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Selecting the right actor to play a historical character presents a unique set of challenges and this was also true for the new movie ‘The Raven’. In John Cusack, the filmmakers found an actor who could embody Edgar Allan Poe both physically and emotionally, while upping the artistic ante with his own unique onscreen persona.
Cusack’s extensive body of work, which includes comedies, thrillers and serious dramas, demonstrated the range the filmmakers were searching for. “It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing this role,” says producer Mark Evans. “He was able to grasp the full gamut of personality traits that made Poe interesting. He can be witty, he can be charming, he can be romantic. And he can be very dark, even to the point of despair.”
Cusack was able to find the character’s strengths as well as his frailties, according to screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare. “John has Poe’s passion, his intellectualism and thoughtfulness, as well as his ability to go to the dark side,” the writer says. “But he can bring whimsicality as well. He went right into the space of Poe.”
The actor embraced his character’s dark side, says director James McTeigue. “I don’t think he’s ever played a character this deeply damaged. Poe is both hero and victim. That allowed him to reinvent himself as an actor. He changed his appearance. He changed his demeanor. He trained a bit and slimmed down some, to become more like Poe physically.
We didn’t want to get into that classic caricature of Poe with the mustache and the crazy hair that has been parodied everywhere, but we did come up with an interesting look for his hair and his goatee. He learned more about Poe than I ever imagined he would. I think John completely nailed it.”
It is a role Cusack coveted. “This is a role that I would have been willing to audition for,” he says. “I would have fought hard for it, but I was lucky enough to have it offered to me. I said yes right away. It was a no-brainer for me to be able to play Edgar Allan Poe.”
Playing the tortured genius was one thing but not allowing himself to be consumed was quite another thing. “I had an idea how I’d get in,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to get out and I wanted to make sure I had an escape plan. It was a pretty trippy headspace to stay in.”
To prepare for the role, Cusack immersed himself in the life of Edgar Allan Poe, devouring biographies, critical tracts and Poe’s considerable literary output. “He was like the French poet Baudelaire, one of these creatures who fit in at the highest, loftiest poetic places,” says the actor. “But he could also end up in the gutter with the street dregs and slugs. He breezed in and out of both worlds.
“He became a bit of a rock star when ‘The Raven’ became famous,” he adds. “And like some rock stars, he was one of the great stone-cold, bull-goose crazy addicts. Like most alcoholics, he was capable of periods of sobriety where he’d get it together, but he was white-knuckling it, just holding on by the skin of his teeth.”
The actor also recognized a more poignant side to the character, one that he believes motivates his interest in the otherworldly aspects of life. “He had such misfortune,” Cusack says. “Much of it was self-imposed. He had a lot of character defects. But so many women close to him died tragically young, from his mother to his wife.
Three women died of tuberculosis in his arms. The character of Emily is a composite of a couple of different women who were in his life after his wife died and all of them died before he did. I think that loss was what kept him always looking into the other world, always wanting to get into the other world somehow.”
Image Courtesy of The Raven