the psychology of George Bush going to Iraq was interesting to me. I did add that piece.
One of your funniest scenes is one that is shot on a camera phone, where you’re kind of freaking out at John.
JC: I was not sure; I thought that was too crazy. John was like, “It’s so funny, Joan. It’s so funny!” I was like, “Are you sure?”
Did you guys have any trepidation about the material, knowing how hard a sell political satires are, especially now? Any hesitation going as over the top as you guys went?
JC: I think that everything’s hard now anyways, so you might as well do stuff that you love and believe in…so, no. Because it’s all hard.
It does seem that the over-the-topness may be one of the obstacles that audiences will have to overcome, to let themselves go completely into the movie, to go with it — and it’s going so far…
JC: Right. Maybe a little cocktail before? Relax, and just let everything else drop away, and enjoy. Enjoy the journey. It’s like a little punk rock, fast and furious, spirited journey.
Next: Shooting under budget constraints in Bulgaria; War, Inc. as Grosse Point Blank 2
Could this movie have been made with more subtlety?
JC: I think if you had a lot of time and money, and…what else, besides time and money? Those are the really big things that you don’t get. Maybe you could have sold things differently, with that kind of space. But then I think it’s a different movie. I think the whole idea of satire is taking it over the top, and the incongruousness of ideas. It all comes down to ideas in a political satire. With a lot of money, and a lot of time, you can be a little more articulate, perhaps; but if you don’t have a lot of money and don’t have a lot of time, maybe you just have to make sure you have the ideas and the spirit there.
Was there a sense while you were making this that you were working under constraints?
JC: Yeah — we were in Bulgaria! (Laughs)
Right, “Turaqistan.” What’s Bulgaria like?
JC: Bulgaria is fascinating. Because it had been a Communist country until the mid-80s, so it had just recently transitioned. And there were still the police towers on the street corners, where they look down — they were still there, although no one was in them. And if you talked to the older people that lived there, they were like, “Communism was bad — but it was really safe.” And they had money to buy things; you could leave your car door open on the street, and run in and get the things you needed. Everyone was taken care of. Now they have mafia, money and drugs, alcohol and gambling!
The sets are covered with images of corporate-sponsored militarism — GoldenPalace.com is displayed on tanks. Did the locals understand or agree with what War, Inc. was trying to say?
JC: Yeah. I think America has a bad rap right now… and hopefully Obama will change that. I just went right to him being president, did you see that? I think everyone with a brain, and a heart [would agree] — well, I understand the Hillary thing, but just to a certain degree (laughs).
Dan Akroyd is in War, Inc. (as a Dick Cheney-like former Vice President with ties to military profiteering), which makes this a three-way Grosse Point Blank reunion with you and John…
JC: I think, in a way, it was a Grosse Point Blank 2.
Is it? Perhaps an unofficial sequel?
JC: I think so.
Do you think John was very cognizant of that while developing this, and the fact that it might be seen as a sequel — sort of like Martin Q. Blank’s midlife crisis?
JC: Right. Or, you know what, if that’s fun to talk about or think about, then that’s great.
When you were kids growing up, did you ever think your brother would make such a good existential hitman?
JC: I think this business is so unhealthy, and if you weren’t a manic depressive before you got into this business — if you could even get into this business — then you would wind up one. Like most businesses where the stakes are high and people are very competitive, there’s a lot of ugliness. The downside of being a celebrity, or being “handled” or being the next big thing — or not being the next big thing after being the next big thing — even just having people like you for your swimming pool, that kind of thing, it’s all not good for your mental health. Because at the end of the day, it’s just telling stories. And nobody’s better than anyone else. People have achieved things, but hopefully they’ve achieved making good kids, or making good people that are enjoying their lives or caring about the world. They’re just stories, which are important — people need a break, they need a good story, or a laugh sometimes. Or something that’s going to be insightful, or literature, or whatever it is that is going to be stimulating about how you’re going to live your life on the planet.
Obviously you had to go to Bulgaria for this movie, but you’ve gone on record about living in Chicago and taking work that allows you to stay with your family. Is that still the case?
JC: I take parenting incredibly seriously. I want to be there for my kids and help them navigate the world, and develop skills, emotional intelligence, to enjoy life, and I’m lucky to be able to do that and have two healthy, normal boys. It’s nice to be able to work; I’d love to be able to do another TV show I could do in Chicago so I could live and work in the same place. It’s hard being a parent and being in a good marriage, and it all takes a lot of work, but if you’re not there you can’t do any of it.
War, Inc. opens this Friday in limited release. Joan Cusack also appears in the upcoming Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery, Hoodwinked 2, and Toy Story 3, in which she reprises her Annie winning role as Jessie.