Shock and Awe

The idea of an actor turning political activist is so cliched that it prompts eye-rolling among most regular folks.

John Cusack in "War, Inc."

The idea of an actor turning political activist is so clichéd that it prompts eye-rolling among most regular folks. But John Cusack felt so strongly about the situation in Iraq that he couldn’t stop himself from diving headlong into the fray with his latest film, “War, Inc.,” which premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released in New York and Los Angeles on May 23. The 41-year-old actor, who shed his romantic comedy persona to play a hit man on the hunt for a Middle Eastern oil minister, cowrote the dark, satirical movie. Styled in the vein of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Network,” and “Wag the Dog,” it’s “a cross between a New Yorker political cartoon and a Spanish Telemundo soap opera,” Cusack says. Joining him on-screen are his sister Joan, Sir Ben Kingsley, Marisa Tomei and Hilary Duff as a pop star in the imaginary country Turaqistan, which has been taken over by a corporation run by a former U.S. vice president.

This story first appeared in the April 28, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Cusack talks to WWD about the privatization of the Iraq war, filming in Bulgaria and his admiration for Naomi Klein, whose book “Baghdad Year Zero” inspired the movie.

WWD: What prompted you to make “War, Inc.”?

John Cusack: We conceived it as a response to the decision to invade Iraq — to try to deal with what the meaning of that was, outside the spin and the talking points. They said they wanted to create free-market democracy, but what that really meant was that they privatized and corporatized Iraq. The writers and I were looking at this era of cowardice and avarice and greed and false piety — all these hallmarks of the Bush administration — and we thought, “What can we do?” As artists, do we try to represent what was going on in these seven years? Or do we just roll over and let these guys decide they’re going to create a new security state, that they’re going to break the law and wire tap, that they’re going to invade other countries and take our tax dollars to create massive new profit margins for all these corporations, with no penalties, and no one is going to talk about it, because how dare you do that?

WWD: And you opted for satire as the vehicle for your message?

J.C.: The movie is kind of funny, but it’s not that funny. It’s not “Wedding Crashers.” It’s meant to be disturbing and kind of distasteful.

WWD: You play a hit man, which you did in “Grosse Pointe Blank.” What drew you back to that type of character?

J.C.: It puts ethical stuff right into an absurdist endgame. How do you define yourself? Is it who you think you are or what you actually do? So if you have a vision of yourself that you actually kill people for money, which is what a lot of — I’m not talking about the military now, I’m talking about these people who are doing nation-building for profit. Are they ideologues, or are they, as Naomi Klein calls them, “arms dealers with impressive vocabularies,” who treat war as an IPO?

WWD: Speaking of Klein — you’ve become friends. How do you know each other?

J.C.: She is a person I deeply admire. I read “No Logo” and I called her. And while she was writing “The Shock Doctrine,” I was writing and making “War, Inc.,” so we would talk. I would show her cuts of the movie and she was a helpful sounding board.

WWD: Are you officially aligned with any candidate?

J.C.: No. These are the issues that I want to see addressed in some way, and I haven’t really heard anybody talk about that. But I would love it [if they would]….I’m not just going to sit here and handicap the political horse race. I mean, the country is being taken over. That’s what we made the movie about.

WWD: Was it difficult to get this film green-lit?

J.C.: It was like salmon swimming upstream. We did it for absolutely no money, and we had to go to Bulgaria. It was a mad thing to try and do.

WWD: Are you worried about how it will do at the box office?

J.C.: I don’t think you can really make films like you are trying to sell a car. You have to say, this is what I want to do and it will find its audience now or later. Some people will love it and I’m sure a few people will walk out. But this has got me and Joan and Marisa Tomei and Hilary Duff and Sir Ben Kingsley and it actually works. It’s like a punk rock song.