"He's ready for you," says John Cusack's savvy personal publicist, opening the door to a nondescript suite at the Regency Hotel. The place could pass for a physician's waiting room, suggests the visitor.

"Does that make you the patient or does it make me the patient?" responds Cusack, clad in the hip young actor's uniform of jeans, sneakers and a black T-shirt.

"Maybe we're both sick," he says, then cocks his fashionably mussed bed-head, thinks for a minute, then comes up with a diagnosis. "I need attention, I really need a doctor's attention."

You do?

"Yes, I think I do."

What's wrong with you? Did you have an unhappy childhood?

"No, not really. . . . You're pretending to be a Freudian. I think Jungian is so much more interesting, don't you?"

Jungian it is: So are you in touch with your anima?

"I talk to my shadow now and again. Ask for change for a 20, things like that." Cusack, folded into an ocher armchair, shakes a cigarette from a pack and sticks it behind his ear. "Want one?" he asks.

No, thanks.

"Vodka?"

You know cigarettes are bad for you.

"I have no comment since American Spirit cigarettes is one of my sponsors," he kids. "I signed a contract and I can't speak negatively about the tobacco industry. My clothes are all made out of a hemp tobacco mix."

Well, they fit very nicely, considering.

Let's face it. The playful actor, writer and stage director has had it up to his five o'clock shadow with interviews. Besides, he's having way too much fun goofing around. Unlike most celebrities with a new movie to pump, he doesn't steer the conversation to his own: "America's Sweethearts," a blithe romantic comedy also starring Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones. (In fact, he'd seemingly rather talk about anything else.)

Cusack and Zeta-Jones, as the title characters, have split up after years of marriage. Before the breakup they made one last movie together and, despite their misgivings, agree to attend a press junket. Over the course of the story Cusack realizes that he has fallen for Roberts, the formerly fat sister of the vain Zeta-Jones.

After three days of interviews, news conferences and talk show appearances, Cusack, 35, is taking the junketeering in stride. He figures it's part of the job, and he's got no problem with that, except for doing talk shows.

"They want you to be a stand-up comic and tell stories, only pretend like you're not. And you're supposed to be yourself, so you have to perform yourself. That's so foreign to me," he says.

Yes, but you aren't the real you in your movies.

"I am, a little, don't you think?"

Sincere yet cynical, strong but vulnerable.

"I live in the paradox," he explains. "Brooding but innocent, carnivore but vegetarian."

You've also been called a postmodern icon.

"Icon is way too heavy. Maybe if I'm still making films in 20 years. I think I prefer joie de vivre . . . infectious." He pauses, laughs. "That was the dumbest thing I ever said. I'm going to get hammered here, aren't I?"

Only evil people get hammered.

"And I'm not evil. I'm nice."

Not to mention cute as a bug.

Cusack was 7, the son of a filmmaker and a mathematician, when he followed his older sister Joan into Chicago Piven Theatre Workshop. He was still performing with the troupe when he became a pitch-kid for McDonald's as a 13-year-old. Since then, Joan and John have shared the screen nine times, beginning with his debut in the preppy 1983 sex farce "Class." Their filmmaking father, Richard, has also played opposite them, most recently in "High Fidelity."

Not that he does the casting, but does John expect Joan to audition before she can be in one of his movies?

"Yes, I do. I make her provide new head shots and an updated re{acute}sume{acute}. And I make her do a song and dance to something bouncy like 'They Can't Take That Away From Me.'

"I'm not there when it happens," he adds. "What I do is pay somebody to tape it, and then I pay another person to watch the tape and tell me how she did so that I'm four steps removed from auditioning my own sister."

Sounds complicated.

"No, I don't audition my sister. It's more like, 'She's so busy. Can we get her?' "

Cusack is about to launch into another flight of fantasy when a waiter arrives with his lunch: a turkey burger and fries. He leaves the food to cool on the cart.

Hey, you're a star. Don't they feed you on silver platters?

"Actually I'm force-fed like a goose. I never learned how to eat on my own," says Cusack, who gets his own grub, plops the plate on the coffee table and bites into his turkey burger, followed by a french fry dipped in mustard.

"This is my favorite lunch," he says, which reminds him of his midday meals on the set of "Being John Malkovich." There was a monkey in the movie, and he would ask the animal trainer to bring it over at lunchtime.

"I'd just toss him around my trailer. They just love it. They're so happy to play roughhouse. We just hung out. I was the luckiest man in the world. There ought to be a monkey joke in there somewhere."

He downs another fry. "Want anything?"

He leaps up and crosses the room to a table, pulls a decorator lemon from the centerpiece. "How about this?"

No, thanks, but how about a bar of star-suite soap? This reporter collects them.

"I'll get you some star soap. I'm proud to add to your collection," he says gallantly, then exits stage left and returns with a shrink-wrapped cake. "It says, 'Clean.' You can tie that into my work. 'Like the soap I gave you, my acting is clean. It's cleansing the population.' . . . I'm going to get hammered."

Nope.

"Because I'm nice?"

What else?

This interview isn't really working out.

"You bear some responsibility, don't you think?" he says.

You could say something of substance.

"Hmm. What can I say that's worthy of The Washington Post?"

How about slamming a Republican?

"I've done that already. I have an honest difference of opinion with them. I think they're dishonest," says Cusack, whose parents' liberal politics remain an obvious influence on his life.

"'There's no conclusive science on the Kyoto accord.' That means they paid some scientist to say there's no global warming," he rants. "But there is no science that says the missile defense shield can work. We can spend billions on that, but scrimp on education and the environment."

How do you feel about the tax cut?

"My parents did get that $300. They're going to pay off the mortgage, and all the grandchildren will be well looked after."

Do you have kids?

He shakes his head.

None out of wedlock whom you don't claim?

"Yes, my life is rife with scandal. Shocking."

Cusack, whose early teen-oriented movies -- "Say Anything," "The Sure Thing" and "Sixteen Candles" -- still attract young female videophiles, made his breakthrough in 1990's "The Grifters." Though it was a violent tale about a trio of con artists, Cusack found himself in familiar territory. As in previous films, he was torn between two stunning women. In this case, it was his mother (Anjelica Huston) and his lover (Annette Bening).

The pattern repeated itself in "Being John Malkovich," in which Cusack's hapless puppeteer wrestled with the urge to cheat on his ditzy wife (Cameron Diaz) with a glamorous co-worker (Catherine Keener). Though the lovable loser usually ends up with the right woman, this time the women ended up with each other and he was the odd man out.

It's back to business as usual in "America's Sweethearts." Will it be Zeta-Jones's bitchy diva? Or Roberts, her toadying younger sister, now 60 pounds lighter and wearing contacts?

He was a friend to plump Julia in flashbacks, but he didn't see her as a potential soul mate until she lost her fat suit and emerged as a marriageable size 2. Basically it's the "Ugly Duckling" story and poor ammunition for an actor who's just said, "I won't make movies that tell lies about love."

So come on, John. Get real.

"What matters is that he was kind to her all along. . . . Personally I like women who are a little plump rather than too skinny. I don't like heroin chic. I like curves," says Cusack. This may be true, because he has been linked with non-anorexic actresses Minnie Driver and Neve Campbell.

He has also said that he would never make a movie about killing somebody.

"No, I said I wouldn't make a jingoistic movie. I won't make a 'Be All You Can Be' commercial disguised as a movie."

Naturally he did carry a gun as a soldier in 1998's "The Thin Red Line," Terrence Malick's account of the battle for Guadalcanal. "It's considered some of the fiercest and most brutal combat in the history of warfare," says Cusack. "We're up there in period clothing, climbing the hills. Just doing takes, we were hot and exhausted. But we had elbow and knee pads and plenty of cold Evian water. When you think about what the real men did, it's beyond comprehension. You just really tried to use your imagination to honor them."

In "America's Sweethearts," Cusack's character regales the media with outlandish tales. He tells one TV reporter that he's involved in a three-way with his estranged wife and her hunky Latin lover.

If only he had said something like that today.

"Well, I told you I was force-fed like a goose. That's pretty good, right?"

His publicist slips in, gives the sign.

"Time to bail out of the bomb bay doors."

His visitor is about to walk out the door when Cusack notices she's left something behind.

"Hey, don't forget your lemon," he says. "It'll remind you of my early career."John Cusack's nearly 50 film credits include the upcoming "America's Sweethearts," in which he stars with Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones.John Cusack with, clockwise from top left, Anthony Michael Hall and Darren Harris in 1984's "Sixteen Candles"; Minnie Driver in 1997's "Grosse Pointe Blank"; Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts in "America's Sweethearts"; Jill Peterson and his sister Joan in last year's "High Fidelity"; and a couple of real dolls in 1999's offbeat -- and acclaimed -- "Being John Malkovich."