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Joan Cusack: The TV Squad Interview

by Joel Keller, posted Aug 21st 2009 12:02PM
Joan Cusack from Acceptance on LifetimeJoan Cusack has made a career of finding the comedically crumbling foundations beneath what are at first normal-seeming characters. The two-time Oscar nominee also has a knack for making the most out of her roles, and in the new Lifetime movie Acceptance, both of her greatest skills are on display.

In the movie, which debuts on Saturday at 9PM ET, Cusack plays Nina Rockefeller, the hard-driving and high-strung mother of the movie's protagonist, Taylor (played by Mae Whitman of Arrested Development). The movie examines the pressure on high school overachievers to go to just the "right" college, and the story is told in a way that looks at it from both the students' and the parents' perspectives.

Cusack called me from Chicago (where she lives full-time) earlier this week. We talked about college pressures, if the notion of a Lifetime movie has changed, and why she loves working with her brother John so damn much.

What attracted you to the project?

Well, I think at this point in my career, it's one of those things where I'm looking to find work that fits in my life, because I've got two small boys, and then find something that's meaningful to do. Because, you know, otherwise it's just... it feels pointless sometimes.

And just straight-on entertainment is not pointless to me. I don't mean to be pejorative. I just look for something that has some kind of meaning to it. So when this came along, it worked well for me and my family, and I thought it had a really good point about the pressure for students going into college, feeling so much pressure that they're struggling pretty severely, and not able to just look and find the right fit.

Your kids aren't college-aged yet at this point yet, right?
No. They are 9 and 12. But I have friends that are going through that stuff.

Did the script ring true with what your experience was with what your friends are going through?
Oh yeah. I think there's so much pressure on these kids. And a lot of the Ivy Leagues have these parents over a barrel, where they feel like if they don't get into the best school, their children's lives will be a failure. And they can't even think clearly about all the options that are out there that really are the right fit.

Joan Cusack, Mae Whitman, and Mark Moses in Acceptance on LifetimeDid it change your perspective on where your kids might go to college?
I hadn't thought about it that way. Because there are some parents whose kids are in grade school who do think about colleges. And fortunately, I don't have that particular burden. But no, obviously, it's just one of those things that is along the lines of how are you being a thoughtful person in your life, whether it's with your work, or with your children, or your family. This just happened to have a thoughtfulness about it. And so I try to be thoughtful.

Did you have any preconceived notions, knowing what Lifetime has done over the last 20 years of TV movies, about what the project might be like?
I'd spoken to Lifetime before about different things, and I really love that it's a channel for women. Iit's just one of those things where, once again, you can skip over it because you think it's not cool. But you're missing the boat if you're looking for stuff that relates to content that might be more meaningful. It's just kind of more of the same.

A lot of people, when they think of Lifetime, think of the 'woman in peril' movies that they used to be well-known for. Do you think the network is starting to change people's perceptions of what a Lifetime movie might be?
I think that the whole industry is just in such an identity crisis that it's a great opportunity to create content that's meaningful, and attract viewers based on that. So it's, I think all the channels are struggling to find their audience. And the good news is, you have to really be thoughtful about what's going to make someone want to come and watch your channel. So I think it's a good time for Lifetime.

You haven't done much TV since your series What About Joan. Would you want to do another series?
I loved doing that show, and I love doing TV stuff. And I'm working hard to try to find a television show that I can do here in Chicago. I love ensemble work, and I love the regular schedule of it. I think there's a lot of opportunities right now in TV.

But the goal is to stay in Chicago, right?
Yeah. I mean, first of all, have you been to Chicago?

Many times. I love the place.
It's an awesome place, right? And I use that word "awesome" because I have two young boys. (chuckles) It's just one of those things where that's the hard part about being in this business, is not living and working in the same place. So if I could do it, it would be ideal.

But if it were shooting in Los Angeles, or Vancouver, or some other place, would it be something that you would consider?
I couldn't because I couldn't leave my kids.

It's just too much time away from home, I'm guessing?
Well, you know what? They're just young for so long. I don't know if you have kids, but it's just one of those things where I can't think... for me personally, it's the most meaningful thing I do in my life.

I don't want to be a helicopter parent, but I want to be there and help them grow. I can work...I love working. And I think it's good for your soul to work, and I want to work. But I also want to be able to be there to help them.

Your character Nina at first just looks like your typical hard-driving, over-achieving parent. But obviously, there's something underneath. When you look at that kind of character, do you see those layers and start figuring out how to bring them out?
I think people don't start out as being bad parents. People are complex. And I think there's a lot of reasons why if you look good, and you look like you've got it together, you could hang your self-esteem on that. And obviously, it doesn't work, if that's the only thing you do.

So it makes for an incomplete picture. And I think a lot of people do that. And they're not totally satisfied. So that just shows up, and putting pressure (on yourself), because you're not fulfilled, (and) on your kids to do that for you. Happens all the time. I don't mean it pejoratively, I just think it's misguided. And it's sad, because these kids are really struggling.

Do the parents have higher expectations for them than the kids do themselves? Is it the parents projecting on their kids?
Yeah, I think it's...you know what, if your kid looks perfect, then you'll be perfect. It comes out of love. I think the character really loves her daughter. She wants the best for her. She just doesn't realize that putting that much pressure on somebody and projecting your things onto them may not be what's best for the child itself.

Mae Whitman from Acceptance on LifetimeYour co-star, Mae Whitman, was best known for her role on Arrested Development. Had you seen her work there at all?
I hadn't seen her work there. But my brother played her father right before I played her mother. (laughing) Which is kind of funny.

She shot a movie with John right before Acceptance?
Yes. Mmm-hmmm.

What's the name of the movie?
I can't remember. But so we love her. She's adorable.

What do you think she brings to her character on Acceptance that makes it beyond the usual teenage role?
She's so experienced, and talented, and got it together, and thoughtful. She's just got her acting chops down. So she can do it.

Two more questions and then I'm gonna let you go. They're both about working with your brother.
Ok. Love it.

I can tell, because you're in so many movies together. Any plans to work with John in the near future? And what is it about working with him that you enjoy and makes you keep coming back to projects that he's doing?
Well, I'm so proud of him, because I've thought about a million things I'd love to do, and I've never... I haven't been able to make one of them happen. And he makes them happen. It's so hard to get something made and done in this business. It's just incredibly difficult. And he does it. And he does it with the sensibility that I appreciate.

It's family. You have a similar sensibility and it's, a tough business, and I love that to be able to be supportive is, I think, civilized to say the least.

Do you find it interesting, though, that because you guys are in so many roles together, people still buy you as the two characters and not siblings? Can you explain the acting chemistry between the two of you?
Well, I think I really enjoy him, personally. I think he's really funny, and smart, and I appreciate how hard he works. You know, and he's a good person. And it's a really, really hard business. It looks glamorous, and people get paid nicely, but the realities of it are, you know, psychologically, it's a very cruel business. And so...

So it's good to have that support?

John and Joan Cusack in War Inc.The last movie you guys were in together was War Inc. right?

When he brings you a controversial movie like that, a script that's going to definitely be like polarizing, is it your faith in him that helps that? If somebody else brought it to you, would you not be so sure?
I think it's one of those things where if you love someone and you know how hard they are working on something, and they want you to come and do it, and be supportive of it, and you know you're going to go and laugh, it's easy to say yes.

Do you wish more people saw that movie?
Um, I think...sure.

So is that the type of movie you get really disappointed in if it doesn't do well?
You know what, in this business, it goes back to the movie Lifetime. You just have to accept that there's serendipity things and you know, you don't have a lot of control over a lot of stuff. So you just do the best you can do. And hopefully, it'll be the right fit.

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I've been a big fan of the Cusaks for a long time. It's always nice to see what she has to say.

I'm not a big fan of Lifetime, but I may have to check this one out. Our daughter's in the investigating college age range, and we've always been very laid back about it, aside from "we'd like you to go". However, we do know parents who grouse about non-AP classes affecting GPAs and schedule family vacations/destinations around college visits, so we see the sort of thing the movie seems to be about, even if we're not living it.

As for Mae Whitman, it really depends on what you watch. For a lot of people, she's best known as the voice of Katara on Avatar:The Last Airbender.

August 22 2009 at 6:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to RobynM's comment
gail slim

Me too, I'm also a huge fan of the Cusaks. And awesome interview. I can totally relate to visiting college campuses and vacation around same. BTW, I never knnew that Mae Whitman, does the voice of Katara on Avatar:The Last Airbender. Who knew?


August 24 2009 at 10:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Awesome interview. So very much adore the Cusacks.

August 21 2009 at 12:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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