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

Movies Features Joseph Gordon-Levitt
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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.”


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.”


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.


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