There’s no ca­reer in con­tem­po­rary Hol­ly­wood quite like John Cu­sack’s.

Who else moves as easily from big-bud­get stu­dio pro­duc­tions like Con Air, Mid­night In The Gar­den of Good And Evil and Amer­ica’s Sweet­hearts to in­die hits like Be­ing John Malkovich, while tak­ing time to write, pro­duce and star in films like High Fi­delity and Grosse Pointe Blank? At 36, he’s been a star for 16 years, since Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing in 1985.

He spe­cial­izes in in­tel­li­gent in­se­cu­rity. (It’s no ac­ci­dent he played the Woody Allen char­ac­ter in Allen’s Bul­lets Over Broad­way.) In his new film, Max, he takes the role of Max Roth­man, a Jewish art dealer in Mu­nich in the days fol­low­ing the first world war who be­friends an an­gry young artist named Adolf Hitler (Noah Tay­lor). It’s not a com­edy, though Cu­sack’s comic gifts give the tone of the film an in­trigu­ing am­bi­gu­ity.

Speak­ing on the phone from Los An­ge­les, Cu­sack is quick to credit the screen­play and di­rec­tion of Menno Mey­jes.

“It was a ter­rific script. It ar­rived fully formed. Max def­i­nitely has that am­biva­lence.”

Re­fer­ring to the fact that Max, an artist be­fore the war, had lost an arm in com­bat, Cu­sack re­marks, “He was very much an in­jured prince, some­one lit­er­ally blown off his horse by the ma­chine age.”

Max marks an un­usual step in Cu­sack’s fil­mog­ra­phy. He rarely plays any­thing but con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­cans; the only time he’s played a char­ac­ter from the same pe­riod in history as Max was as Chicago White Sox third base­man Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out. Back­ground was nec­es­sary.

“I re­searched the pe­riod of Euro­pean history thor­oughly. I looked at a great book called Rites Of Spring: The Great War And The Birth Of The Mod­ern Age, by Mo­dris Ek­steins. I was fas­ci­nated by the idea that modernism had been forged in the fire of the first world war. From that point of view, you could see the Nazi aes­thetic – Hitler went to war against mod­ern art yet stole from the avant garde.”

On one level, Max is a cau­tion­ary tale about the dan­gers of push­ing peo­ple to live up to their po­ten­tial. Max meets the young Hitler and sees their shared fate as prod­ucts of the the first mod­ern war’s hor­ror, and talks to him about go­ing deep into his soul to con­vey how war felt.

“Peo­ple who were gung-ho came back want­ing to be sure they rethought what their fathers had taught them, be­cause that had led them into the slaugh­ter­house.”

That’s the ori­gin of Max as a char­ac­ter – that ragged, rest­less, in­jured qual­ity that mod­ern art sprang from.

“The com­mon­al­ity of Max and Hitler is that they were both drunk on art, and they both be­lieved that the way out was through art. What I think is bril­liant in the script is the fact that Max’s im­pulse is to take the energy of this hor­ri­ble lit­tle racist man and bring him up to the higher ground. Oth­er­wise, he’ll never get out of the trap.

“He has that im­pulse to ad­dress the re­gres­sive energy that Hitler rep­re­sented. What Max asks Hitler to do with his art is be­yond his ca­pa­bil­i­ties, so his hate, frus­tra­tion and anger have no other out­let but pol­i­tics.

“You can never pre­dict the fu­ture. The sit­u­a­tion in the film is like me go­ing out to Venice Beach and talk­ing to a home­less guy on the board­walk, and 13 years later he’s the pres­i­dent.”

Aside from star­ring in Max, Cu­sack served as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on another fes­ti­val en­try, Never Get Outta The Boat, a shot-on-video film about a half­way house for re­cov­er­ing junkies. It’s not the sort of thing one ex­pects to see Cu­sack’s name on.

“I tried to get the money to­gether. A friend of mine had writ­ten it and another wanted to di­rect it. I’d never seen that world por­trayed that way be­fore, and you never see films about that way sta­tion be­tween heaven and hell. A lot of friends had asked me to get in­volved with scripts be­fore, and I usu­ally don’t, but I thought this was a fas­ci­nat­ing thing. And it was a won­der­ful script.”

Next on Cu­sack’s plate is a pro­ject that demon­strates the com­pro­mises he makes for his art. He’s star­ring in the film ver­sion of John Gr­isham’s The Run­away Jury.

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