John Cusack plays the paradoxical Brian Wilson | Inquirer Entertainment
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John Cusack plays the paradoxical Brian Wilson

By: - Columnist
/ 12:20 AM June 14, 2015
JOHN Cusack chooses to grow younger, not older. photo by  Ruben V. Nepales

JOHN Cusack chooses to grow younger, not older. photo by Ruben V. Nepales

LOS ANGELES—John Cusack and the lead cast of director Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” are excellent in the biopic of the legendary cofounder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson. Playing the singer-songwriter in his older years (Paul Dano plays the younger Brian), John gives one of the year’s best performances so far.

Written by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, “Love & Mercy” starts in the 1960s when Brian deals with emerging psychosis as he leads the Beach Boys and ends in the ’80s when he is a broken man being controlled by a therapist, doctor Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).


The film also recounts Wilson’s fateful encounter with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car saleswoman who helps him turn his life around. The couple has five children.

Below are excerpts from our interview with John:


How much did Brian Wilson collaborate with you? Did he give you any insights on what doctor Eugene Landy really did to him?

He did. The story of Brian is such lore and it’s such a legend, like the genius who stopped making music and went away and you don’t really know where fact ends and legend begins. So the idea was to do something that was factual and accurate but it’s not a documentary; it wasn’t closed-circuit cameras or anything, but this is how it happened. This is how bad it was and, in fact, Brian said it was worse with Landy than what we showed.

That’s part of this story, that’s part of the bottom notes of his music, part of what he went through. But the good news is, when I went to see him for the first time, you walk into the house, the doors open and there are dogs running around. There are kids and there’s somebody in the kitchen and it’s like, wait a minute, this seems like a really happy house.

Brian’s up in his music room and he’s still totally in love with Melinda so I was amazed when I met him. I had to ask him the questions and he wanted to tell me about it. You could see when he talks about it—he feels and intuits everything. He “refeels” them.

But he said a remarkable thing, too. I asked him about the connection between his father (Murry Wilson) and Landy. He would tell me about when his father would spank him, but he told me about the way it sounded. He really experiences the world through his feelings and everything, his music, and it’s sonic and you have a sense of how he experiences the world.

Did you and Paul Dano discuss how you would play Brian so the audience will get a sense that they are seeing the same person?



PAUL Dano is a “great actor,” says his costar.

PAUL Dano is a “great actor,” says his costar.

No. It was the conceit of the film that it would be Paul’s impression and my impression and that if we were going through the same source material, we hoped it would make a harmony.

But the conceit is that there is no definitive portrait of anyone. You can make four novels from four children from the same mother and it would be a different mother in each novel. I like that we are not saying this is the whole story, and that there could be many stories about people. So we didn’t really compare notes or talk that way.

But we did both instinctively go to “Smile” (Brian’s sixth studio album, released in 2004) because that was where he dropped out of the world and what he came back around to. Paul and I both intuitively went to that period of his creativity to tap into each other. But we did that without talking to each other. It just seemed like the obvious place to go.

What surprised you the most about Brian and Melinda?

To be honest, the amount of abuse that Brian took—it was shocking to me. When I met Melinda and Gloria Ramos (Brian’s longtime housekeeper and friend) and we were talking to Brian, they were very gracious because they talked to me about the period of Brian’s life when he was a Beach Boy. That is so well-documented—he was on tour and they were like The Beatles. It was hit after hit and he was in the studio doing that but then when he retreated from public life and went into the abyss, there is much less known about that.

So I felt like I didn’t understand. It was hard to read a biography because no one really knew what happened. So I asked Brian about it and he told me and then when I asked Melinda and Gloria about it, they got very emotional because at one point, Landy said to Gloria, “I am going to deport you and I am going to get you out of here, and I control Brian.” She said, “Oh, OK. Well, I wanted to give you this.” She gave him a bottle and it was filled with whatever these drugs were that he was giving him, which was just diagnosed, that she would skim and squirrel off the top and put away, just so Brian didn’t OD.

This guy (Landy) would give him more drugs in a punitive way and if he wanted to go out, he would say, give him some more medicine, give him these. She said, “I will give this back, but I will give another one to the police if you deport me.” So when you realize how bad it got and how abused he was, I think that was really shocking to me.

Was there a plan to use your own singing voice in the movie?


I sang with Brian at the wrap party. Paul and I sang with him. There was a scene where we were going to do it—we were just going to sing. He played the piano, where he started to play “Love & Mercy” for Melinda. But I can’t sing like Brian. No one can.

What was it like for Brian to talk to you about his painful past?

It sort of depends on the day with Brian; it depends on the mood he’s in because he’s been so famous since 1966 and he’s been asked so many questions about how he creates and what he feels like.

When I met him for the first time, he just sat and was talking but he was actually trying to feel like, what is my intention, what is the vibe here, not to use a cliché, but he was just feeling me out. He operates on that level—when he feels like there’s warmth coming from you, he will get talkative. But when he feels that you are judgmental, then he will just say, “I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Who would you like to play you if a movie about you were to be made?


Paul Dano. I would hope a great actor like Paul. But I don’t think anyone would want to see a movie about me, trust me.

Do you watch your old movies like “Say Anything?”

CUSACK and Elizabeth Banks team up as a real-life couple who defied the odds.

CUSACK and Elizabeth Banks team up as a real-life couple who defied the odds.

No, I don’t really watch them. I wince a lot but not at that movie. The movies that people are very fond of, I feel nice about.

How much have you changed from when you were in your 20s? And have you ever been saved by the love of a woman?

God, how can I answer that? Since my 20s, yeah, I hope so. Like there’s a real courage and Brian’s a paradox all the time because he’s the most vulnerable guy you have ever seen. He’s also the most open guy you have ever seen. He’s open and vulnerable, but he’s also really tough.

He’s like a heart with two legs or something. As you get older, you realize that opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable is a lot more courageous than putting your defenses up. So yeah, of course, any time you are loved by anyone, it heals you up.

Do you feel like you are more open than you were before?


I think so, yeah. You either grow younger or grow older. And hopefully, we choose to grow younger.

E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at

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