After the back-to-back success of (500) Days of Summer and Inception, it's easy to assume that Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands at a critical moment in his career, staring down massively important decisions to make about his future. But Gordon-Levitt started his career when Family Ties was still broadcasting new episodes. (He'd know—he was in one.) The child actor logged nine years in the business before landing the long-running sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and was a wizened veteran when he graduated to grown-up fare like Brick and Stop-Loss. Now playing a tattooed, metalhead anarchist who upends a grieving family in the Sundance indie dramedy Hesher, Gordon-Levitt sat down with Boxoffice and spoke candidly and in depth about Chris Nolan, his acting philosophy and what point he's at in a preternatural career arc that stretches back and to the future.
Your crazy character crashes into the movie with no back story. What work did you still have to do to prepare a biography that was never going to be explored in the film?
That's a good question. Spencer [Susser, the co-writer and director] and I did definitely come up with a back story and made a bunch of decisions and choices about who Hesher was, how he grew up, and how he came to be who he is. But as you can tell, it's very intentional that none of that information is in the movie—and that's part of the mystery and part of his power. But the homework is still necessary.
How deliberate were the religious overtones, or how important were they to you?
What do you mean by religious overtones?
He speaks in parables—and clearly his behavior is laced with vulgarity—but he does bring these other characters together in an almost Christ-like way. Is that something you thought about consciously?
Yeah. We talked about him a lot as a symbol, whether it's a savior symbol or a death symbol. You could take him as various metaphors because he's such an intense character—and we were excited about that, and we were excited about the things that would spark in various viewers' imaginations. But we also were concerned that it never feel thin because a symbol is just a symbol, and a human being is a human being, so I and Spencer agreed that I always wanted to make him feel like a human being—like he never felt like you were watching some artist's idea of a symbol for this or that, you felt like you were watching a guy. So yeah, I'm always excited to hear how different people interpret the film.
How do you do that humanizing to make sure he isn't just a cipher for larger themes or ideas?
Well, you just have to put yourself in his shoes. Because you don't put yourself in the shoes of a symbol, but that's the job of acting any character—don't view him from the outside, view him from the inside. And I spent a lot of time thinking like, "Okay, he acts these weird ways—why?" What actually is going on in his head? And who is this guy that would act in these ways, not as a performance but that's just how he is? One of the keys of Hesher is that he's unattached—unattached to material things. He does have a van, which he cares about—actually, that's probably the only material thing he cares about—but he doesn't really care about his van. He doesn't have a house and he doesn't really care about his clothes. He's unattached to the future. I think we in our culture spend a lot of time thinking, "What will happen if I do this or that?" or "What's it going to be like tomorrow?" or "What's it going to be like five years from now?" or "Who am I going to marry?" And Hesher just doesn't concern himself with any of that. He just lives in the present and I think that's really admirable. I think we all have that urge in us to live in that present moment and let go of some of our baggage that we carry around with us, but what would it be to actually act on that in an extreme way, and who would you be if you really renounced all of those things and really lived in the present? How would you behave? I think Hesher is a lot like how some people would act.
The script demands certain things of you for your character's story, and yet you've also got to be fully present and spontaneous?
Well, that's acting! You've summed it up—that's the challenge. Because even if you're not playing a character like Hesher who is present in that way, when you're acting, yeah, you're trying to be present in that moment. You're trying to be someone you're not, you're trying to be somewhere you're not, but at the same time you're responsible for this pretty challenging technical feat. And it takes practice. [Laughs] You've got to do your homework, you've got to work hard, and if you get the technical stuff down to where it comes easy, then you can forget about it and focus on what you need to be feeling, what you need to be thinking.
On day one, do you have a confident sense of who you're playing or is the entire shooting process one of discovery?
That's a good question. It's always different from project to project. Sometimes I have a really, really set idea long before we start shooting, and sometimes it doesn't crystallize until right beforehand. Invariably though, there's always something that happens midway through the shoot, and I'm like, "Fuck! I wish I'd thought of this a month ago." That always happens. But you get through it, I guess.
Hesher is a "bad things happen" movie that revolves around a series of escalating tragedies. Your character expresses all of the surface emotions that the other characters are suppressing. How tough was it to contribute a sufficient amount of gravitas without letting the movie become maudlin or depressing?
Well, I think humor is oftentimes best when you don't chase it. I love straightforward comedy: set-up, set-up, punchline—that's great. But that's not what this is. And in a lot of my favorite comedies, the humor is more sideways than that: it's not from a joke, it's from a feeling. So we never played Hesher for laughs. We just tried to play it for real and the situation itself is funny—Hesher himself just is a naturally funny guy—so it's going to be funny when he enters into pretty much any situation. We didn't have to go looking for laughs on top of that. We just played it straight and honest and some of the parts ended up funny. But the funny parts—and then the parts that aren't funny—are still honest. I would call it more of a drama than a comedy, but it also just depends on who you're watching it with. I laugh all the way through it, but I also just have a weird sense of humor. I laugh at No Country For Old Men—I laugh all the way through it.
You're unusual as a young, ambitious actor in that you give your movies exactly what they need from you or your character, whether it's a big or small or grand or casual performance. For example in Inception, you're not trying to steal attention away from the rest of the ensemble: Arthur does precisely what is needed—
That's a great compliment, thank you.
But how do you figure out what it is that each of these very different movies needs from you? Or is it up to the director or editor to impose those parameters during shooting or editing?
Well, it's both, I think. I think it is important for an actor to acknowledge what the actor is doing there—that in the end, the point is to serve the story. And then it's a collaborative art form: ask any director I've worked with and they'll say that I ask a lot of questions. I always ask a ton of questions because I want to understand as clearly as I can what the filmmaker is envisioning, and then I want to serve that. Because the truth is that an actor's performance is good when the movie's good. It doesn't matter how quote-unquote "good" the performance is: if the scene doesn't work, the scene doesn't work, and it's one and the same. To be honest, I actually find it a little silly when people pick apart movies and say, "The acting was terrible but the cinematography was great." Well, if you like the way the shot looked and the actor was in the shot, then the actor had something to do with that. Or vice versa: someone will say, "The acting was great, but the writing sucked." And I'm like, well if you liked the way that the actors were talking, that's partially at least because of the script. It's all very intertwined. You know, you get awards and stuff and they award different people for their different outstanding work—and that's cool-but when Wally [Pfister] won best cinematography, obviously he was going to thank Chris [Nolan], because they work together. They're both shooting the movie. We're all doing it. It's not an assembly line; it's a much more collective thing. Everybody has to be on the same page—and that's ultimately what a great director does—and I think Spencer accomplished that in keeping all of his actors and all of his crew on the same page and creating an individual voice for Hesher as a movie. And that's also what Nolan does—he's great at that. He is so good at keeping this vast variety of artists on the same page to create an individual voice for his movies.
As journalists, we tend to want to imprint a narrative on your career and your choices. After your recent successes and announcement of being in The Dark Knight Rises, do you also see yourself as at a pivotal moment?
Um, well, thanks for that. [Laughs.] I mean, I've been working since I was six. And it's been a gradual thing, but yeah, I definitely do feel that more and more I'm able to do the work that I want to do—and I have the opportunity to work with other artists who inspire me. And I'm delighted and grateful. But also, I've had a lot of luck: I got to work with Robert Redford in A River Runs Through It when I was ten. And everyone on 3rd Rock was awesome. Brick and Mysterious Skin, those are fantastic movies and fantastic roles, and I was lucky to get to do them. So I've been really lucky and really fortunate throughout my life and career, and I'm still grateful and I hope that I get to keep doing the work that I love doing.
You've recently said that Looper [an upcoming 2012 time travel flick where Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same character] was a particularly important project for you.
Well, a lot of it has to do with Rian [Johnson, director of Looper and Brick]. He and I are dear friends and Brick was important to me in that way when it happened. But also, that movie is really special. I feel like I personally have never done any work quite like it, and I can't wait until it's done—I can't wait for people to see it. I'm not sure how to isolate a specific answer to what exactly makes it special other than just it stands out to me.
How carefully do you choose projects now to make sure you continue to get different opportunities in the future-and to escape the ghettoization of having played certain kinds of roles successfully?
I think as soon as you start being too clever or conniving, you start making bad decisions. I like to try to just stick to "Does the material inspire me? Do I feel a collaborative connection with the filmmaker?" Great! Let's go. But the only real, pivotal, substantial turnover thing is the money is more on my side now, just because Inception made so much money. And (500) Days of Summer made money. So, in the past, where I might have been creatively inspired to do something but that movie can't get funding, now maybe that movie can get funding. That's really cool. And I am therefore able to be even more picky and specific with what I want to do-—and I'm thrilled.