John Cusack was at a recent 30th anniversary screening of Say Anything when a fan stood up to make a comment.
"My wife divorced me because I wasn't you," the fan said.
"And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"The audience just went nuts laughing," Cusack recalled by phone recently. "I was like, 'Man, I don't know what you do for a living, but I hope you become a standup comic, because that was the funniest thing I've ever heard.' "
Funny, yes, but also laced with truth — kind of like Say Anything, the film that turned a 22-year-old Cusack into a new kind of leading man.
As Lloyd Dobler, the kickboxing, Clash-loving, boom box-hoisting optimist with a heart of gold, Cusack put an alternative, youthful and progressive spin on an old Hollywood archetype: Women want him, men want to be him. And it cemented, in the minds of many, the idea that Cusack, the actor, was just as loyal and lovable as Lloyd.
Thirty years later, a lot of fans still see Cusack, 53, that way. Which is why he's touring the country for a series of Say Anything screenings and Q&As, including one that hits Tampa's David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday.
As movie stars go, Cusack has a reputation as a reserved and private guy, except on Twitter, where he's happy to let his political opinions fly. He recently apologized for retweeting an anti-Semitic meme, which he said was a mistake.
But he has found these Say Anything screenings — as well as a few he has done for High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank — to be a fun way to reflect on his most beloved films.
"Usually, when you're in the industry bubble, people are passive-aggressive," he said. " 'We love you' usually means 'we need something from you' or 'we don't really like you.' It can be a nasty business. So when you get to see people who are way into the films, the fans, there's just a genuineness about it that's kind of humbling and really nice for me.
"It just makes you feel like, Oh, that's why we made it. I'm so happy that people still have an emotional reaction to the movie, and still feel like it inspires them or helps them get through the day."
Say Anything was the directorial debut of future Oscar winner Cameron Crowe, who fought hard for Cusack — then best known for high school roles like Better Off Dead — in the lead. Cusack initially resisted, but eventually got deeply invested in rewriting the character of Lloyd, a directionless dreamer smitten with Ione Skye's valedictorian princess Diane Court.
"He's wearing a Clash T-shirt or a Fishbone shirt — that was the stuff I was into," he said. "I put a lot of myself into that piece, because I thought it needed it. Some of the aspects of the character certainly remind me of (me)."
That personal touch is part of why the divisions between Cusack and Lloyd have always been hard to pin down. Since Cusack is a relatively private guy, why shouldn't fans believe he's exactly like Lloyd Dobler, the character into whom he poured so much of himself?
Cusack doesn't disagree with that theory.
"Part of what you're always trying to do, always, is blur the difference between yourself and whoever you're playing, even if it's somebody that is far removed from you," he said.
"If you look at Al Pacino, he's not Scarface, but you can see some of his personality coming through the character. You can see his wit, his energy. You can see Pacino, but of course, he's not a Cuban mobster who kills people, right? So it's a paradox, a little bit. They see some of your qualities through a character, but the character is separate from you. But they reflect on each other in some way. So I think it's fair."
While Say Anything "wasn't a huge monster hit," he said, it did earn praise from critics, both upon its release and over time. In 2002, Entertainment Weekly named it the greatest movie romance of modern times. And its most iconic and oft-parodied scene — Lloyd hoisting a boom box playing Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes to try and win Diane back — was basically a meme before memes were a thing.
Cusack chuckles at the idea of the boom box scene as his cinematic legacy, the one the Oscars might someday run for his In Memoriam clip. But he knew early on it would have a long tail.
"Once you saw how it played in front of a crowd a few times, yeah, I think you had a sense that it was going to be something people remembered," he said.
Say Anything is one of the few films for which Cusack has ever won an award: Most Promising Actor from his hometown Chicago Film Critics Association. Never nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globe, he still gravitates toward offbeat projects that speak to him like Lloyd once did — Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy. He'll soon star in his first TV series, Utopia, an Amazon drama adapted by Gillian Flynn.
If none of these resonate over time like the movie where he holds up a boom box, he knows he can't complain too much. He still gets moved when he hears stories about how Lloyd's courtship of Diane "made people reach to some level of their higher self with a relationship," he said. "A lot of people, it seemed to affect or inspire them to have a really good relationship with their spouse or their partners. And that's a nice thing."
And when each screening is over, he has a little better sense of why fans love Lloyd — why they love him as Lloyd — and why after some 80 films, Say Anything remains one of the ones that says the most about him.
"I'm not dumb enough to have a problem with people loving something that I put all of my heart and soul into when I was 22 years old," he said. "I'm smart enough to be grateful for that."
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.
If you go
Say Anything with John Cusack
$53.50 and up. The film screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, followed by a moderated Q&A with John Cusack. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.