Joseph Gordon-Levitt Interview
Joseph Leonard Gordon-Levitt (born February 17, 1981) is an American actor. He began as a child actor, becoming known for his role on the series 3rd Rock from the Sun, and subsequently developing into adult roles, having strongly concentrated on independent films (including “Brick” and “The Lookout”) and receiving positive reviews for his performances. Jam! Showbiz has noted that Gordon-Levitt has “defied the cliched fates that befall most underage actors when they grow up”, while The New York Times has described him as “one of the hottest young stars in the indie firmament”.
Gordon-Levitt, the younger of two sons, was born in Los Angeles, California. He is Jewish. His father, Dennis Levitt, was once the news director for the “politically progressive” radio station KPFK-FM. His mother, Jane Gordon (daughter of director and actor Michael Gordon, ran for Congress in California during the 1970s for the Peace and Freedom Party and met Dennis Levitt while she was working as the program guide for KPFK-FM.Gordon-Levitt has said that his father was involved in anarchism as a youth and that his mother’s family are “academic” types, while his father’s “are not”. His parents are also two of the founders of the Progressive Jewish Alliance of California.
Gordon-Levitt began taking theater classes at the age of four, and played the scarecrow in a production of The Wizard of Oz. He was subsequently approached by an agent and began appearing in commercials for Sunny Jim peanut butter, Cocoa Puffs, Pop-Tarts, and Kinney Shoes.
Gordon-Levitt began his acting career at the age of six, appearing in several late 1980s made-for-television films and two episodes of the series Family Ties. After having a lead role on the short-lived 1991 remake of Dark Shadows, a prime time soap opera, he made his feature-film debut with a background role in 1992’s Beethoven. Later that same year, he played a young version of Craig Sheffer’s character in A River Runs Through It. At the age of twelve, Gordon-Levitt took the lead role of Gregory in the film Switching Parents, which was based on the true story of Gregory Kingsley, a boy who won the right to legally divorce his parents. In 1994, he played a Hutterite boy in the comedy, Holy Matrimony, and appeared in the lead role of the successful Disney film, Angels in the Outfield. In 1996, he began playing Tommy Solomon on the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, a role which made him well known.
The San Francisco Chronicle noted the irony that Gordon-Levitt was a “Jewish kid playing an extraterrestrial pretending to be a Jewish kid”. During the late 1990s, he also appeared in several films, including The Juror (1996), as Demi Moore’s character’s son, the horror film Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, as a pre-credit victim, and the Shakespeare-based teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, in which he had a leading role. He was also a guest star in the first season of That ’70s Show, appearing in the episode “Eric’s Buddy” as a gay schoolmate of Eric Forman’s, and performed the voice of the main character Jim Hawkins in the Disney animated feature, Treasure Planet (2002).
During the 1990s, he was frequently featured in teenage magazines, something he resented. He has also said that during this time period, he did not enjoy being recognized in public, specifying that he “hates celebrity”. Gordon-Levitt left 3rd Rock from the Sun during its final season, asking to be released from his contract. For the two years following, he quit acting and attended Columbia University (the only university he had applied to) taking French poetry, history and literature.He has said that moving to New York City from his hometown “forced” him to grow as a person. Gordon-Levitt dropped out of the university in 2004 to concentrate on acting again.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt recently sat down at a hotel in Beverly Hills with Wild About Movies to discuss his latest big screen role. The movie is “The Lookout.”
Wild About Movies : How much research did you do into conditions like short term memory loss?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well, I did a fair amount of research. I did some reading. My favorite book I read was called ‘The Man With the Shattered World’ which was about a veteran coming back from World War II. The guy in that book suffered an injury far more severe than Chris Pratt’s. But, the more fruitful preparation I did was just hanging out with different people who had been through similar things to the character. They were all different. What I kind of figured out was they all were individuals and trying to put any of them in a box or a category was about as fruitless as trying to put anybody in any box or category based on any label that you can put anyone under. That led me to really want to make the character not just a stereotype. Not, ‘okay, here’s the disabled young man’ but to make him a person.
WAM: How much are you like this guy in real life?
JGL: Plenty. I get lost all the time. My sense of direction sucks. I remember time real well. I think everybody’s mind works really differently. I remember time real well and remember space pretty poorly.
WAM: What did you like about the character? What appealed to you about him?
JGL: What I like is that he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit. I think that’s kind of the most charming thing about him. Even though it’s really difficult for him to do a lot of the things that we just take for granted, like waking up in the morning, like following a conversation and driving to work; things that we can do without thinking about them, he has to focus on them real hard. And, by the end of the day he’s exhausted. He has to work really hard but he doesn’t quit. He continues to try and that’s really admirable.
WAM: When you talked to some of these people with brain damage, what kind of things did they tell you about this sort of trapped element?
JGL: You know we didn’t really talk that much about it and I wasn’t really that interested in talking about it. We talked, here and there a little bit, but mostly we just hung out and talked about music or girls or anything else I would normally talk about with a buddy.
WAM: How did that inform your performance? What did you get from hanging out with these people that helped you play the character?
JGL: It just sort of osmotically seeps in that way. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe because I don’t really know exactly how it works when I’m trying to come up with how to play a character but reading and speaking explicitly about specific character traits I think can often lead to being too self-conscious, whereas just hanging out with somebody, just getting a feel for them and then thinking of them, that’s kind of more what I did in this particular case.
WAM: Did you put yourself into a self-imposed isolation to get your head around this guy and did you have trouble getting out of that?
JGL: Yeah, I was pretty depressed afterwards. I really was for a few months. It didn’t really stop until I took another job. It was a bit lonely. We were up in Winnipeg. I was with people all the time and I made really good friends with the people I was working with, but I didn’t speak much with other people I was close with. I’m not sure why.
WAM: Before the accident, this character had a lot of friends in high school…
JGL: That’s what makes the character so interesting. I almost had to come up with two characters. There’s the guy before his accident and there’s a guy after his accident. You can see flashes of his old self come through now and then. Scott Frank, the director and I talked a lot about the balance between when to see the little flashes of his old self. I actually did a lot of work even though there’s only a few scenes in the movie where you get to see younger Chris before his accident. But I did a lot of work thinking about that other guy because that’s who the present guy is always thinking about… (continued below)
Editor’s Note: If you’ve forgotten how unsexy, geeky and goofy Gordon-Levitt looked on “3rd Rock From The Sun,” check out the photo below.
WAM: What do you think about his friends deserting him after the accident?
JGL: It’s common. If you lead a certain life and then, all of a sudden, wake up and you’re not that person anymore, I think it’s really difficult for the person going through it as well as the people around him. It happens a lot.
WAM: You’re saying he also didn’t want to see his friends?
JGL: Yeah. I think he would have trouble facing them. He felt real guilty. It was his fault and two of his friends died. I could see he’d have trouble being able to face up to the people you used to know.
WAM: What about your physicality? I loved the way you walked.
JGL: Oh thanks.
WAM: That was really good. Did you get that from talking to somebody?
JGL: I got it from walking next to somebody. One of the guys in particular, I tried to snap his walk up directly. And, I did ask him about it actually. He said that that part of how he got hit affected the part of the brain that helps you balance, and so he doesn’t go up on his toes when he walks so much as his whole foot would hit the ground at once. It’s a little, subtle thing that you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for that sort of thing.
WAM: You seem to be drawn to unconventional teenage roles…
JGL: Well, Chris isn’t a teenager.
WAM: Well, young roles.
JGL: I just am drawn to good stuff. It’s not so much whether it’s conventional or not. The Lookout is quite conventional in a number of ways. It’s a classic heist. Does it break with convention? Sure, but I think that’s what makes a good work of art — something that honors certain traditions and breaks with others.
WAM: Well it still breaks with conventions as Mysterious Skin did and Brick. You seem very comfortable in those milieus.
JGL: Well, they broke with certain traditions and followed other traditions, both of those. There’s the oldest tale in the book, the hooker with the heart of gold and the same with the detective story, but then they deviate in ways. I think that’s part of what makes an interesting script — what traditions it chooses to follow and what traditions it chooses to break with. If there’s a good piece of writing and a filmmaker that inspires me, then that’s the kind of part I want to try to get. I don’t so much think about ‘well, what are people going to think of this?’ Or ‘Is it going to obey the proper rules?’ I just try to concentrate on whether or not I think it’s good.
WAM:Have you ever had an incident in your life that spun you off in a totally different direction?
JGL: I have those every day.
WAM: Do you ever find yourself just going all over the place and not knowing where you are going every day?
JGL: I try not to.
WAM: What was your initial reaction to Scott’s script and what drew you to him as a filmmaker?
JGL: The script drew me to him as a filmmaker. My initial reaction was I was just damn excited. There’s very few good scripts. I read a lot of scripts and most of them suck and this one, I was immediately up and pacing around and thinking about things and feeling things and then I met him and we immediately started talking about it. He started telling me how he wanted to shoot it. He started telling me about how he wanted to put guitars in the score. We started talking about issues of responsibility and forgiveness, and I could tell that he was really excited with what he was doing and in love with this baby of his that he’d been working on for so long, and that’s the kind of thing I want to be involved with and, luckily, I was able to audition for him too and was lucky enough to get the part.
WAM: Did you have a different relationship with Jeff than you had with Matthew while you were shooting.
JGL: That’s interesting, yes. I think I really bonded with Jeff in rehearsal. It was ‘hi, how are ya’ and that was all cool, but once we started going over the stuff, the scenes themselves, that’s when I really started to feel like I was getting to know him. Matthew, I think I got to know at the bar, inebriated.
WAM: Who was the better drinker, you or Matthew?
WAM: What about working with Isla?
JGL: The sweetest girl. The thing about the set was it was a pretty masculine thing — a story about a guy who was a jock and his roommate’s a guy and it’s a bank robbery with a gang full of guys and there’s guns. It’s a pretty manly movie and so when Isla would come, it was such a gentle and lovely relief just to be able to have a female around. It meant so much and she, in particular [laughs], I think she did it on purpose, just for kicks but I would do my best throughout the day to try to not be too articulate, to try to not let my mind go into too intellectual a place. But she’s so sharp and I think just to mess with me, she would draw me out whether it be through a sarcastic remark or through an observant observation about somebody. She would draw me out and I would find myself talking how I didn’t mean to be talking, and then she’d call me on it and say, ‘Joseph, you’re not retarded enough.’
WAM: Did she go to the bar with you?
JGL: No, she wasn’t around enough.
WAM: Did you bring something to this that wasn’t on the page and, if so, was Scott okay with that?
JGL: I never really said anything that wasn’t on the page.
WAM: Did you take a scene in a different direction?
JGL: I don’t think so. It was a really good script.
WAM: What about the scenes with Jeff Daniels, did you two ever ad-lib?
JGL: No. We didn’t ad lib anything, especially me and Jeff. That’s where the least ad libs were because he comes from the theater and in theater there’s a real ethic of saying the script word for word and, sometimes that’s appropriate on a movie set and sometimes it’s not. When the writing is as good as Scott’s is, then it’s appropriate.
WAM: What was it like working with Jeff?
JGL: He’s such a pro. He’s my favorite kind of actor. He’s someone who just loves and enjoys the creative process of working out a scene. He kind of reminded me of John Lithgow and I think they’ve worked together before. They both come from the theater. They’re both actor’s actors. They’ve both been in a million plays and they both just know how to make a scene work. It’s a pleasure to collaborate with them.
WAM: What did you think of Scott as the director for this?
JGL: I think he did perfect. I think he was born to make movies. You talk with the guy about movies, he’s seen so many movies. He thinks in cinematic stories. That’s how his mind works. It’s a good thing that he’s started directing. I think his movies are going to keep getting better and better.
WAM: When you first read the script, were you glad that Chris made the decision he did? Were you hoping he would?
JGL: Hmm. Usually when I watch heists or who done it’s or crime stuff, or read it, it takes me until the second time that I watch it to really follow the story because, usually, it’s the characters that interest me which is why so many of the heists nowadays that are kind of more about plot twists and car chases don’t interest me that much. I think they’re kind of boring whereas, The Lookout, the suspense comes from the people rather than the story. That’s what I remember about reading the script first and that’s what I always remember every time I see the movie, just each character intrigues me and attracts me and I’m curious who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
WAM: You said you bonded with Matthew at the bar. Did you guys hang out together when you weren’t shooting, like going to dinner or anything? Or did you stay in your own little world?
JGL: There was a little of both.
WAM: What was it like shooting in Winnipeg? A journalist who was from Winnipeg said it was a strange place to live– something about giant mosquitoes and worms falling from the sky onto your car.
JGL: It was cool to me, I mean I was working all the time. I had a great time. There’s tons of hockey there which is perfect, because I was playing a hockey player, and I think they’re about as enthusiastic about hockey in Winnipeg as anywhere in the entire world. There are minor league rinks on every corner.
WAM: What’s next?
JGL: There’s another movie called Killshot; a ride in a blue Cadillac with Mickey Rourke. We shoot up 7-11 stores and then there’s another one called Stop Loss made by Kimberly Peirce of Boy’s Don’t Cry about soldiers coming home from Iraq.
WAM: Do you play one of the soldiers? That’s definitely different from what you’ve done, what was the feeling there?
JGL: It’s hard to be a soldier.
WAM: Did you go to boot camp for it?
JGL: Yeah, we did a simulated boot camp.
WAM: What was that like for you?
JGL: It was really rewarding and enlightening and very hard.
WAM: Did you get yelled at?
JGL: A little bit.
WAM: That film promises to be controversial.
JGL: I think people will create controversy out of it and I think most of the people that do will probably not have seen the movie. The movie itself is actually not about a controversial subject. It’s about what it’s like to be a solider. It’s not about any politics or governments. I think everybody’s going to agree that the guys actually going over there having their lives threatened are simply brave guys that are going through a lot and that’s what the movie is about.
WAM: What was it like working with Mickey Rourke and what kind of Mickey were you working with?
JGL: He was a really great guy, a mentor and a selfless actor, a pro and he’s really good in this movie. If you like Mickey Rourke, if you like Body Heat or Rumble Fish or Barfly or Sin City, then you’re going to really like this movie. It’s a character that fits in real life.
WAM: Is he bathing regularly these days?
WAM: How big a fan are you of hockey?
JGL: I’ve become a fan. I never really used to watch it. It was funny. There’s only a little scene in the movie with hockey in it and I got really into it. I trained much more than anybody really asked me to and it wasn’t so much that I wanted to look good for those scenes although I did but it was because, for whatever reason, it just got me in the mood and really became a key part of my preparation leading up to playing the character, how hard it is. It’s probably the most physically demanding sport I’ve ever played. You’re sweating your balls off after you’re done with it. It hurt and you have to keep going and that reminds me of Chris, for the same reason we’ve been talking about, that he never gives up. I think maybe he gets some of that instinct from his athletic trials.
WAM: Can you talk about the transition you made from when you were working as a kid and a teenager and the track that you’ve taken and choices you’ve made since? Was it a conscious decision?
JGL: Well, the conscious decision was that I wanted to be in good movies. That’s what I always wanted to do, but the difference is that when I was young, I was kind of a selfish person. When I was a teenager, I mostly just cared about my own pleasure and, as I grew up, moved out of my parents’ house and moved to New York, went to college and quit acting for a while, I started to feel a connection to the world around me in a way that I hadn’t as a teenager. When I started acting again, I wanted the acting to engage with that connection whereas, when I was younger, I was really unnerved when anybody would recognize me for something I’d done. Now, I’m delighted if someone says to me, ‘hey, Mysterious Skin, that movie meant a lot to me’ or Brick or even ‘Third Rock From the Sun’ makes me laugh. I love that now whereas, when I was younger, I couldn’t handle it. So it’s changed. The reason I do it has changed but I still also just do it because it’s fun and as far as different types of roles, as you say, I’m just trying to do stuff that I think is good and those are the jobs I could get that I thought were good.
WAM: In Stop Loss you were with Ryan. Are you comfortable thinking that a few years from now as you get more leads in movies, you might end up as similar paparazzi bait? Are you trying to avoid that and stick to the indie roles?
JGL: I don’t know.
WAM: But you did say that you hated the recognition factor when you were a teenager.
JGL: Yeah. When I was a teenager I was kind of selfish, like I said. I just liked doing the acting for the acting. I would just as soon they burn the film after we’d shoot it because I just enjoyed doing the work, but now I like it when people see the stuff I’ve done because I care about people other than myself.
WAM: Do you have a hard time watching yourself on screen?