For more than three decades, Joan Cusack has been making audiences howl with laughter, whether it’s on Saturday Night Live, as Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl in the Toy Story films or as Cyn, an Aqua Net-addicted secretary in Working Girl. Now a 48-year-old wife and mother, Cusack spends most of her time away from Hollywood in the kind of quiet Chicago suburb that inspired John Hughes (who cast Cusack in one of her first films, Sixteen Candles), but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped working. In her latest film, the animated Mars Needs Moms, the two-time Oscar nominee plays a mother chock full of child-rearing knowledge who is stolen from Earth so her wisdom can be siphoned off and imparted to robot nannies
Unlike the traditional voice-over procedure used in the Toy Story films, Mars Needs Moms employed a motion-capture process producer Robert Zemekis used before with The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. Cusack compares the Avatar-esque process of motion-capture to “going back to childhood. [You’re] just playing, and you get to imagine again, which is fun,” she says.
Growing up surrounded by actors, including her father, Richard, and four thespian siblings including, most notably, John, young Joan doesn’t remember reading classic tales so much as bringing them to life. “I remember my dad reading me Roald Dahl books [as a kid],” she said. “I loved those. We were in a little theatre company as kids and we acted a lot of fairy tales and fables. I learned them that way.”
When cultivating her performance in Mars Needs Moms, Cusack looked to her own mother, Nancy, a former math teacher and political activist, for inspiration. “My mom is somebody who is very passionate,” she says. “Just having seen that passion in my mom is something that I’m grateful for because it’s something I want my children to have, too, the experience of feeling passionate about something, whatever it is. I’m grateful that as a mom I get to be able to do something that I love to do and have work that’s meaningful to me so that itch is scratched as a human, and then you can really take the time to figure out how to be a good mom to your kids, because it takes a lot of energy to be a parent and to be a good parent.”
As an actor and mother, you have to wonder if one role ever takes a back seat to the other or if there’s ever a time when Cusack is not consumed by being a mom. “Hmm,” she mused. “Wow. No, not anymore. Some of my most Oscar-worthy performances were done with my children. It’s much more complex.”