It’s always exciting to watch a talented young performer get his or her start, then move on to defy earlier typecasting, and finally reach that coveted career tipping point where suddenly he or she is everywhere.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s been through the first two stages, and in the last couple years has continued what seems to be a steady march toward third-stage film stardom. A march that continues this weekend in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi time-travel action mind-bender Looper.
Gordon-Levitt first gained attention in the ’90s sit-com 3rd Rock from the Sun, but as he aged out of precocious teen roles, the actor gravitated toward more complex and darkly stylish films like The Lookout, Stop-Loss, Mysterious Skin, and 2005’s Brick with first-time director Rian Johnson.
But in the past three years, Gordon-Levitt’s built a resume of fine work in films such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception; the indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer; a wonderfully off-kilter performance in the terrific, little-seen indie Hesher, and raves last year for his performance in the cancer dramedy 50/50. Continuing his ubiquity this summer, Gordon-Levitt appeared in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and starred in the enjoyable bike-messenger flick Premium Rush.
In Looper, Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a strung-out, morally fried mob assassin living in 2044 who regularly and summarily executes hapless and hog-tied targets sent back in time from 30 years in the future. Part of Joe’s deal is he and other “loopers” know that to tie up loose ends, eventually they’ll be sent their older, future selves to kill (“close the loop”), but on doing so they’re paid off and left to “enjoy” the next 30 years.
When Joe’s older self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back to die, Young Joe has no qualms about trying to kill him and close his loop (the penalty for not doing so is brutal), but Old Joe’s having none of it. A desperate and violent cat and mouse game then plays out between the two Joes. Looper also stars Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, and Paul Dano.
Several other writers and I sat down with Joseph Gordon-Levitt a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about working with Rian Johnson again, capturing the essence of Bruce Willis without doing an impersonation, and how his production company hitRECord promotes his philosophies of artistic collaboration and connectivity through art.
Looper opens today in theaters nationwide.
This is your second film with Rian Johnson, after Brick. What’s your working relationship like with him?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: He’s really been one of my closest friends since we made Brick together. It wasn’t long after we finished shooting Brick that he started telling me about this time travel idea he had. We’ve been in touch and really close friends the whole time, and occasionally talking about what became Looper. But also making other little things together—little videos or songs or just going to the movies all the time. We’re neighbors and we’re real tight.
I’m working on my first writing-directing project, Don Jon’s Addiction, and the first draft I had that I wanted to show to anybody else, he was the first person I showed it to. He read it and he’s absolutely my mentor in that way, and has been very supportive of me going for it.
You say you’ve been talking to Rian about Looper for years. In terms of your prep work as an actor, how does that compare to something like last year’s 50/50, where you came onto the project days before shooting?
Gordon-Levitt: They’re two very different movies. I think I had six days to prepare for 50/50– I started working on it under an extreme circumstance. But I actually think that helped because that’s a movie you don’t want to over think. The whole Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg style is very real, very improvisatory, and just diving right into it was the right way to go.
A Rian Johnson movie is very different; it’s highly composed, and there’s no improvising or anything like that. Which isn’t to say he’s not open to spontaneity or collaboration, because he is–it’s just a very different tone. I don’t think one is better than the other, but they’re different and they demand different approaches. Both movies I did for Rian required a lot, a lot of work in preparation.
Joe in Looper is very complex character. How do you describe him?
Gordon-Levitt: He’s not a hero. He’s a bit of a lost soul, especially at the beginning. It’s a bit of a redemption story in that way. I like that about Looper—there aren’t really good and bad guys in it. It can be fun, for sure, rooting for heroes and villains in some kinds of movies. But this is more of a drama. In real life there are not, I don’t think, good guys and bad guys–every person has some shade of gray to them. That’s to me one of the fascinating things about Looper—you’re untangling who to root for, because everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing.
You gotta have to have some kind of combo of dark and light in a character to make him feel like a human being. But I also do like playing archetypes. That can be really fun too. Premium Rush is a pretty straightforward action movie, and it’s really fun to do, and it inspired me at that time to want to go ride a bike around town all summer and have fun. So I like both. But usually I think you want that nuance–that’s what allows the character to feel human.
In order to play a younger version of Bruce Willis’ character, you wear some light facial prosthetics, but you’ve said you didn’t want to do a Bruce Willis imitation. So how did you create your performance?
Gordon-Levitt: I didn’t think an impersonation or imitation would really serve the story, and I’m not really good at impersonations anyway. I wanted to make a character that felt like him. I watched mostly recent movies, actually. I was less concerned with making a young Bruce Willis and more concerned with making a character that would match to his character in this story.
Sin City was one I fixated on, first of all because I like that movie a lot, and it has a kind of noir-ish tone and has a lot of voice-over in it. I’d rip the audio off some of Bruce’s movies and put them on my iPod on repeat. And he did send me some recordings of him doing some of my voice-over monologues in Looper, so I could hear what it sounded like. But the most important thing was just hanging out with him, spending time, having dinner, being around him. That was where it really sank in.
It must have been a daunting task at times.
Gordon-Levitt: Of course. There’s always that. Every job has nights when you’re like, “I’m gonna going to blow this, fuck. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Or, “I did blow it already. Shit.”
Aside from the prosthetics and voice, more importantly you and Willis are playing different versions of the same character’s selfishness, manifested differently as a young and older man.
Gordon-Levitt: There you have really the crux of the story: Both men, young and old, thinks they’re doing the right thing by looking out for what’s theirs. When people fight and this violence happens, no one thinks they’re being the bad guy, everyone thinks that they’re fighting for the good cause. So how do you get out of this? Can you solve these violent confrontations with more violence, or is that just an endless loop?
Ultimately, Looper is a morality tale and sort of a redemption story. On the one hand, it’s a banging sci-fi action flick that you can have a great time going to, and on the other hand it gives you something to think and talk about, and asks a lot of big, human questions. Those are my favorite movies. And I think Rian did a great job in crafting one.
Gordon-Levitt: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite genre—they all have their virtues. It’s more about what you do with the genre. For example, all of Kubrick’s films are one genre or the other. What I do is pretty simple, I just look at the filmmaker, and want to have some connection with that person, feel a real collaborative spirit with them. And then if the material, the script is inspiring, and I feel some thing where I want to be that character. That’s it. It doesn’t happen all that often that things line up and get me excited, but when it does, I pay attention. That’s really all I pay attention to.
You’ve had a varied career so far, going from smaller films to blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises, to running your own independent music/film/literature/art production company hitRECord.
Gordon-Levitt: I’m lucky to get to keep doing what I am doing, and I hope I get to keep doing it. I actually have a pretty simple approach to what I try to do—I just focus on working with people that I connect with and working on material that inspires me. I don’t really pay much attention to anything else. It is sort of intuitive, to be honest.
As far as hitRECord goes, there’s been a lot more design and building to that, and that’s been going gangbusters recently. It’s a collaborative production company that I run, and we use the Internet so anybody can contribute. Speaking of Looper, Sony Pictures just put out Looper, and we’re forming a partnership with Sony to support hitRECord for the rest of the year, so we’ll be able to pay our contributing artists, on all of our moneymaking productions, way more than we ever have before. That’s really great.
The level of artistry that hitRECord has arrived at just astonishes me, from what it used to be to now. We’re putting out a record now with 15 songs out of thousands of contributions, narrowing it down. The music’s great! I can’t believe it. There’s all different kinds, everything from hip-hop to electronic pop music to folk music and everything between. I just love it. It makes me feel great. I am lucky and privileged to get to do what I do and get to do it with a high profile. It always makes me feel good when I can connect with other people who are also really good at what they do, and encourage them and say, “Hey, you are doing a good job, this is good.”
Gordon-Levitt: I think everyone is going to have to come up with their own business model that’s tailor-made to their own process—hitRECord is the one we’re working on, but I wouldn’t say it would work for everybody else. Everybody’s kinda doing it their own way. I’m friends with Rainn Wilson, who’s doing his SoulPancake thing, which is kind of like hitRECord in some ways, but he’s doing it his way.
And I think that’s how it’s going to work, rather than one model coming in and being the new way of doing it. Every artist is going to have to be scrappy and figure it out for themselves, and I think that’s exciting. It used to cost so much money to make art and get it out there. That’s not the case anymore. You can make a fantastic-looking film with a small handheld camera, and you can get it out there. You don’t need the tons of cash to connect with your audience like you used to. That is going to put the power in the hands of the artist, and I think that’s good.
So it really becomes about connectivity.
Gordon-Levitt: That is the point of all of it, isn’t it? I’m gonna get all “Kumbaya” now, but I think we are all connected, and there are a lot of forces that isolate us in our culture. We’re taught to be dog-eat-dog and be competitive and fight for status and things like that. That’s not what it is about and that’s not what is going to make anyone happy. I know plenty of people who are at the top of that heap and who aren’t happy.
I don’t want to go to a movie and feel like I’m being marketed to or feel like I’m watching some campaign or gimmick. I want to connect to the artists involved, and feel like they have something to say that they’re offering from their heart. Rian does that. So does Chris Nolan, even though he’s making the biggest movies that there are. That’s the genius of it– he manages to still make it personal.
It’s less about the size. You can do it on the scale that Chris Nolan does it, you can do it at the scale that Will Reiser and Seth Rogen do on 50/50, you can do it on the scale that we do it at hitRECord. The important thing is, are you sincerely offering yourself to your audience?
If you could actually travel through time, where would you go?
Gordon-Levitt: I’d want to go to the future. I’d wanna to see what it’s like. I like to try to remain an optimist even though things can look dire. But I think the future’s gonna be miraculous.