Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The world's busiest actor on fight scenes, future plans and the downside of fame.

The most-hyped movie of 2012, The Dark Knight Rises, features Tom Hardy as a hulking, accented terrorist; Anne Hathaway as a slinky, morally ambiguous thief; and Christian Bale as—well, you know who Christian Bale was.

So it’s saying something that the most-talked-about character arc was that of the steel-nerved Gotham City cop John Blake. Though blessed with no latex costume or throaty growl, Blake added a layer of human nuance to the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy—a nuance that largely owes its success to the assured, idiosyncratic skill of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is quickly establishing himself as one of today’s most consistently interesting actors. And this week, he shows off his new-found directing chops in Don Jon, the tale of a porn-obsessed everyman who is forced to grapple with the hurt and distrust his addiction causes people who care about him. Yes, it's hyper graphic and sexually explicit—which we can't condone—but it's also a major motion picture that deals honestly with the harmful effects of pornography. You probably never thought you'd see the day.

Gordon-Levitt could easily trade on his handsome looks and ample charisma to churn out predictable dreck. But in every film he takes on, there are surprising layers beneath the surface. He prefers themes that challenge and leave viewers scratching their heads.

Whether playing a victim of childhood sexual abuse who becomes trapped in a life of prostitution in his under-seen 2004 breakthrough film Mysterious Skin, a hipster everyman learning about the harsh realities of love in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer or a twentysomething wrestling long odds with cancer in last year’s 50/50, Gordon-Levitt rose through the indie film world by making tough choices with intellectual heft, plenty of heart and limited mass appeal.

Even as he stepped into blockbuster roles with The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and his new film, Don Jon he has kept his aim straight, as each of these films have plenty to say about society and the human condition. Looper, in particular, stands out for its willingness to ask big questions about good, evil and the consequences of life choices—all amid a dizzying array of adrenaline.

For this son of two former political activists who tries to avoid the trappings of celebrity life off-screen, acting is just a window through which he can look at the world.

“I have pretty eclectic taste in the movies I like to watch and am inspired to work on,” he says. “I don’t think action for action’s sake is so fun, but when it helps tell the story, I love doing a good fight scene. But you always have to find a connection in any role; you won’t be believable if you’re alienated from the part. I come away from acting learning how much we all have in common and that we can all connect with anybody if we allow ourselves to.”

Gordon-Levitt has put those lessons to good use by founding hitRECord, an online creative hub in which writers, artists and filmmakers propose creative projects and team up to bring them to life. The results are dazzlingly collaborative, as evidenced by the new two-record vinyl album the site recently released, Move on the Sun, in which 78 artists blended together to create a dozen original songs.

The site and its projects simply wouldn’t exist were it not for Gordon-Levitt’s funding, name recognition and extremely hands-on involvement. And it’s an endeavor that reflects his desire to find and help others find meaning in each moment. It’s a lesson he feels was expressed well in Premium Rush, a 2012 film about a New York City bike messenger named Wilee who has to pedal harder than usual—and under higher stakes—to deliver a mysterious letter that could literally save a family.

“[Wilee’s] a guy who lives very much in the present, and there’s a really strong upside to that,” he says. “Now more than ever, we’re obsessed with the future and making plans, like, ‘What am I gonna be? Where am I going five years from now?’ Wilee’s turned his back on that. That’s admirable, but the movie shows the bad way of that thinking, too, because he might lose his girlfriend if he doesn’t start looking down the road of life a little bit.”

Big life decisions are nothing new to Gordon-Levitt, who was thrust into the world of adult choices at the age of 6, when he made his professional debut as an actor. His first big break came with 3rd Rock From the Sun in 1996, when he was 15 years old, and he realized young that celebrity culture and the pursuit of fame aren’t important to him.

This grounded attitude stems from his upbringing as the son of Jane Gordon and Dennis Levitt, who met while working at the liberal radio station KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. Gordon-Levitt was raised Jewish “but not religious,” though his parents imparted plenty of social justice values in him and his older brother, Daniel, whose death from cancer in 2010 helped inspire Gordon-Levitt to take the lead in 50/50.

The fact that his grandfather, Michael Gordon, was a movie director for 30 years also helped the young actor keep his head out of the clouds. In fact, Gordon-Levitt dropped out of acting from 2000 to 2004 to study history, literature and French poetry.

He points out that actors weren’t treated like celebrities until the United States broke free from England and was left lacking a glamorous class of wealthy aristocrats to gossip about. It’s a topic he speaks about with a surprising amount of eloquence.

“Now there’s this coming together of show business and celebrity, and I don’t think it’s healthy,” he told Newsweek. “I think it works in close step with a lot of other bad things that are happening in the world. It promotes greed, it promotes being selfish and it promotes this ladder where you’re a better person if you have more money. It’s not at all about the work itself.”

Gordon-Levitt finds the way some people interpret films, including his own work in (500) Days of Summer, can be unhealthy too. Out of all the roles he’s played, the audience reactions to that film most concern him.

“Anyone who has a crush on my character needs to watch it over and see how selfish he is,” he says. “He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life. That’s not healthy, and young teens and college students especially need to be aware of that.”

Gordon-Levitt may have found his most thought-provoking film yet with Looper, a science-fiction film in which he plays a mob assassin sent 30 years into the past via continuous time loop to kill particularly nasty criminals as pre-retribution for their misdeeds and to wipe out their wrongdoings. The film’s central twist comes when the assassin is assigned to kill the older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), at which point he must consider his job’s moral implications.

“One thing the movie reinforced with me was that violence begets violence, and I don’t think any conflict is ever really solved that way,” he says.  

Gordon-Levitt has plenty to keep him busy in the years ahead. He believes he gained valuable insight into how to handle it all from his work dodging traffic in Premium Rush.

“If you want to avoid hitting something,” he says, “don’t look at it. Look at where you’re wanting to go.”




Anne commented…

Curious where you got that Dan died of cancer. Not only is this untrue, I've never seen it said in a publication before, that I can recall.

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