LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For two decades, John Cusack has been among the busiest and most versatile of U.S. actors, but Hollywood generally has overlooked him in awards season. That may be about to change with his new film "Grace is Gone."
The ultra-low budget, $2-million movie debuts in major U.S. cities on Friday and around the United States in weeks to come as Hollywood moves toward the Oscars in February.
"Grace is Gone" earned strong reviews at 2007's Sundance Film Festival mainly for Cusack's role as a middle-class father of two girls whose soldier wife is killed in Iraq. USA Today critic Claudia Puig calls his work "brilliantly understated."
The actor, who also produced the movie, told Reuters the praise and attention are great but not for him as much as the movie. He added that the buzz should help lure audiences and hopefully spark talk of the Iraq war's impact in U.S. homes.
"It's nice, especially when you put so much effort into it," he said. "It feels like it will get a wide release and that's one thing you do it for."
Cusack gained recognition in the mid-1980s in small roles in films like the teen comedy "Sixteen Candles."
Stardom came from director Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything" and "The Grifters," a tale of con artists. By the late 1990s, Cusack was working in big-budget Hollywood thrillers such as "Con Air."
But the actor, who hails from the Chicago area and whose sister is actress Joan Cusack, stayed outside Hollywood's mainstream, taking mostly unconventional and offbeat roles.
In 2000, Cusack starred-in "High Fidelity," about a record store owner in his 30s forced to grow up and into adulthood. It is the only role that earned him a major award nomination -- a Golden Globe nod for best actor in a comedy. He lost to George Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Now in his 40s, Cusack finds himself putting on the world-weary face of Stanley Phillips, a family man and manager at a retail home store who must tell his young daughters their mother will not becoming home from Iraq.
Cusack calls it one of his hardest roles because Phillips is overcome by grief and under huge stress. He withdraws emotionally but appears outwardly calm and under control as he takes his daughters to a theme park before breaking the news.
"If it's a role that sort of scares you, then it excites you, too," Cusack said. "This scares me in a healthy way. I don't feel like I can just roll out of bed and do good work."
Cusack calls "Grace is Gone" an anti-war film but says it transcends that description because the death is a catalyst for events in the story. At its core, the movie explores grief, loss and, ultimately, personal redemption.
As battles in Iraq dominate headlines, movie audiences seem to have looked for an escape and, for the most part, avoided war movies. Cusack said the box office tally is less important to him than the movie's impact on audiences who see it.
"There's a million reasons why something does or does not work on an opening weekend. That's not a harbinger of a worthy piece of art," Cusack said. "If you thought like the studios ... all you'd do is romantic comedies and car chase movies."
"Grace is Gone" also was important to the actor due to his work as producer, which is often a title given to actors to lure them to roles when they do not work beyond acting.
Cusack said he does not do such "vanity deals" and that he helped raise money, cast other roles, get Clint Eastwood to write the score and create a good working environment on set.
"Part of it was self-preservation," he said. "If you're going to give a performance that is this raw, you need concentration and I think I knew how to set it up so we all could excel."
Editing by Jill Serjeant and John O'Callaghan