Cusack, Dano split time playing Brian Wilson

In “Love and Mercy,” the new film about the life of music legend Brian Wilson, Paul Dano stars as Wilson during the ’60s.
In “Love and Mercy,” the new film about the life of music legend Brian Wilson, Paul Dano stars as Wilson during the ’60s. Francois Duhamel/Roadside Attractions/Roadside Attractions

There are two Brian Wilsons in “Love & Mercy,” the new biopic about the singer-composer-bass player-producer and creative genius behind the Beach Boys. One is played by Paul Dano, portraying the surfer boy as a wide-eyed young man in the 1960s, brimming with musical ideas, creating magic in recording studios, and dealing with debilitating demons in his head. The other is played by John Cusack, the adult Wilson in the 1980s, then a sad-eyed, drug-addled shell of a man under the controlling influence of psychologist Gene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti.

John Cusack (above, with Elizabeth Banks) stars as Wilson during the ’80s.
John Cusack (above, with Elizabeth Banks) stars as Wilson during the ’80s. Francois Duhamel/Roadside Attractions

A request to speak with Dano and Cusack about their different approaches to playing Wilson at such radically different stages of his life resulted in a no, a yes, and a surprise. Dano couldn’t do it, as he was in Lithuania, tackling the role of Pierre Bezukhov in a new version of “War and Peace.” But Cusack found time to phone in from Chicago, and he had a friend with him, sharing a conference call: Brian Wilson.

Both men have a reputation for being shy during interviews, for giving one- and two-word answers, often followed by silences. But not this time. This time they were practically effusive.


“I was nervous and excitable when I heard they were making the film,” said Wilson. “It was quite a big move for me. I’d never had that kind of trip in my life! And John was great. He and Paul Dano just captured the mood of my life perfectly.”

Asked how, since he bears no resemblance to Wilson, the role came his way, Cusack said, “It wasn’t really an offer. I found out the movie was being made, and I was a huge fan of Brian, so I offered to read for the director. I went in and read, and I guess I was the first at the door. I was lucky to get it.”


Yet he admitted that he briefly had second thoughts about taking on the part of such an iconic person after meeting with Wilson before filming began. The movie opens Friday in the Boston area.

“Sure. I mean the guy whose life you’re playing was sitting right next to me, so you don’t want to screw it up,” he said. “In a way we were trying to honor him by being as truthful and as soulful as his music in every way we could. I think everybody felt it was a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity to make this film, and we’d better get it right. I knew that [director] Bill Pohlad was working with Brian and with Brian’s wife, Melinda (played in the film by Elizabeth Banks). If I thought for a minute that it was something that they didn’t want, I never would have done it.”

Cusack has played real people before. His résumé includes Chicago White Sox infielder Buck Weaver in “Eight Men Out,” Nelson Rockefeller in “Cradle Will Rock,” and Richard Nixon in “The Butler.” But this time was different. Brian Wilson is still with us.

“When you play someone who’s alive,” Cusack explained, “the good news is that you can talk to them and you can ask them: What were you thinking? What were you feeling here? What was it like? And Brian doesn’t [expletive] anybody. He just tells you the truth. He wanted the movie to be factual, and he wanted it to tell all of the good and the bad things that have happened. I think the film captures both the light and the dark aspects of his life.”


Cusack did some homework on his own, first reading the 2006 Wilson biography “Catch a Wave,” then watching as much documentary footage of the Beach Boys as he could find. But he admitted that he didn’t know the full story until he spoke with Wilson, Melinda, and their housekeeper Gloria Ramos.

Wilson opened his California home to Cusack, inviting him over to relax and chat and answer any questions.

“We would get together over sushi and a couple of sakis,” said Wilson. “I just kind of gave John my personality and what comes out of my personality.”

“We went up to his music room,” recalled Cusack. “Brian was looking at me and he said, ‘You seem like you’re a nice person, a sensitive guy.’ He was checking me out.”

“And he passed the test,” said Wilson, chuckling.

But Cusack went beyond just talking with Brian and getting details from Melinda and Gloria. He turned to the music that made up a big chunk of American pop culture in the 1960s.

“There are a lot of languages you can speak,” said Cusack. “I understood that Brian expresses almost everything that’s in him musically. So I went back to the music to try to capture his feelings. I listened a lot to the ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ sessions, and all of the emotion and complexity of Brian was right there in his music.”


When “Love & Mercy” had its first public showing last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, as the end credits rolled, a spotlight picked out Brian Wilson sitting in the audience, and the crowd erupted. But Wilson admitted that he felt emotionally conflicted while watching the film for the first time.

“I don’t know about John or Paul [Dano], but it was rough for me because I could hardly face up to those stupid drugs I took, which I wish I hadn’t taken,” Wilson said of the psychotropics and tranquilizers prescribed to him by Landy. “But it was also kind of healing because Melinda and I fell in love. That was my favorite part of the movie.”

One of Cusack’s favorite parts was the wrap party. More aficionado than musician, he shyly admits that he can strum a guitar — “I can play C, D, G, and E chords, but I can’t get my fingers around an F” — and proudly crows that he can “make a mean mix tape,” like his character Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity.” Yet when Wilson committed to performing at the wrap party, Cusack was flattered to hear him ask, “You’re going to come up and sing, right?”

“I said, ‘Ummm, yeah, sure,’ ” he recalled of that awkward moment. “So Paul and I got up and sang a part in ‘Do It Again.’ I’ll always remember that.”


Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.