''I don't watch a lot of my movies,'' John Cusack admits. ''Sometimes, if it's on cable, I'll stop for a minute until I feel uncomfortable. Then I'll change it.''
The 36-year-old actor must do a lot of flipping. Ever since he made his big-screen debut at 17 playing a precocious preppy in the crass flick ''Class,'' the Chicago native has become one of the most appealing, not to mention employable, actors of his generation, amassing more than 40 movie credits in just two decades. And though there are a handful of titles that would make anyone reach for the remote (such misfires as 1987's ''Hot Pursuit'' and 1993's ''Money for Nothing''), Cusack has built a varied career in both comedy and drama; he's certainly one of the few actors who can claim to have worked with both Al Pacino and Curtis ''Booger'' Armstrong.
This year, Cusack will again balance smaller, indie-minded pictures with big-budget fare: After the thriller ''Identity'' (due in April), he'll costar with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman in an adaptation of John Grisham's ''The Runaway Jury.'' But for all the steady work, he still had to fight hard to get ''Max'' (now in limited release) to the screen. The actor vowed not to take another role until financing came through for the controversial drama, in which he plays a Jewish art dealer and war veteran who befriends and mentors a young Adolf Hitler.
Sitting at a downtown Manhattan eatery, he stabs and jabs a toothpick in the air, animatedly discussing the film's social and political implications. ''People have been really curious about it or in awe of it,'' he says. ''And some people just really don't want to deal with it.... But I think 'Max' is a film that, regardless of what happens now, people are going to remember in 5 or 10 years.''
THE SURE THING (1985) After small roles in ''Class'' and 1984's ''Sixteen Candles,'' Cusack caught the attention of Rob Reiner, who cast him as a sex-seeking college freshman on a road trip with Daphne Zuniga's uptight coed. ''I don't remember how comfortable I was, but I remember being excited.... I had a very frenetic energy, and [Daphne] had a more reserved energy, so I think the contrast was what made it interesting on screen. The great thing about Rob was that he was an actor. So he knew exactly what actors need -- they need momentum, they need to concentrate, they need to feel safe. He zealously guards actors. So as a 17-year-old kid, I was like, 'Oh wow, this is how it's going to be on all movies.' Rob ruined me for other directors.''
BETTER OFF DEAD (1985) The first of two collaborations with director Savage Steve Holland (they followed it up with 1986's ''One Crazy Summer''), the partially animated comedy finds Cusack as a love-struck high school misfit, forever taunted by a catchphrase-coining newspaper-delivery boy (''I want my two dollars!''). ''The director was trying to do absurdism, and that was really attractive to me. It was this surreal teen comedy, and I thought, 'Wow, when am I going to get a chance to do this again?' People still really like that film, but I never had much of a feel for it. I haven't really seen it or thought about [the movie] for a long time.''
EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) Cusack hit the playing field in John Sayles' drama about the infamous Chicago Black Sox scandal, when team members were bribed to throw the World Series. ''I'm a big baseball fan. I still play a lot.... [Shooting] that was like a childhood dream. I remember going to the old Comiskey [Park] and standing on the same dirt from 1919, the same place where Babe Ruth stood. I was taking ground balls and doing batting practice, thinking 'This is the greatest. I'm totally the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth.'''