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

Movies Features Joseph Gordon-Levitt
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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.”


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.”


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.

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