When John Cusack was launching his career in the Eighties, Brian Wilson had gone from rock star to living lore — a brilliant Bigfoot. "People would have Brian Wilson encounters," says Cusack, who plays Wilson in the new biopic Love & Mercy. "In L.A., people would say, 'Oh, I was driving around and I saw Brian Wilson in his bathrobe!' and there were strange grumblings of a psychiatrist, guru life coach guy."
The doctor was Eugene Landy (played in the movie by Paul Giamatti), a therapist who wielded fearsome control over every aspect of Wilson's life: his diet, his medicine, his music, his money, even his family and friends. When Wilson met his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) at a car dealership in 1986, he hadn't seen his children in three years. She didn't recognize the heavily drugged, monotone man flanked by Landy and a small battalion of the doctor's aides (all of whom came along on their first date). They had to fight for privacy like teenagers, though he was 44 and she was 39.
Love & Mercy cuts between their romance and the mid-Sixties stretch where Wilson refused to tour with the Beach Boys and stayed home to compose Pet Sounds. His father, Murry, the band's manager, insisted that "God Only Knows" would flop, and later sold off the Beach Boys catalog for cheap like it was a lemon with a busted transmission. (No wonder Wilson would later succumb to a second bully.) Paul Dano takes over the younger role, and he and Cusack decided not to coordinate their performances. "We thought if it worked, it would be two different songs that would harmonize," says Cusack.
The musical analogy suggests Cusack's absorption with Wilson's story. "As artists, people get put in a box. We're told, 'You're an actor, you're only supposed to do these types of roles.'" says Cusack, who fought out of his stereotype as a romantic naïf and now mostly endures a string of hitman and murderer parts, some astonishing (like Lee Daniels's The Paperboy), others asking far less of the 48-year-old actor than he'd like to deliver. Cusack's energy builds: "And then you see Brian, who's so creative and free and at the apex of his powers, and he's still being told, 'Why don't you write more beach songs?'"
To prepare, Cusack immersed himself in the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions, studying Wilson's passion and perfectionism.
"He'll go, 'Second cello, one inch back from the mic,'" says an awed Cusack. "Everything you want to know about the guy is in his music. It's filled with longing, aspiration, pain, ecstasy, all mixed together like oil and vinegar. In a way, he's a heart with two legs — or an open wound. Having played one genius and met a few, there's a sense that these gifts are not without heavy burdens and prices. The heat of the liftoff can be so intense that it can burn the vessel around them."
Cusack found an interview where Wilson described being beaten by his father with a belt — a rumored cause of the deafness in his right ear — but instead of just using words Wilson groaned and drummed a table. He literally turned misery into music. Cusack was so struck by the moment, he asked director Bill Pohlad to put it into the film.
"It's hard for people like that to turn the music off," says Cusack. "They might hear someone screaming and crying, and that turns into a symphony for them. It's almost a dissociative thing where it's not like, 'I did this,' but 'This came through me.' They have to write, because otherwise it might just rattle around in their brain until they get it out."
Dano's Wilson is able to show his brilliance by creating Pet Sounds. Cusack has the tougher job of communicating Wilson's talent even when the songwriter is a husk: barely composing and half-catatonic. The trick of Cusack's performance is that the film introduces him as a fragile oddball impulse-buying a Cadillac. Only later do we, and Melinda, realize how much — and how often — he'd been drugged.
"The amount that Landy was dosing him with, he could have killed him," says Cusack. "Seventy milligrams of Xanax, fucking lithium. Gloria [Wilson's longtime housekeeper and friend] probably saved his life — literally — because she would siphon off pills when Landy was being punitive."
Cusack flooded Gloria and Melinda with questions about Wilson's relationship with the doctor. (Even today, Wilson struggles to talk about Landy. "It's too painful for him," says Cusack, "and when he thinks about it, he feels it.") As Wilson sat down to see Love & Mercy, Cusack nervously awaited his reaction. The Landy scenes gave Wilson frightening flashbacks. Giamatti had done his job well, even if, as Cusack sensed, "it wasn't the most comfortable and enjoyable performance for him to play someone that despicable." (Which, given Giamatti's caddish résumé, says a lot.)
But though the first 50 years of Wilson's life can be hard to watch, there are happy memories, too. Says Cusack, "When you ask Brian his favorite part, he goes, 'When you and Elizabeth were getting it on. When you were looking at her and you weren't kissing her, but you were really close to each other. And when you would just lie and smile at each other. Man, I loved that part.'"