Joseph Gordon-Levitt started acting on television and in ads at age 6, but he’s been one of the few child actors to successfully make the leap to a serious, wide-ranging adult career. He moved from small roles on shows like Family Ties, Murder, She Wrote, and Quantum Leap to a career-making stint as Tommy on 3rd Rock From The Sun, then became a respected young film star with a lead role in Gregg Araki’s 2004 film Mysterious Skin. He followed it up in 2005 with the lead in Brick, the writing and directing debut of filmmaker Rian Johnson; the stylish neo-noir murder mystery, incongruously set in a high school, brought both of them a steadily growing cult fandom.
Gordon-Levitt went on to many high-profile roles, starring in (500) Days Of Summer, 50/50, Hesher, and Premium Rush, and becoming a major part of Inception and Christopher Nolan’s 2012 trilogy-capper The Dark Knight Rises. He plays Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln. And currently, he stars in Rian Johnson’s third film, Looper, as a low-ranked assassin trying to track down and murder his time-traveling 30-years-older self, played by Bruce Willis. For the role, Gordon-Levitt wore prosthetics to make him look more like Willis, and spent weeks studying Willis’ movements and voice in order to play him more credibly. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Gordon-Levitt in Chicago to discuss that process, plus his online artistic-collaboration collective hitRECord, and his writing-directing feature debut, due out next year.
The A.V. Club: Rian Johnson wrote the protagonist of Looper with you in mind to play it. Did that give you more input into the character? Were you part of the process as it was being created?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, Rian really included me in the process much more than I’ve ever been included as an actor. I mean, normally you get a script several months before you start shooting, and this was something where I’d been involved in the project for several years. And even before that, Rian had been talking to me, having conversations. Before I even saw a draft of the script, Rian started telling me about this time-travel idea he had, not long after we finished shooting Brick. So it’s something we’d been talking about. With that said, it was really all him. He would bounce stuff off me and we would have conversations, but I think I would serve as, more than anything, just a sounding board. I don’t think there was even one single example where I was like, “No, not this. I think you’re wrong.” There wasn’t any of that. This is his movie, and I was delighted to kind of be a collaborator.
AVC: Was there anything specific that you wanted to see in the character?
JGL: I can’t think of anything like that. No. I think it was there already.
AVC: You were with Rian from the beginning of his feature-film career, on Brick. How did that experience compare with this one, now that he’s had more time to mature as a director?
JGL: Well, I think there’s more confidence in the experience that he’s had doing a couple more movies, but I actually was more struck by the similarities than the differences. Really, it felt like making a movie with my dear friend. The scope of this one is obviously much grander than Brick, but the sentiment was very much the same—still just making a movie we thought was cool. It wasn’t about, “Well, it’s going to be bigger, so we better make sure it appeals to a broad audience,” or anything like that.
AVC: How’s his style with actors compared to Christopher Nolan’s?
JGL: Well, they’re really different filmmakers and really different people, but one thing I would say they have in common is, they strike a really good balance between… They both approach any given day with a really well-thought-through vision of what they want the scene to be. They’ve really done their homework. But they’re both very welcoming and encouraging of collaboration and spontaneity, and they’re flexible. You could also say this of Steven Spielberg, who I worked with on Lincoln.
And I think that balance is key to any filmmaker’s success, because making a movie, there’s so many variables, and it’s such a logistical beast that you’re never going to get reality to line up with exactly your abstract ideal, preconceived notion of things. Sometimes for dumb reasons, like “Ooop, sorry, we had to put our trucks over there, so you can’t shoot that way.” Sometimes for really good reasons, like, “Oh shit, I just didn’t think of that. It really doesn’t feel so natural to say it this way or to move right then,” and so you need a director to be able to adapt and be flexible. Rian and Chris and Steven are really good at that.
AVC: You have a reputation as being a very serious actor. Are you comfortable with that image?
JGL: Sure. I would hope to use “sincere” over “serious,” ’cause I like doing fun stuff and funny stuff, too. Premium Rush came out this year. There’s nothing serious about it. It’s just pure, unadulterated fun and hilarity. But I approached it sincerely, and I care about it. I love movies, deeply. And it’s not just a job to me. It’s what I love to do, so I guess maybe that’s where that comes from.
AVC: Do you think having that kind of rep makes directors more willing to work collaboratively with you and take your input?
JGL: I don’t think it’s the reputation. I think, though, that if you do the work, then maybe you’ll have something to contribute.
AVC: When we talked to you about Brick, you said Johnson did a lot of rehearsal and very few takes, because the budget was so small and you were working on film. Did Looper having a bigger budget affect that preference or your working methods?
JGL: It was still very tight, because the scale of the movie is also so much bigger. In fact, the movie looks a lot more expensive than it was. For the amount of money we had, it’s crazy how big the movie is, and that’s a credit to Rian and a credit to Ram Bergman, Rian’s producer, who produced Brick and Brothers Bloom and Looper. And also produced the movie I just directed, or am directing. That’s his specialty, taking a little bit of money and making it go a long way. So we had more time, but we had more to do. We were pretty equally tight and focused. I don’t think it’s really Rian’s style to be loose, which isn’t necessarily good or bad. That’s just his style. Like on 50/50, that was their style. Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] and Jon Levine, the director, and Will Reiser, the writer. That whole creative process of that posse of guys is loose, and that works for them really well. It feels really natural and real and that’s because oftentimes it is. People are improvising, and that’s fun, too. I really enjoyed that.
AVC: Though some of it presumably was tightly planned. When you’re shaving all your hair off, you can’t go back and do it three or four more times.
JGL: You can’t, that’s true. But they rolled two cameras and we did the lines. And then we just started improvising, because it takes you five minutes to shave your head, and there wasn’t five minutes of dialogue written. So we kept going and just said a bunch of stuff, and a lot of what’s in that scene was stuff we made up on the spot. But there’s nothing like that in Looper. And again, I don’t think one’s better than the other. They’re just different approaches.
AVC: You’ve been on record in the past as not really enjoying fame and the attention that comes with it. How do you deal with that in a year where you’re in this many high-priced, high-profile projects?
JGL: Well, I’ll start by making a distinction. I love movies, and when people also love movies, I love that. Anytime anybody comes up to me and has clearly had any connection to a movie that I did—they say “Hey, I saw Inception and now I’ve been thinking about my dreams more,” or “Hey, I saw 50/50 and it made me cry,” or “I saw (500) Days Of Summer and it made me laugh or it made me think about my ex,” or whatever—any of that, I love that. That’s really meaningful to me. What I don’t like is when people have no real interest in the movies and just want to be close to the spotlight or something like that, or take a picture of me so they can put it on Facebook and say, “Hey, I’m next to a celebrity.” That to me is kind of objectifying, and I feel used. So is that happening more this year? I guess, yeah, because all these movies came out at once. But I think when you do anything professionally, you take the good with the bad. There are parts of the job that are less fun than other parts, and the parts that I love are worth it.
AVC: You’ve talked in the past about preparing for shooting days by listening to character-appropriate music because it helps you shut out the chaos on the set. Did you do that here?
JGL: My preparation revolved less around music this time, and more around Bruce Willis’ voice. But there was some, yeah. I listened to a lot of Billie Holiday for this role. Also a song that’s in the movie, it’s called “Powerful Love,” this old soul record, and it’s on this great compilation called Eccentric Soul [Twinight’s Lunar Rotation] that Rian turned me onto at the time. It’s all these old dirty soul records that never made it on the radio. And a bunch of those songs were good. I was listening to those. So yeah, because I think the character of Joe, and loopers in general, they’re all into these 20th-century affectations, as Jeff Daniels’ [character] Abe puts it. And Billie Holiday in particular, she has a really sad voice. You feel a weight on her shoulders, and I wanted that for this character. He’s a sad guy. He’s not living a life he wants to live. He’s not a hero by any means.
AVC: In the process of listening to Willis’ voice and watching how he moves and trying to imitate that, did you reach a point where you unconsciously internalized him? Was it something you had to think about, or did it become second nature?
JGL: That’s what I went for. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to be focusing on the technical details of getting his voice or manners right by the time we were shooting, because then I’m faking it. So that’s about doing the homework in advance, such that once you show up to set, that stuff has all become practiced enough so that it’s like riding a bike: You don’t have to think about why you’re doing it, so I could just be concentrating on what the character’s feeling. Because really, it’s a drama. It’s a movie about feelings, about how these characters think and feel and are. Much like The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a superhero movie, a sci-fi time-travel movie, but it’s really a profound drama, a character-piece morality tale.
AVC: The heart of the movie is a conflict between a man at two different ages, with completely different, incompatible agendas. Did you largely take your own character’s side in that conflict?
JGL: Well, when the cameras are rolling, you certainly take the side of your character. Yeah, you can’t be removed like that. That’s the director’s job. You’ve got to trust your director to put you in the right context of the whole story, and really just see it from your character’s point of view. But that’s interesting that you say they have two totally different approaches. What would you say are the two different…?
AVC: They’re both protecting their lives, but those lives are different, and they fundamentally rest on valuing different things. And they’re both too selfish to see any value in each other’s lives.
JGL: Right. That’s the commonality.
AVC: Were there points where you thought your version of the character took his agenda too far?
JGL: Well, they both do horrible things. But they both feel like they’re doing the right thing, and that, I think, is the crux of the movie. No one committing an atrocity thinks they’re committing an atrocity. They think they’re fighting for the noble cause. So how do you get out of that cycle? Because that just leads to more and more finger-pointing and more and more violence begetting violence begetting violence. It’s a circle.
AVC: Do you get the same satisfaction as an actor out of something as dialogue-driven or concept-driven as Rian Johnson’s movies, and something like Premium Rush that’s more energy and adrenaline?
JGL: I love the variety, both as a movie-watcher and as an actor. Sometimes I just want to watch a fun chase movie. And Premium Rush is really good for that. And then sometimes I want something that’ll—I think Looper is really great at offering both. It’s kind of like Inception, where it is just a really fun adrenaline rush if that’s what you want. But it also can offer you a lot to chew on and think about if you’re interested in looking under the hood.
AVC: What’s your involvement in hitRECord these days?
JGL: Since I’ve been shooting Don Jon’s Addiction, I’m less involved than I’ve been at other times, but I’m still quite involved. But I also—we’ve been growing a lot, so there’s more and more people both on our staff and in the community that help, that are doing a lot of that stuff. Whereas in the past, it was kind of me going through all these records and finding the good stuff, or the stuff I wanted to cultivate and work on. Now we have armies of people doing that. And I think that’s good, and that’s sort of the whole premise of hitRECord, is, “Why would I just leave it to myself when we can do this together?”
We have these resident curators on the site now. They’re all just members of the community, just people who joined the site like anybody else, but have proven over time to do good work and have good taste and recommend good things. We kind of tap them and give them duties, and they’re stoked to perform them, because whereas we used to get some records every day, now we get 2,500 new records every day. Even our resident curators can’t go through all that. That takes the community, more than 100,000 people on there, to go through everything and do the curation necessary to find stuff that we want to work with as a production company. But hitRECord’s going gangbusters. I’m so pleased with it.
Speaking of Looper, we actually are just forming a partnership right now with Sony. Sony’s putting out Looper and Sony’s supporting hitRECord for the rest of the year. So we split our profits: Half go back into the company, and half go to all the different contributing artists. So we’re going to be able to pay our contributing artists way more than we’ve ever paid them before, thanks to Sony. And in fact, Levi’s is coming on board too, to do a similar partnership.
AVC: What’s their end of the deal? Is it for exposure, or do they get ads out of it or something else?
JGL: Levi’s has supported lots of great artists in the past. They’ve supported Shepard Fairey. They’ve supported James Murphy. They did this thing called Art In The Streets at MOCA last year. They’ve been doing this for years now, and it’s just part of their—they’re a brand that believes—I’ve asked them about it. I’m like, “How do you guys know this is worth it for you?” And they’re like, “It’s really hard to prove scientifically, but we feel like it’s good for us to support things in the culture that we think are positive.” I think that’s great of them, and I’m proud to be on their list of great artists. They’ve done partnership stuff with Snoop before. They partner with all sorts of good people. And I was very clear with them: “We’re not making commercials. We’re just going to basically do what we would do anyway.” And they’re like “Yeah, that’s what we want. We want you to just do what you do, and we’re going to support you.” And I was like, “Okay, great!” They have their name on some particular short films of ours that we’re working on now that they particularly like, that they think represent them, and that kind of thing. And now I’m here talking to you about it. That’s also part of what’s in it for them. But I think it’s awesome.
AVC: What’s the likelihood of another Morgan and Destiny short at some point?
JGL: I don’t know. There’s so much good new stuff. I wouldn’t count it out. You never know. But I’m flattered that you know what that is. Thank you.
We’re putting out a new record right now called Move On The Sun. It’s really good music. It’s definitely the best music we’ve ever made. It’s astonishing to me. And I wrote one of the songs and sing on one of the songs, but the rest is all just great musicians under our direction, collaborating together and making all sorts of stuff. There are great hip-hop songs, great electronic pop songs, there’s great funk. So much good stuff. It’s really moving to me to see it blossom like this.
AVC: You’ve mentioned working on Don Jon’s Addiction a couple of times now. Where is it in the process?
JGL: We’re editing it now.
AVC: What’s the release plan?
JGL: Well, it’s a real independent movie. We made it for very little money without any distributor behind it. I was pretty keen. I teamed up with Ram, the same guy who produced Brick and Looper. And was clear that I would take a lower budget in order to maintain complete control. The strategy is to finish the movie and make it exactly what I want it to be before we introduce it to the world. Yeah, we’re still finishing the movie. We finished shooting about two months ago, and we’ll see. I can’t wait for you guys to see it. I’m really, really proud of it. Scarlett [Johansson] is fantastic in it. She’s playing a character that’s really different than anyone she’s played before, and she’s really funny and great. Heartfelt performance. And Julianne [Moore] is, I think, one of the great actors alive. Talk about a chameleon. She’s really great at that.
AVC: Did you have either of them—or any other actors, really—in mind when you were scripting?
JGL: I had Scarlett in mind when I was writing it. I hadn’t figured out the other characters, but I did have Scarlett in mind, and it was nerve-wracking. I was like, “What if she doesn’t like it? God, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But luckily, she did like it and agreed to do it.
AVC: Given that you wrote and directed and starred in the film, can people look at this and say it’s your ideal role?
JGL: Well, I wouldn’t say the ideal role. It’s definitely a role I was really intrigued and inspired by. It’s really different from anything I’ve done before. There are lots of ideal roles. I’d love to be in a musical. This is not that. And the character is really nothing like me. And I guess in that way, it’s ideal, because I like playing characters that are really different from me, whether it’s like in Looper or Hesher or Don Jon’s Addiction. That’s usually what I get the biggest kick out of.
AVC: What was it like directing yourself?
JGL: Well, speaking of hitRECord, I do think that that was a big part of why I felt capable of doing it, because I spent all these years making little things, getting used to looking at myself. ’Cause when actors say they have trouble watching themselves, they’re not just being humble. It’s a weird thing, I’m sure, if you’re ever seen—you’ve probably seen yourself on camera. It’s odd to see your own face and hear your own voice, but it is something you can practice. And you can get used to it over time like anything, so I think the time I’ve spent doing these hitRECord videos like “Morgan And Destiny” or any number of other ones got me used to seeing myself on a screen, and therefore allowed me to be objective and watch playback—if we did a take I thought was good, I felt like I could watch playback and not just be like, “Oh God, I look weird,” but be productive and say, “Okay, I need to change this, but that’s good,” etcetera.
AVC: How does wearing Bruce Willis’ face throughout a film change that process?
JGL: Oh, it only helps. I mean, it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world, but other than that, it’s—wearing the face was key, key inspiration for the character. And I remember when we did the final, final makeup tests, not long before we started shooting, and that was really where it clicked. I mean, I’d been working on it for a long time, circling the character and figuring out what I wanted to do in studying Bruce, etcetera. But there’s always a moment with roles where it clicks over and you’re like, “Now I totally get it, I can do this now,” and that really didn’t come until—I remember it pretty specifically, looking in the mirror with the final makeup done, and the eyes and everything, and being like, “There he is. Got it. Okay. Wow. Okay. Now I get it.” So it was really key.
Tomorrow: An interview with Looper writer-director Rian Johnson, who explains the movie’s 10-year conception process, and how he can’t wait for the Internet to pick Looper apart.