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, 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

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.

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