A Conversation with Joan Cusack

Evanston native and Chicago resident Joan Cusack is not only a prolific and often hilarious actress, but also a mother of two who is always giving back.

Cusack has acted in movies and TV shows for more than 30 years. Daughter of actor and filmmaker Richard Cusack, she trained at Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop, with Jeremy Piven and her siblings—including her young brother, John Cusack, with whom she’s appeared in numerous films. She made her movie debut as a teenager, playing roles in the teen comedies “My Bodyguard” and “Sixteen Candles,” and joined Saturday Night Live for a single season in 1985.

She earned Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith and “In & Out” with Kevin Kline. She has recently lent her voice to characters in “Mars Needs Moms,” and the second and third “Toy Story” movies, and she’s currently working on the Showtime series “Shameless,” about a single father—played by William H. Macy—raising his 6 children.

At Piven’s 40th Anniversary Gala this summer, Make It Better’s Arts & Entertainment editor caught up with Joan about where she’s been and what her life is like now.

Other than “Shameless,” what are you working on now?

I have two boys, who are 14 and 11, so I’m working on summer schedules! And I’m opening up a little store on State and Division, that’s all about how to have fun with your home, in a creative way. It’s kind of an art gallery, but it’s more whimsical. Now that I have kids, I really value having a home that’s comfortable and inspiring.

What was it like growing up acting at the Piven Theatre Workshop?

It’s a big, big part of my life. In the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about how fortune is linked to serendipity, and I think if my older sister, Ann, hadn’t been at a bus stop one day and met Joyce, I would never have gotten into theater or acting at all, because I was kind of a shy kid.

And it wasn’t about being a celebrity or being famous; it was about deeply held beliefs by the Pivens about the value of the arts and the creative process and the humanizing element of the arts. The North Shore is so lucky to have them. Piven really is about finding a voice, and everyone can use that in their life. You can’t make a difference if you can’t have a voice.

Since you have siblings who are also actors, were you all competitive growing up?
That’s the great thing about the Pivens. It wasn’t about that. There’s competition in every family, it’s part of life. There’s competition that’s good—that encourages you to be the best you can be, with an understanding that just because you win doesn’t mean I lose—and then there’s competition that’s out of control. John and I were never up for the same parts, and everybody kind of had their own thing. My parents did a good job of recognizing everyone’s uniqueness.

What made you decide to settle in Chicago and raise your family here?

I love Chicago. It’s such an incredible city. Whenever I’d go to L.A., I’d sort of get depressed. Everyone was thinner and more popular—it’s like the worst high school experience.

I always hear about you attending benefits and other charity events around Chicago. What organizations have you been involved with recently?

My dad died of pancreatic cancer, so I’ve done a lot of work with the Rolf Research Foundation.

You’ve played a lot of quirky characters over the years, like the unhinged secretary in “Grosse Point Blank” and the bride who gets left at the altar in “In & Out.” Are you quirky?
Do I seem quirky?

Actually, not as much as I would expect.
I think you got it right! I know how to play and feel free and be silly, and that’s a big part of the humor that I grew up with in my family. I hope I’m not just quirky. Although, quirky is fine, different is fine—it’s all fine.