Can a single movie make a difference in the world? Or even a war?
"I think it can," John Cusack said. "I don't think any one thing can make a difference. But one thing can be part of the solution or part of the problem. Art is about ideas. Ideas have consequences."
The 41-year-old Evanston native has earned rave reviews for his role as a pudgy, middle-aging father in the domestic drama "Grace is Gone." He plays Stanley, a frumpy store manager saddled with an unthinkable duty: He must tell his two little daughters that their mother, a soldier in Iraq, has been killed. He can't bring himself to tell them.
The drama, written and directed by James C. Strouse, hits hard on the personal price of waging the war in Iraq. Cusack thinks Strouse struck the proper tone.
"It hit just the right mark," he said. "It was perfectly proportioned for the movie."
Stanley represents a major character shift for Cusack, usually cast as quick, acerbic mavericks equally comfortable with words as with actions. Here, he plays a perfect, inarticulate frump.
"I don't know where he came from," Cusack said. "He's the kind of guy who's emotionally wound up, like a wet rope. I just pulled him out of my imagination. Good writing inspires imagination."
"Grace is Gone" is a Chicago casting tour-de-force. Cusack's daughters are played by Chicago actress Shelan O'Keefe, 13, and River Grove actress Gracie Bednarczyk, 10.
"They're the light. They're the fire. They were the whole point of the movie," Cusack said. "The moment we saw them in the audition, we said, 'My God, they would be the two single worst human beings on Earth to ever lie to.' Which was perfect for the movie. They are amazing kids."
This has been a bang-up year for Cusack. In "Martian Child," he played a cool single guy who wants to adopt a little boy who believes he comes from another planet. In "1408," based on a Stephen King story, he plays a skeptical author who stays in a hotel room guaranteed to kill its occupants.
From an acting standpoint, "Grace is Gone" is 2007's crown jewel for Cusack. The movie picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best score (by Clint Eastwood).
"I hope people (who see the movie) take a moment to really take a look at the human costs of this war," Cusack said. "Then stop this thing from being an abstraction. We should get serious and start getting together to bring the troops home and end the violence."
Cusack said he realizes "Grace is Gone" might be a little tough to take. That's OK.
"That's probably a good thing, especially when you're talking about the war," he said. "It's supposed to be a little uncomfortable, a little painful. We need to make something real out of this abstraction. Figures, statistics and timetables and all these things.
"There are so many real people sacrificing so much."