John Cusack as a stage director in Bullets Over Broadway that's one fitting bit of casting. In real life, between movie roles, Cusack put on a play called Methusalem and won a 1990 Joseph Jefferson Citation for directing in his native Chicago, a town known for its exacting theater standards. ''So I understand the dynamics of insecure actors,'' says Cusack, ''how to coddle and cajole them.''
His director, Woody Allen, managed to ease Cusack's own insecurity about tackling the lead in Bullets. ''I didn't want to do, you know, Woody Lite an imitation of his rhythms, a bad version of one of his performances,'' Cusack says, ''because it's a role he would've done if he'd been younger. But he said, 'Don't worry, you've got more range than I do.' It wound up being part Woody, part me, and part folks I've worked with.''
At 28, John Cusack has been working with movie folks for 11 years. After his film debut in the smarmy 1983 comedy Class, John tried making himself a class act, for the most part dodging dumb roles offering big money in favor of offbeat pictures, playing sweet, funny teens in Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985) and Cameron Crowe's Say Anything ... (1989). While those movies helped make Cusack's name, they kept his considerable dark side in check. ''Cameron and I used to say he was McCartney and I was Lennon,'' says Cusack, who got to unleash his grittier edge as a con man in 1990's The Grifters.
Shadows and Fog, in 1992, was Cusack's first film with Allen, and the actor is eager to work with the director again. In the meantime, he is about to hit the screen in Alan Parker's The Road to Wellville, to costar with Al Pacino in the crime drama City Hall, to act in Grosse Point Blank (which he cowrote), and to develop another script satirizing what he terms the ''great freak show'' of pro football. Cusack says he hopes that Bullets scores at the box office, so he can start accepting roles in ''interesting'' blockbusters he would love to have been in Interview With the Vampire, for instance (he wasn't asked). ''Most of the piles of money I've avoided I've been glad about,'' he muses, ''but I'm willing to learn to sell out.''