National Post (Latest Edition)
Dystopian thriller lures John Cusack to small screen.
Actor makes leap to TV to star in dystopian thriller from award-winn ing Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn
John Cusack cracks a smile when he hears the question: Make your date night pitch as to why a couple should check out Utopia.
Now 54, the actor — best known for his work in films such as Say Anything ..., Grosse Pointe Blank, Con Air, High Fidelity, America’s Sweethearts and 2012 — knows more than a few relationships have been solidified during a night out watching one of his movies.
“Well, I think you’ll be bonded together over the shocks,” he says from Chicago.
“There are a few episodes in there where you probably don’t want to have a big dinner beforehand because you might get a little queasy with some of the shocking things that happen. But it has a broad range: - It’s funny, it’s realistic, it’s wild, it’s surreal — there’s a lot to it, so hopefully you can have a little bonding experience together watching it.”
The new conspiracy thriller, now airing on Amazon Prime Video, revolves around a group of comic fans — Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh Lathrop), Samantha ( Jessica Rothe) and Wilson Wilson ( Desmin Borges) — who meet online and unite over their obsession with a seemingly fictional book called Dystopia, discovering hidden meanings within its pages. When the unpublished sequel, Utopia, is found, they attempt to buy it — only to find themselves the target of assassins aim
ing to kill anyone who reads its story.
Cusack makes his first jump to TV as Dr. Kevin Christie, the CEO of an influential pharmaceutical company, who may be responsible for unleashing a global pandemic targeting children. Rainn Wilson ( The Office) plays a scientist hoping to find a cure for the deadly disease.
Adapted from a 2013 British series by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, who also joined our call, the show finds eerie relevance as the coronavirus sweeps the globe.
Q John, I’m sure you’ve been offered TV in the past. Tell us about the decision to say yes to Utopia.
A It was a thing where you get a call and it’s Gillian Flynn and she’s doing a show on Amazon. So, it’s exciting to get a call. Then she said, “I want you to do it.” That was very flattering. Then I got sent the scripts and I started
reading them at two in the afternoon and I didn’t stop until midnight. I read them all in one sitting, just drinking cups of coffee. It was a total page-turner. It was an easy decision on my part. I was just humbled and grateful to be asked to do it. It’s a great role with great writing. I also loved a lot of those conspiracy films from the ’ 70s. Things like The Parallax View. Also, the dystopian landscape is certainly (topical) with global warming and endless wars and the food shortages and water and all that stuff.
Q Was seeking out a role on TV something on your radar?
A Yeah, because it’s just another way of telling stories. I was used to telling a story in 95 minutes or two hours. Now you get to tell it over nine or 10 hours. Sometimes in television they elongate the show, filling it with B and C plots because they just want more content. But
Gillian’s writing is so intricate. Every character has a purpose. There is no wasted space.
Q Gillian, it must seem a little weird to have a show about a pandemic coming out during a pandemic.
A It’s unsettling. As we’ve all got used to wearing face masks and figuring out what life is looking like right now, it was very alarming to me at first. When I signed on to this, it really was on the edge of science fiction for me in 2013. This was not something that was going to happen ... But as I was editing the show from Chicago, like everyone else, I had the news on 24/7 and I was looking back and forth between my computer screen, which had this fake pandemic, and my TV screen, which was showing me a real-life pandemic. I remember telling my husband,
“The fact that you and I have to distinguish between the real pandemic and the
show pandemic is deeply disturbing to me.”
Q How did you want to put your own stamp on Utopia?
A The U.K. one is very Britpop. I wanted mine to pick up on and play with the idea of conspiracy and the idea of truth and where we are in the world now. We’re slowly coming to agree that maybe there’s no such thing as truth. Truth can be your opinion if you say it loudly enough with cool visuals.
I felt with the tumult we’re in right now, with the environment, politics and social media, that we’re at the end of something. We’re all waking up a little bit and trying to find out what to do. For me, I wanted this to feel like those paranoid thrillers from the ’70s, like All the President’s Men and Parallax View. I pitched this as Marathon Man meets The Goonies. The idea that beneath the surface is something very different than what you think.
Q Are you a big fan of working in TV?
A I love TV. It gives you that room to spread out and it almost feels novelistic. I like that you have an opportunity to tell layer upon layer of story.
I remember having a happy argument with John about whether his character would wear a wedding band. You can get that persnickety on a show. You’ll notice he is wearing one, so I won that argument.
Q John, you’re entering your fifth decade as an actor. You’ve done big rom- coms, action flicks, character roles and horror. How did you navigate your career in Hollywood?
A I’m in my 50s now and when you’re younger you have a certain leverage. If you’re the lead actor in a movie and you’re a movie star, you can try and do a commercial movie and then leverage it to make an artistic movie that you like that maybe wouldn’t get made.
So, there’s a dance with art and commerce. I probably failed more than I succeeded ... but I tried my best.