Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Hollywood's Boy Wonder Grows Up

Movies Features Joseph Gordon-Levitt
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On a cloudy Monday morning in L.A.’s Silver Lake district, Joseph Gordon-Levitt points to the small red record button on the digital recorder that’s sitting on the table between us at Lamill Coffee Boutique.

“You have it on your thing,” he says.

“Record, pause,” I read aloud.

We’ve been talking about hitRECord.org, the collaborative online production company and website he started in 2005. Anyone can join; users upload their work—drawings, animation, mp3s, scripts, whatever they choose—and then remix and rework each other’s pieces. The site is now home to over 9,000 users and more than 40,000 contributions, and, under its Creative Commons-influenced model, is starting to produce money-making short films, a few of which were screened at Sundance and SXSW this year.

“Even before it was a website, ‘hit record’ was a little personal mantra, I guess, or something I would say to myself,” he says, grasping for the right words to describe the concept. “It’s something… When you start rolling, when you start recording, that harbors… it’s sort of a magic power for me, just, ever since I was young, working as an actor, when they start rolling, it’s… there’s a certain thing that turns over and then you’re allowed… you can do anything. You can do… You’re allowed to… be what you want to be, in that moment… and do anything and you’re absolutely not allowed to hesitate.”

The 29-year-old actor communicates with his entire face. He lifts and draws his eyebrows together, creases his forehead, angles his head, tilts it back, smiles, laughs, frowns, glances down, looks out the window. It’s like watching light and shadow shift over an uneven surface—nothing ever stays put. Yet he comports his lean frame with disciplined stillness, back always straight, composed.

He’s painstakingly polite, asking if I’m too cold when we’re seated outside, picking up my silverware when we move inside, moving the recorder closer to him so I can hear it better later. Our conversation is punctuated every few minutes by his clearly articulated “Thank you” every time the waitress comes to our table. He may shake off any trace of hesitation on camera, but he hesitates often during our conversation. He pauses nearly as much as he speaks, rewords statements, stops mid-sentence, starts over. It’s hard to tell if this is pure deliberation—a rigorous mind outracing his words—or media-trained evasion, the product of being on-the-record since he got an agent at age six.

Lamill is a coffee shop/restaurant that sells $10 cups of personalized java on Silver Lake Boulevard. Here, the district’s namesake street passes under Sunset and winds into the hills. It’s an odd area, neither Hollywood glitz nor Sunset gaudiness but a mix of both; men push shopping carts trailing garbage bags full of empty beer bottles. Old bedsprings, broken doors and trash cans pile up against the overpass. Up the street, the blue and peach and tan stucco houses become less run-down and paint-chipped, some held up by turquoise columns with yards full of groomed pink azaleas and red geraniums. Lamill—its bright-red inner sanctum outfitted with green faux-snakeskin chairs, a huge brass chandelier, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and black and white Grecian murals—is across the street from the fake-marble Domenico Ristorante and a 7-11.

I ask Gordon-Levitt if he comes here often.

“It’s good for this sort of thing,” he says.

“Do you live around here?”

He pauses, and nods.

In his most recent film Inception, a psychological thriller about dreams, he plays Arthur, a meticulous business associate of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb. Along with Ellen Page’s Ariadne, the characters embark on an elaborate heist through the ever-shifting and oft-terrifying terrain of the human mind. It’s the latest disorienting drama from director Christopher Nolan, whose work (including Memento and The Dark Knight) is known for subverting blockbuster convention.

“Yeah, I mean, the thing is…” Gordon-Levitt begins, and pauses. “Let’s be honest, I think a lot of movies are sort of… Especially, especially big Hollywood action movies, there’s not a lot of love put into them. They’re sort of…”

“The Michael Bay effect,” I cut in.

He smiles and his eyelids flick slightly downward at my recorder.

“Yeah, I mean, I didn’t say that. You said that.”

I laugh uncomfortably, and then he pauses and says: “I just don’t like to say bad things about particular people just because it doesn’t, like…” Pause. “It’s not a practice worth
perpetuating.”

In the pipeline after Inception is Hesher, the Spencer Susser-directed, Sundance-screened film to be released in January 2011. Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, a long-haired homeless man. “I did Inception right after Hesher, like, with almost no break in between,” he says. “The characters just couldn’t be more different… [I]t’s that kind of contrast that makes anything interesting.”

Gordon-Levitt has never played the same role twice, moving from an alien trapped in a middle-schooler’s body (1990s NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun) to a teenage mental-institute patient (2001’s Manic), a gay prostitute (2004’s Mysterious Skin), a janitor-turned-bank-robber suffering from memory loss (2007’s The Lookout), a sadistic mafia-wannabe (2008’s Killshot) and a lovelorn greeting-card writer (2009’s 500 Days of Summer). He chooses varied roles partly because they’ve come with really good scripts. But the diversity of his characters is also intentional, emerging from his deep fascination with every facet of the human condition. “When you’re an actor you have to really have compassion for everybody,” he says. “I’ve played some characters that are so different from me, that, in certain ways, like, do horrible things but, when I play them, if… if I were to play them from the mentality of, like, ‘This is a terrible person,’ it wouldn’t be authentic, because no one thinks they’re a terrible person.”

This is what distinguishes Joseph Gordon-Levitt from scores of young Hollywood actors—he takes his craft so seriously that it’s almost a sacred duty, a space set up by the ritualistic pressing of the Record button. Watching him, you are not merely watching an actor, you’re watching a performance that will probably change you in some way, that will give you a fresh understanding and empathy for characters wholly different from yourself.

At the breakfast table, as we’re talking about hitRECord, he’s wearing a bright-red, circular pin on the left side of his dark-red flannel shirt. I ask if it’s a Record button. “Yeah,” he says self-consciously, and his face stretches into a half-smile.

RECORD.

In Mysterious Skin, Gordon-Levitt plays Neil McCormick, an 18-year-old gay prostitute damaged by childhood sexual abuse. In one scene, he and Michelle Trachtenberg’s character, Wendy, wander into an abandoned drive-in theatre lot. He shows her the bruises he got the last time he had sex. The two kids stare up at the dark, blank screen.

“I wish there was a movie showin’ right now,” he says, his voice bending into a Kansas twang.

“Me too,” she says. “A film about our lives—everything that’s happened so far. And the last scene would just be us standing right here, just you and me.”

“Yeah.”

She reaches down and picks up an old car speaker and holds it to her ear. They look devastatingly young, as the camera angles up their faces—hers framed by pigtails and a second-hand fur-lined coat, his by a wool hat and his shaggy hair.

“I hear somethin’,” she says, closing her eyes. As she opens them it begins to snow. “It’s the voice of God.”

His face twitches from amusement to disbelief, and back. They both look around at the drifting flakes,
as sirens begin to whine off in the distance.

Cautiously, almost reverently, he takes the speaker from her.

“I hear him,” he says matter-of-factly, looking up. “I hear him.”

PAUSE.

Gordon-Levitt was born in 1981 and grew up in a Jewish—but not strictly religious—family in the San Fernando Valley. His parents were peace activists, both reporters for Los Angeles radio station KPFK, and his mom ran for Congress in California in 1970 as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party. When Gordon-Levitt was six years old, he played the Scarecrow in his school’s production of The Wizard of Oz and afterwards was approached by an agent. He went on to have roles in Beethoven, A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield. At 13, he got his breakthrough role on 3rd Rock as Tommy, the oldest and smartest of four aliens disguised as people living on Earth. It was his job to report on the goings-on of puberty with one-liners like “We come from very different backgrounds. I’m an alien, and she’s a Presbyterian.”

At age 19, after playing Cameron James in the Taming of the Shrew teen-flick adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You, Gordon-Levitt left L.A. for for New York’s Columbia University. There, he began acting in off-Broadway plays and roomed with Jared Geller, now his hitRECord production partner. When I talk to Geller a few days after meeting Gordon-Levitt, he brings up the Broadway show the two co-produced with three others, Slava’s Snowshow. “I’m sure you don’t know,” Geller says of his friend and collaborator, “that he’s also, adding to the list of talents, a clown.” Literally.

Geller tells me that, a few years ago, Gordon-Levitt went to Russia to meet Slava Polunin, one of the world’s most highly revered clowns. “These artists, they speak Russian. ... They don’t speak English very well and the way they communicate is very physical,” Geller says. “... I think [he was drawn] to that different way of communicating.”

I mention Gordon-Levitt’s seeming hesitation—all those pauses and deliberations—while speaking with me. “Yes, he’s very deliberate,” Geller says. “He’s so specific and particular about everything, from how he wants to present an idea about anything. It could be about what direction he wants a certain project to go or what restaurant we should go to.”

“Our mother is quite a linguaphile,” explains Joseph’s recently deceased brother Dan Gordon-Levitt, a professional fire-dancer, who passed away just last week. “Joe grew up in a recording environment. In part it comes from being on the record and consciously paying attention to what you say and do because it’s being recorded, but we both were particular about our language before that.”

That trait factors in especially when Gordon-Levitt is choosing his roles. He reads “a lot” of scripts before deciding on a project, and consistently selects films he believes in. With a few exceptions—like the poorly-recieved Shadowboxer (2005) and 2008’s Stop-Loss—that fastidiousness has paid off. HitRECord also reaps the benefits of this attention to detail. When Gordon-Levitt started the website in 2005, it was simply a place for members to upload videos and remix each other’s work. He eventually turned it into a full-fledged production company, where he could gather finished products to take to his industry contacts and turn into profitable films.

In 2008, after discussion with Creative Commons and rigorous study of financially-viable crowdsourcing sites like Threadless and Worth1000, he and Geller developed the “hitRECord Accord,” a set of rules that every hitRECord member must agree to—essentially, that they will claim exclusive rights only to their own, unedited work. Once a “Record” has been collaborated on, it belongs to the community and can be made into a film. Gordon-Levitt acts as judge to this jury, going on the site at least once a week to browse through the projects, point members to the ones he likes via short video clips and make constructive suggestions.

If a film is screened and picks up a sponsor or distribution deal, as happened with Sundance short Morgan M. Morgansen’s Date with Destiny, 50 percent of the funds go to hitRECord and 50 percent go to all of the project’s collaborators. The Sundance films, which also included a short called Nebulullaby, earned roughly $10,000 in sponsorship money from hardware-producer G-Technology to be divided up between 147 collaborators. Gordon-Levitt told me over brunch that had more than 100 contributors’ checks to sign.

It’s an intriguing combination of so-called high and low filmmaking, old and new media, and nowhere is it better exhibited than in Academy Award-nominated documentarian Roko Belic’s new film on dreams, which will appear on the Inception DVD. It’s a collection of interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt and Christopher Nolan about the film and academics on the subject of dreaming. Belic, who sourced contributors from hitRECord, describes the site as “the perfect solution to the challenge of making a visually engaging documentary on a tight deadline,” and gathered animations from community members and interspersed them among the interviews; one Record he used shows a writhing, sleeping body falling through a black void, tossing and turning to a haunting, ambient drone.

RECORD.

In the mind-melting Inception, Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur is no dreamer—he wears starched suits, slicks back his hair and speaks in clipped noun-verb combinations. He’s chided for having “no imagination,” and yet his business is imagination itself.

Together with dream-heisting partners in crime, Arthur must plant a thought in the mind of a business scion. Arthur’s role is ambassador to the unconscious mindscape for Ellen Page’s Ariadne. He trains her on how time flows in the dream universe, and how to bend the subconscious landscape into a series of infinite loops, moving staircases until they resemble an M.C. Escher painting.

In an imagined hotel deep inside his own dream, Arthur sprints into a hallway and is attacked by a security guard. The two fight and tumble to the ground until an earth-shattering explosion hits, gravity shifts and they’re fighting on the wall—then the ceiling. Arthur kills the guard, but other assailants arrive and they scramble over every surface in the hall, as though circling a revolving corridor. Finally Arthur leads his last opponent to a stairwell, backing him against the steps. The guard screams and falls into blackness, and Arthur whispers “paradox.”

PAUSE.

As we’re talking and finishing up our meal at Lamill, Gordon-Levitt slowly and absent-mindedly presses his thumb against the vinyl table again and again, picking up the crumbs from his bread.

He’s telling me about The Secret of Kells, the Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey-directed animated film about the ancient Celtic illuminated-Gospel manuscript Book of Kells, nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards.

“I’m a sucker for kind of ancient magical stuff,” he says.

When I ask him why, he pauses and thinks for a few seconds, then replies, “Our culture nowadays is very ‘This is the world, this is the truth, science proves it. This is who you are, this is where you fit in. It’s not gonna change, it’s how it is, it’s that way for a reason,’ and, you know…” He pauses. “The notion of magic just kind of goes, ‘Nope, this actually can be anything.’ And to be honest, I think there’s a truth to it.”

He mentions a video he saw of Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, where the comics genius discusses how terms like “the art” or “the craft” of acting come from the idea that actors can create anything out of thin air, like casting a spell.

Gordon-Levitt says the limits of that on/off Record button are like magic words to him, allowing him to go somewhere else, become someone else. “It is sort of like casting a spell, actually, when [directors] say ‘Rolling, Speed, Marker, Action,’ it’s sort of an incantation. I mean, we don’t talk about it that way. I guess I’m talking to you about it that way and maybe it’ll sound really corny to people if they read me saying this, but that’s how I like to treat it, that those limits that we like to place on ourselves kind of go away.”

RECORD.

In a video he made for hitRECord in late 2006, Gordon-Levitt steps up to a pulpit made of a TV projecting an infinite loop of the screen you’re watching. His face is painted white, black circles surround his eyes and his mouth is painted black. A soft keyboard melody drones on and he unfolds a piece of paper.

“Tradition!” Gordon-Levitt shouts in a deeply exaggerated and overly annunciated voice. “Repetition! Rhythm! Scales and chords! And history! And pre-history. Patterns going back up and into the snail-shell where God’s heart has always will beats. There’s something.” He pauses and looks up. “Something’s there. A pattern. A prayer. Patterns and prayers, patterns and prayers, patterns and prayers. But what is the difference between a pattern and police? A prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance? Never push outside a pattern and the pattern’s path no longer propels but swells up and weighs down. Some weight is good for a sturdy stance. Too much weight and sturdy gets swollen. Statues do not stand, they are stood. They are stiff. They stay. They say no prayers. People on patterns and prayers, and patterns, and prayers, and people, and prayers. We are the prayer-sayers, repeating rhythms, tracing traditions, stealing scales, and cutting chords, and making history of pre-historic patterns coming back, up and out of our shells from our hearts whose every beat is a prayer. There’s something I love.”

His voice rises up to what sounds like a sob and then cracks.

“I swear something’s there. A pattern. A prayer. Patterns, prayers. Patterns and prayers.”

He looks off to his right, tears up the paper and walks off screen.

STOP.

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