The first time I met Joseph Gordon-Levitt was for a picture called Manic, about a young man in crisis, over his head with anger issues. I still recall the marked intensity of the then nineteen-year-old, clad in skinny corduroys and a CBGB tee, and speaking with conviction about music and art, driving engines in his already accomplished young life.
Several years and a few meetings later, Gordon-Levitt has blossomed into one of Hollywood’s most interesting and versatile leading men—a defiantly offbeat yet emotionally accessible everyman equally adept at charting the courses of a young man diagnosed with cancer (50/50), spurned by unrequited love ((500) Days of Summer), running roughshod as the reckless id (Hesher) and a cop about to fulfill a very big destiny (The Dark Knight Rises).
In Looper, Rian Johnson’s masterful new time travel sci-fi epic, the young star reteams with his Brick director to give us a violent, haunting vision of executioners who travel back in time to erase criminals from the future—until they are forced with the moral quandary of getting rid of themselves.
I caught up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt recently to chat about Johnson’s visionary new movie, what really thrills him about acting and his work with up-and-coming artists through his collaborative venture, HitRecord.
This is the second time you have worked with Rian Johnson. And now you have directed a film, Don Jon’s Addiction. I wonder if he had any thoughts on your first outing behind the camera.
He’s one of my closest friends, and has been since we made Brick together. It wasn’t long after we finished shooting Brick that he started telling me about this time travel idea. We had been in touch and close the whole time, and occasionally talking about what became Looper. But also making other little things together—videos and songs—and going to the movies. We are neighbors and we are real tight. And as far as Don Jon’s Addiction, the very first draft I wanted to show to anybody else, he was the very first. He read it and was my mentor in that way, and very supportive of me going for it.
More than any other young actor today, you navigate between big studio pictures like The Dark Knight Rises and small movies like Hesher. How do you go from a Looper to a 50/50?
They are very different movies. The whole kind of Seth Rogen and Will Reiser style is very real; very improvisatory. A Rian Johnson movie is very different; it is highly controlled and there is no improvising or anything like that, which isn’t to say the he is not open to spontaneity or collaboration—he is—it’s just a very different, obviously a different tone. I don’t think one is better than the other, but they demand different approaches. Both movies I did for Rian required a lot of work in preparation.
Looper deals with looking at future version of oneself. What are your thoughts on that as related to your own career?
I’m lucky to get to keep doing what I am doing, and I hope I get to keep doing it. I have a simple approach to what I try to do—I just keep on working with people that I connect with and material that inspires me. I don’t really pay much attention to anything else. It is sort of intuitive to be honest.
What I do is pretty simple. I just look at the filmmaker and want to have some connection with that person and feel a real collaborative spirit with them and then the material is inspiring and I feel something where I want to be that character. That’s it! It doesn’t happen all that often that those things all line up and get me excited, but when it does, I pay attention. That’s all I pay attention to.
You always register as complex even in mainstream films. Do you look for dark and light in the same character?
You have to have some kind of combo of dark and light to make it feel like a human being. But I also do like playing archetypes. That can be really fun too. Premium Rush is a pretty straightforward action movie and it’s really fun! It was really fun to do, and it inspired me at that time to want to go ride a bike around town all summer and have fun. So I like both. But usually yes, I think you want that nuance and that is what allows it to feel human.
You are also very involved with the artists at your organization, HitRecord.
As far as HitRecord goes, there has been a lot more design and building to that and it’s been going gangbusters recently. I am glad you brought that up. Thank you! It’s a collaborative production company that I run and we use the Internet. Anybody can contribute. We are forming a partnership with Sony to support HitRecord for the rest of the year and we will be able to pay our contributing artists, on all of our moneymaking productions, way more than we ever have before. And that’s really great. The level of artistry that HitRecord has arrived at just astonishes me from what it used to be.
Out of thousands of contributions, we are putting out a record of fifteen songs. The music is great! I can’t believe it. There are all different kinds, from hip-hop to electronic pop music to folk music and everything between. I just love it. It makes me feel great. I am lucky and privileged to get to do what I do and get to do it with a high profile. It always makes me feel good when I can connect with other people who are also really good at what they do, and encourage them and say, ‘Hey, you are doing a good job.”
I’ve heard that you envision a future business model where the middleman does not exist, and the artists just connect with each other.
Yeah, well I think everyone is going to have to come up with business models tailored to their own processes. Everybody is kind of doing it his or her own way. I’m friends with Rainn Wilson, who is doing his whole Soul Pancake thing. He is doing it his way. And I think that is kind of what is going to work, rather than one model coming in and being the new way of doing it. Every artist is going to have to be scrappy; figure it out for themselves. I think that is exciting. It used to cost so much money to make art and get it out there. That is not the case anymore. You can get it out there. You don’t necessarily need the tons of cash to connect with your audience like you used to. That is going to put the power in the hands of the artist, and I think that’s good.
So the idea here is really one of connectivity.
That is the point of all of it, isn’t it? I think we are all connected and there are a lot of forces that isolate us in our culture. We are taught to be dog-eat-dog and competitive and fight for status and things like that. That’s not what it is about and not what is going to make anyone happy. I know plenty of people who are at the top of that heap and who are not happy.
Looper is high-concept but contains some people we really come to care about.
Well that’s what I want out of a movie. I don’t want to go to a movie and feel like I am being marketed to, or some gimmick. I want to connect to the artist involved and feel like they have something to say; something they are offering from their heart. Ryan does that; so does Chris Nolan. Even though he is making the biggest movies there are, that is the genius of him. He manages to make it personal. It’s less about the size. You can do it at the scale that Chris Nolan does, or at the scale that Will Reiser and Seth Rogen did with 50/50 or on the scale that we do at HitRecord—tiny things. But the important thing is, are you offering yourself?
Do you see Joe as a hero or villain? Both? Neither?
He’s not a hero. He’s a bit of a lost soul, especially at the beginning. It’s a bit or a redemption in a way. I like that about Looper—there aren’t really good or bad guys in it. It can be fun, for sure, rooting for heroes and villains in some kinds of movies. But this is more of a drama. In real life there are not, I don’t think, good guys and bad guys. Every person has some shades of gray. That is one of the fascinating things about Looper—you are figuring out whom to root for because everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. Everyone is looking out for what is theirs.
When people fight and this violence happens, everyone thinks that they are fighting for the good cause. So how do you get out of this? Can you solve these violent confrontations or is it just an endless loop? It’s morality tale and a redemption story. On the one hand, it’s a banging action flick that you can have a great time at, and on the other hand it gives you something to think and talk about, and asks a lot of big, human questions. Those are my favorite movies. And I think Rian did a great job in crafting.
You are playing the same character here as Bruce Willis. What were your thoughts on “synching up” with him?
I didn’t think an impersonation would really serve the story, and I am not really good at impersonations anyway. I wanted to just make a character that felt like him. I watched mostly recent movies actually. I was less concerned with making a young Bruce Willis and more concerned with making a character that would match to his character.
It must have been daunting at times.
Of course. There is always that. Every job has nights when you are like, ‘I am going to blow this. I don’t know what I am doing. Or I did blow it already. Shit!’ But I did watch (Willis’ work). Sin City was one I watched a lot. I love that movie, and it has a kind of noir-ish theme to it; a lot of voice over in it. I would rip the audio off his movies and put it on the iPod so I could listen to it. And he did, in fact, record himself doing some of my voice over monologues so I could hear what he would sound like. I think the most important thing was hanging out with him and spending time having dinner and letting it seep in.
If you could actually travel through time, where would you go?
I’d want to go to the future. I would want to see what it’s like. I like to try to remain an optimist even though things can look dire.
Movies always tell us that the future is bleak.
And they ought to! They serve as good warnings maybe. Not every movie has a dire future. The Matrix has a really optimistic heart, I think. But I would want to go the future. I think it’s going to be miraculous.