A crowded TV world

'Utopia': How John Cusack became sci-fi TV's next great villain

“People who change the world for the better, sometimes they are sociopaths.”

Practically everyone has a favorite John Cusack movie. And there's a specific warmth that comes to mind because of his wholesome roles. Be it 1989's Say Anything... where Cusack plays a boombox-holding Romeo, or the 2001 rom-com Serendipity where Cusack searches all of New York for Kate Beckinsale, Cusack built a career playing the everyman in love. Even after several darker roles, like a hitman (in War, Inc.) or a cloaked Edgar Allen Poe (in The Raven), the image of Cusack bumping Peter Gabriel is preserved in amber.

But Cusack's next role, and his first as a TV series regular, might change that. In Amazon's new conspiracy thriller Utopia, about a group of comic book fans who discover the medical conspiracy of the century is hidden in the pages of their favorite comic book, Cusack plays Dr. Kevin Christie, an affluent and family-focused CEO of an influential pharmaceutical company. Just how "influential" and "family-focused" he might be is slowly revealed throughout the season's eight episodes.

“The mid-sized movie like High Fidelity, I don't know if a studio would make that today.” — John Cusack

The series, a remake of a cult 2013 British series, comes from acclaimed novelist Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) and streams September 25 on Amazon Prime Video. "I thought it was incredible, imaginative, twisted and funny, scary and surreal," Cusack said of the script. He read the entire show in one afternoon over two cups of coffee. "I looked up and it was night and I read the entire season. In one sitting. As usual with Gillian's work, you can't imagine what's going to happen next."

Cusack says television now occupies the same thematic space the films he starred in used to. "The space I used to do films in, where moral ambiguity was the value, that space is now on TV," he says. "Movies are big tentpole movies, or they cannibalize each other to get awards. They're super important or super big. The mid-sized movie like High Fidelity, I don't know if a studio would make that today. The character is too human and fucked up."

John Cusack as Dr. Kevin Christie, in the new Prime Video series 'Utopia.'Elizabeth Morris/Amazon Prime Video

A question asked by Cusack's Kevin Christine to other characters in Utopia goes like this: "What have you done to earn your place in this crowded world?" Initially inspiring cute responses from smiling children, the question is later asked again to someone with a trail of bodies behind them. Their answer is similarly chilling.

In a roundtable interview Inverse participated in, Cusack said the question was inspired by former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who played a huge role in the Vietnam War.

"The question was, 'How much evil do you have to do to do good?' People genuinely thought we were doing good carpet-bombing Cambodia. You know, we gotta do it to stop communism," Cusack says. "I was talking to Gillian [and said], 'We need to put this in.' And so we did."

Cusack says the question defines Kevin Christie as someone who believes the ends justifies every means, and that they are the only ones to take up that responsibility. And it's a personality type that Cusack fears.

"If people are recognizing existential threats, somebody is going to have to make moral choices that entail a lot of people suffering and dying for the greater good," he says. "Christie is someone facing [those] global threats, of global warming and food and water shortages, and he is taking on the moral questions. He's one of those creatures of pure will. You see examples of it in the culture. People who change the world for the better, sometimes they are sociopaths."

In 'Utopia,' a remake of a 2013 British series, geeky comic book fans discover a vast medical conspiracy ominously foretold in their favorite comic book.Elizabeth Morris/Amazon Prime Video

It's fascinating to see Cusack inhabit the skin of sociopath one-percenters, not because it's counter to his popular image but because it echoes a real resentment towards a wealthy establishment. While best known as a Hollywood actor, Cusack is also a political activist and, in his own way, an amateur journalist. In May, Cusack documented Chicago's protests of police brutality after the murder of George Floyd on his Twitter account, even sharing his physical confrontations with police. The unmistakably smooth voice of Cusack, one millennials remember from animated musicals like Anastasia, is jarring when paired with a gruff cop's scolding him to "get the fuck out." "All right, I'm going!" you hear Cusack say in his video.

There's not a lot of real-world urgency in Utopia. Sure, the show toys with conspiracy theories behind diseases, a very 2020 framework as fringe conspiracies about Covid-19 threaten to play into the November election. But Utopia never loses sight as a Goonies-like adventure with socially awkward comic book fans. There are no treatises to police brutality and systemic racism. But Cusack's Kevin Christie, who masks a dark purpose behind transparent eyeglass frames and cozy sweaters, is an archetype that isn't too hard to find in the news cycle.

"What he's willing to do, the Sophie's Choices he thinks he has to do to create a sustainable future and the casualties in the way," Cusack says, "those people who feel they can make those choices are chilling. But one thing to know for sure is that the treatment is worse than the disease."

Utopia Season 1 premieres September 25 on Amazon Prime Video.

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