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Cusack follows his own path

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New York — There's something different about John Cusack today.

It's certainly not his look. Rumpled shirt. Unshaven. Morning hair sprouting in tossed-and-turned clumps. He's slouching in a hotel suite chair as if he's ready for one of his patented sad-sack scenes in "High Fidelity," "Grosse Pointe Blank" or "Say Anything."

What's really unusual is that, at 35, Cusack, the Hollywood renegade with the subversive, fringe-thinking pals (like Tim Robbins), the guy who can project as much angst as anybody (except, well, Woody Allen), the dark, brooding actor with that clique of devoted moviegoing females (they could save him, couldn't they, if he'd just let them love him), is on a full mainstream binge.

Julia Roberts. Catherine Zeta-Jones. Billy Crystal. "America's Sweethearts." Old-style screwball comedy. Plush hotel setting. Directed by ex-Disney honcho Joe Roth (he produced "While You Were Sleeping" and "Young Guns").

Did we mention that John Cusack has thrust himself into a Julia Roberts movie? And one not even remotely like "Erin Brockovich," which won her this year's Academy Award for best actress. But one they really could have called "America's Runaway Pretty Woman to Notting Hill for My Best Friend's Sweethearts." With co-stars Zeta-Jones, Crystal and, of course, Roberts.

"The thing that really matters to the older Hollywood establishment is they don't care if you're an ax murderer, if your film is No. 1 at Christmas you're going to get invited to all the parties," Cusack says while slouched in that chair in his Regency hotel suite. "You're either on the A-list, the B-list or the C-list. Until I make movies that make $200 million, I'm going to be underneath Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe and some of these other guys. But I'm still on that list. Just down a little bit. Until I jump back up, no one (in Hollywood) cares."

The last — and only — movie Cusack was in that pulled in $200 million was producer Jerry Bruckheimer's "Con Air." It debuted in 1997 and made $223 million worldwide.

It was all action. All loud. All mainstream.

"There's no reason not to do one or two films that are more commercial in nature and then try to make them as good as you can," he says. "It may not be the way I want it to be, but it's just the way it is."

Not that he had to be coaxed into "America's Sweethearts." "I got it because Joe Roth called me up and asked me to do it," Cusack says. "That was pretty much it."

In "Sweethearts," Cusack plays Eddie to Zeta-Jones' Gwen. They're a top-of-the-list movie couple who've just broken up but now must promote their next expected worldwide smash. Crystal, who also co-wrote the script, plays the public relations manager pulled in to coordinate the movie junket to sell the picture to the press. Roberts is Gwen's once-fat sister, who's employed as her put-upon assistant and, wouldn't you know it, has had a longtime "thing" for Eddie.

The comedy is physically and verbally breezy. Cusack gets to play Eddie like a jittery, jilted husband on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"It was a lot of fun," he says. "Eddie and Gwen, they totally exploit their relationship to do movies, and it's just a disaster."

But did an actor who thrives on on-screen subversion feel a need to subvert an old-style, mainstream comedy?

"It's strange, because the movie already did that. Eddie's pretty upset as far as a mainstream movie goes. It's got some weird things in it. The character has a cynical edge to it. I really didn't try to subvert this. This is pretty out there."