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Say everything

John Cusack talks ‘Say Anything’ ahead of its 30-year celebration

John Cusack will be in Tulsa on June 15 for a screening of ‘Say Anything,’ along with a live Q&A.

In the 1980s, cinematic fare was awash in high school tales of tomfoolery, elusive romantic encounters, and teens yearning for the supposed freedom of adulthood. But one movie elevated the teenage drama and etched itself into our collective Gen X psyches—Say Anything. It’s been 30 years since it was first released, and the film shines as one flick that has withstood the test of time, while other movies of that era have mostly been banished to the realm of problematic, cringe-inducing guilty pleasures.

Say Anything may be a quirky love story on its face, but it is also a dissection of both the angst of the era and the uncertainty that every young person faces. John Cusack plays the indefatigable Lloyd Dobler, the charming protagonist, who both embraces optimism in love and skepticism in life. Cusack will be in Tulsa on June 15 for a screening of the film, along with a live Q&A. He took some time to chat about what the film meant at the time and why its popularity endures.

Angela Evans: Have you been to Tulsa before?

John Cusack: I’ve been through on a motorcycle trip. I thought it looked really cool. I love the Midwest. I’m a Midwest guy.

Evans: In your early films, we often catch your characters during milestone rites of passage, like graduation or first loves. What do you think is so special about that transition between “childhood” into “adulthood?”

Cusack: Any transition points are obviously good for drama. Because you’re entering a time when something is dying or something is being born. Ending one phase, entering another phase. It’s like drama begins when someone enters a new city. They’re afraid, but they’re excited and anticipating things. So, obviously high school graduation, weddings, funerals, these kinds of events are good places to find drama.

Evans: Say Anything does a great job of depicting that young-love relationship, including the sexual aspects. It seems to be handled with a genuine sweetness and innocence. Like the scene in the backseat of the car or how Diane tells her dad gleefully that she “pounced Lloyd.” It still holds up today as a positive relationship between a boyfriend/girlfriend, and father/daughter. Was that controversial or edgy at the time?

Cusack: Um, no. It wasn’t a film that was playing by genre rules. It wasn’t just a love story, it was also about a father and daughter—a favorite daughter, a scholar and obviously very bright—who had a relationship with a father she idealized. And her father turned out to be all-too human. That part of the drama was very interesting, and it gets very underrated as to why the film works. Terrific performances from Ione Skye (Diana Court) and John Mahoney (James Court), the father, create a very interesting and complex father-daughter relationship. And the father ends up not being such a good guy, and not the idealized person she thought he was.

Evens: Definitely different from the films of that era, with that sort of glorified frat bro-ness.

Cusack: This was the counter-opposite of all that. I think it was—I suppose you could say it had a proto-feminist spirit.

Evans: Yeah, you have your proto-feminist besties that are girls. Diane is this young articulate woman. Was that more of a deliberate approach from the writing and directing?

Cusack: That was Cameron [Crowe’s] sensibility, mixed with the script and my own political sensibility. Because everything is about politics, even if you don’t know it. That frat house bro thing isn’t innocent, either. And we see what all that leads to. Of course, in some ways, it’s innocent; but in other ways, it’s not.

Evans: And that leads me to my next question. A lot of films from that era, if you watch them now, they are a little bit cringe-worthy with their plotlines and punchlines. Why do you think Say Anything is so different? Would you say it was “woke” before its time?

Cusack: As I said before, the underbelly of the script had a lot of uncertainty and fear in that transition. And the father-daughter relationship had darker undertones, darker hues. And that was more than just, “Am I going to get my dream job, or my dream woman?” It was fear of the future in uncertain times. Even when I was growing up, it was Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan saying, “Hey, we’re going to nuke Russia.” It’s just like it is today. It’s a very frightening time to be a young person. I think there was honesty about that. We didn’t sugarcoat anything.

And then the collaboration to create this Lloyd character brought these politics out even more. I said to the producer at the time that I didn’t want this character to have an agenda. I want him to have a complete agenda. And we laughed, but that’s what it was. You asked me to play a character a year or two removed from myself, and so this is what it was like for me. I wanted to know about the world. I was interested in The Clash. I didn’t want to be part of this consumer culture. I fucking hated malls. I felt like a pirate or something. I had to create my own space that I could breathe in and function in. So we put all that in the movie. So it had a good mixture of sensibilities that I feel that were authentic.

But I also think it was just a sweet movie—it’s funny and it’s got jokes—but there is some other stuff going on that I think people responded to. It’s like, not to be silly about it, but when you listen to a Beatles song, it’s both Lennon and McCartney, right? McCartney saying “You have to admit it’s getting better / getting better all the time;” and then Lennon says “It can’t get no worse.” And that’s the paradox. There’s a sense of real sweetness in the movie of a real genuine innocence, but it also had a dark underbelly to it, which made the choice to be optimistic more heroic rather than oblivious. It made that choice more heroic as opposed to sentimental.

I think those are the things that made the movie, but I don’t know. I mean, what do I know?

Evans: There are so many elements of the movie that are iconic, but you know the one scene everyone remembers—the boombox, Peter Gabriel. In fact, I know a couple of people here in Tulsa who have tattoos of that iconic image on their bodies.

Cusack: I’ve seen some of those! It’s pretty trippy.

Evans: When you were filming that at the time, did you realize it was going to be this romantic gesture that really resonated?

Cusack: When I was filming, I thought, if you don’t earn it—if the movie doesn’t have real feelings up to that point—then it would be really cheesy and hackneyed. I was worried that the rest of the movie had to be up to it. I was kind of a little nervous, but it turned out well.

Evans: I’ve got one more question, and I often ask this in interviews. What is something you wish people knew about you or your career?

Cusack: Well. I don’t know. You don’t have to know anything about me. There are some films that are cool films that didn’t get a lot of huge public exposure when they first came out. I also don’t worry about that because people can find things, discover them on their own. Time does its work. You can’t really make someone love a film five or 10 years after you made it, but you also can’t stop people from discovering films five or 10 years after you made them. I would just say look at some of the smaller, more obscure films, and you might enjoy them.

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