When “Third Rock from the Sun” aired its final episode more than a decade ago, little did we know or suspect that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would emerge not just as a talented actor, but perhaps the best actor of his generation (a title he shares with Ryan Gosling). Gordon-Levitt wisely took some time off from acting before re-emerging on the indie scene with MYSTERIOUS SKIN in 2004 and BRICK a year later. He gave a deeply affecting, emotionally grounded performance as a troubled gay hustler in MYSTERIOUS SKIN and in a sign of things to come, played an obsessive teen-detective modeled on Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op. Gordon-Levitt continued working in small, underseen, underappreciated gems like THE LOOKOUT and STOP-LOSS, but took a turn toward mainstream success with (500) DAYS OF SUMMER three years ago and Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION a year later. LOOPER, his third film in as many months (after Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and PREMIUM RUSH), reunites him with writer-director Rian Johnson. A mind-bending sci-fi actioner, LOOPER confirms what many moviegoers and most critics already know: Gordon-Levitt can handle the demands, physical, mental, and emotional, of practically any role. We sat down with Gordon-Levitt two weeks ago to discuss LOOPER, working with Bruce Willis, collaborating again with Johnson and, among other things, his directorial debut.
Q: In LOOPER, your version of Joe isn’t much of a killer. He’s a killer in a fish-in-a-barrel kind of way. Bruce Willis’ Joe is a real killer. Did you feel constrained by body language to show the difference between the two?
JGL: Well, I wouldn’t say constrained, but that’s an astute observation. Joe is not a hero. He’s sort of a lost soul. He’s low on the totem pole, just making his money. I like that about him. At the center of an action movie isn’t a particularly admirable guy.
Q: How was it portraying a morally ambiguous protagonist and still making him likeable?
JGL: There really aren’t good guys and bad guys in the movie. I like that. In real life, there aren’t good guys and bad guys. Even though it can be fun to root for the heroes and villains in a movie, in real life, I don’t think anyone is black or white. Everyone is some kind of shade of grey. I think it’s particularly intriguing to cast Bruce [as that character] since we’re used to seeing him as a hero. Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing. I love that. I think that’s how human beings really are.
Q: I noticed a balancing act between when you portrayed the Bruce Willis side of your character in terms of the physicality, more than just the prosthetics. They’re really not that similar. They’ve obviously had different experiences. For most of the movie, they’re trying to kill each other, so when did you decide to exaggerate the portrayal Bruce Willis side of yourself?
JGL: The whole character was based on him for sure. I studied him. I watched his movies. I ripped the audio off his movies so I could listen on repeat. He even recorded some of my voiceover monologues and sent me that recording so I could hear what they sounded like in his voice. And just getting to know him, spending time with him, letting it seep in. It’s a really fascinating way to create a character. That’s always my favorite thing, to transform, to become someone else. If I watch a movie [I was in] and see a moment that reminds me of myself, I always feel like I messed that up. I want to see someone different. The premise of LOOPER presents a unique challenge in that way.
Q: This is practically your summer. You’ve had three movies come out in three consecutive months (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, PREMIUM RUSH, LOOPER). Of the three movies, which one did you find the most challenging?
JGL: Well, they were all challenging in totally different ways. LOOPER’s probably the most transformative movie I’ve ever done. Physically, PREMIUM RUSH was probably the hardest work. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is such a grand thing in all of psyches. Batman is such a sanctified character. To be in that movie, it had its own kind of stakes.
Q: How do you go about bringing vulnerability to these kinds of characters?
JGL: You have to love your character, even if they’re doing terrible things. It’s sort of the way a mom loves a child. If you judge your character and approach [him] from the outside, it’ll be lost, it’ll be false. Everyone tries to be the best person they can be. You have to have to have that empathy [for your character].
Q: Your characters often put up a tough front. Is there a secret to doing that?
JGL: If there’s a secret, I wouldn’t tell you.
Q: It’s so fascinating to see this character 30 years apart and look at both halves and how they came together. I was wondering if there’s another character you’d like to revisit, to imagine, just in theory, where they’d be 30 years down the line from when you portrayed them?
JGL: I’ll say Hesher.
Q: You think he’d still be alive?
JGL: That’s a good question. If he is, I’d like to see how he pulled that off.
Q: To shift gears, working with Rian again after working with him on BRICK six or seven years ago?
JGL: We’ve been really close friends since [BRICK]. He really is one of my dearest friends in the world. To work with someone like that is rare and a pleasure. It makes it fun. Obviously, there are differences between BRICK and LOOPER. This is a much bigger scaled movie. He and I have both grown and done a lot of other things. But I think the similarities are more striking than the differences. Even though this is a big sci-fi/action movie, we’re still making something that we thought would be cool. There was never any desire to cater the movie to a commercial, market research nonsense and that’s a real testament to him. He just tells the story that he wants to tell. He never talks down to his audience. That’s something that Rian and Chris [Nolan] have in common. They never talk down to their audience and they’re not afraid to challenge their audience. I think that’s a big part of why people love Chris’ movies and a big part why people will love LOOPER.
Q: In previous interviews, you’ve said you like to ask directors a lot of questions. What kinds of questions did you ask on LOOPER?
JGL: Mostly about the character. Where he came from. Why he is the way he is. There’s a scene later in the movie where he tells a story about his mom and how his mom sold him when he was young and how he grew up. All that stuff is really fascinating to me. Having those conversations with Rian, getting a thorough understanding of who Joe is.
Q: Did you and Rian talk about time travel?
JGL: A little bit. Not that much. It’s pretty simple. It’s a movie that uses time travel, but it’s not about time travel and I like that. Most of my favorite sci-fi [movies] are that way. It can be fun to watch sci-fi movies that are about the shiny objects, but I think the best sci-fi for me uses [time travel] as a springboard to get at really basic human questions.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a drama. It’s a superhero movie, but it’s ultimately a drama. LOOPER too. It’s about what you would say to your future self if you could have that conversation. Obviously, that can’t happen in real life, so Rian used the sci-fi genre and the time-travel device to dramatize that question. That’s really its place. Beyond that, it gets out of the way.
Q: You were a producer on LOOPER. How does that change your approach to a project? LOOPER? In the future?
JGL: Normally, as an actor, I get a script a few months before it starts shooting. [LOOPER was] an idea that Rian and I were talking about for the better part of a decade. I saw the script years ago and we’ve talking about it since then and working towards making it come together. I really liked that. I really liked being involved from the very beginning, middle, and end.
Q: Do you have any interest in directing?
JGL: Actually, I just did it. I wrote a script. It’s called “Don John’s Addiction” and I’m directing it now. We just finished shooting it two months ago and we’re in the process of editing it. I wrote myself a fun part. I wrote Scarlett Johansen a really fun part. She liked the script so much that she did it (which is an honor). She’s fantastic in the movie. She’s really funny and really different than any character I’ve seen her play before. Julianne Moore is also in the movie. I think she’s one of the great actors alive. Tony Danza plays my dad. It’s turning out really well. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first person I showed a draft of my script? Rian. He’s been really, enormously supportive.
Q: To get back to LOOPER, we talked about meeting your future self. When you do, the main emotion seems to be disgust on both sides and that never seems to change. Why do you think that is?
JGL: I never thought of that way. They’re at odds. They want different things. They’re both acting in their self-interest.
Q: The three female characters are all very independent and strong. How vital do you think that was to the narrative and the thematic structures?
JGL: The two main guys in the movie are being selfish. The only example of a character not acting out of selfishness is Emily Blunt’s character, Sara. Even though Older Joe, Bruce’s character, is trying to protect his wife, I think he’s doing it out of selfishness. He’s trying to protect what’s his. Young Joe, same thing. He’s trying to protect what’s his. Sara’s the only one who’ll put herself in front of a gun to protect herself, even though Sid [Sara’s son] is kind of thankless, even though her job is kind of thankless. He won’t even call her mom. She still loves him. She still cares for him and wants him to grow up good. That to me is the heart of the story. It’s actually with Emily’s character. That’s the part that always makes me cry. It’s her bit at the end. It’s a real testament to Rian that he didn’t just write a couple of pretty girls. They’re actually characters that are fundamental to the story.
Q: I found it interesting that the change in your character didn’t really occur when you met your older self, but came through Sara and Sid. Do you feel that they were the catalyst for your character’s change of heart or do you think it’s a little more complicated than that?
JGL: I think that’s well put. [Young Joe] finding a connection with other people that he really didn’t have before rather than just looking out for himself. He does something selfless at the end. That’s the endless cycle that the movie’s describing. If everyone just looks out for themselves, you get a perpetual loop of everyone pointing fingers, everyone blaming each other, everyone killing each other. It takes an act of selflessness to break that [cycle].