Joseph Gordon-Levitt: In the loop with Hollywood's next great leading man
The 500 Days of Summer star could be the new Leonardo DiCaprio
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is having a terrific year, which seems strange to say when the past few have already seen him headline an adored indie romance (500 Days of Summer), lend bulk to a franchise tentpole (GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and bask in the glow of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Nonetheless, a second stint with Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises followed by this month's thriller double-bill, Premium Rush and Looper, and a year that will culminate in the release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, is further burnishing Gordon-Levitt's claim as the boy most likely to become Hollywood's next great leading man.
God knows the industry needs someone like Gordon-Levitt to step up as his generation's DiCaprio, especially since no one else appears able. Entering a Toronto hotel room with a bottle of water in his hands and a gentle swagger in his step, he has the appearance of a man very comfortable with his place in the universe right now. “How you doin'?” drawls the 31-year-old Los Angeleno, like he's suddenly been inhabited by the spirit of Joey Tribbiani. Looper opened the Toronto International Film Festival the night before and, before the onslaught of Cloud Atlas, Argo and The Master, he's getting the chance to be toast of the town. Looper, a funky time-travel thriller, reunites Gordon-Levitt with his Brick director Rian Johnson for what he describes as “a sci-fi movie that doesn't focus on shiny spaceships or lasers, but is ultimately more of a drama – much like The Dark Knight Rises.”
Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a mob assassin called a “looper” who targets agents zapped back from the future. Not a bad gig, until the mob decides to close your loop and dispatch your future self to be terminated. Unfortunately for Joe, the 30-years-older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis, escapes, forcing Joe to hunt him down and (maybe) finish the job. In no one's eyes do Willis and Gordon-Levitt look like each other, and the older man's casting led to a face-full of prosthetics for the younger in order to bring their features closer in line. Distractingly for Looper, the glue-and-rubber job also makes Gordon-Levitt resemble a lost villain from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.
“It's a bizarre experience to look in the mirror and see a face other than my own,” muses the actor, who insists that the hours in the make-up chair he endured each morning were necessary to achieve his performance. Even Emily Blunt tells us later that when she first encountered her co-star on set, no one told her he was caked in prosthetics. “I was just really confused why he looked so different,” she says. “I thought, 'What's he done to his face?' I thought he'd had an allergic reaction to a bee sting or something.” The actress hastily adds, “It's a credit to his talents that he was able to embody Bruce Willis without cheaply impersonating him. They look nothing alike, but that's why you buy it – because of Joe.”
The opportunity to work again with Johnson was Gordon-Levitt’s chief motive for doing Looper; the two have remained close friends since Brick, casually dabbling in music together but mostly bonding over their rapturous love of cinema. Looper’s essential theme is the cycle of violence and whether raising children in the right way can prevent them growing up to become fearsome psychopaths, as in the case of a dark-eyed child (played brilliantly by Pierce Cagnon) who Willis is determined to kill in order to avert future havoc. It’s nature versus nurture, with Johnson firmly in favour of the latter – and Gordon-Levitt in full agreement.
“How a child is raised by their parents is of course going to have a profound effect on that child,” he says. “Personally, I can vouch that my parents did an excellent job. What I love to do most is something that my parents instilled in me and encouraged me to do and supported me in pursuing. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid and they never once pushed me or pressured me. They just recognised that I had a real love for something.”
Gordon-Levitt’s parents were Jewish left-wing activists who exposed their two sons – Joseph and Dan – to sports, music, acting and art, fomenting an intellectual curiosity that led Joseph to enrol in Columbia University to study literature and French poetry after 3rd Rock From The Sun came to an end. But acting was always his first love, his mother ferrying him to daily auditions and reading scripts to him before he was old enough to do it himself to help him find the roles he wanted. “More than any other person, I owe to her whatever ability I have,” he vouches.
“I just love movies so much,” he continues. “I don’t get time to do a lot else but I’m very lucky that I get to do work that is deeply meaningful to me. But of course there are lots of other things that come along with this job that aren’t so fun, and I probably spend half my time doing that stuff.” The not-so-fun stuff includes descending into the trenches of indie film financing because it’s the only way he can get smaller films like Hesher and his feature directing debut, Don Jon’s Addiction, off the ground. It also includes the private-life exposes on this very private man which are part and parcel of modern celebrity, such as a recent American GQ cover story in which the writer alleged that Gordon-Levitt’s elder sibling – a fire spinner and photographer who went by the moniker Burning Dan – had died from a drug overdose in 2010. That’s something the actor vehemently denies, prompting a public war of words with the magazine. One imagines that if Gordon-Levitt could pull a Looper and transport himself back in time, he’d choose to erase that GQ cover story from existence. “Umm…,” hedges the actor, preferring not to fan the flames.
Gordon-Levitt has just finished directing Don Jon’s Addiction, a low-budget comedy about a porn addict that he also wrote and stars in alongside Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore. (He’s composing the score too.) As for Lincoln, which looks destined to dominate the impending awardsapalooza season, he was literally gobsmacked to be in the presence of the intense (and never knowingly out of character) Daniel Day-Lewis, who vanished into his portrayal of America’s 16th President – but not before suggesting that Gordon-Levitt play his son, Robert Todd Lincoln. “Daniel’s just a phenomenon, in his own league,” he marvels. “It’s uncanny what he was doing. I completely believed that I was speaking to Abraham Lincoln.”
Being sought out by the likes of Nolan and Spielberg is propelling Gordon-Levitt into his own league, too. The accepted wisdom is that Nolan was priming his ordinary-Joe cop character in The Dark Knight Rises – a role the actor pulled off brilliantly, bringing a human dimension to the film’s muffled bombast – to become Batman’s sidekick Robin for future chapters. It’s something he’ll neither confirm or deny. “That’s not up to me to decide,” he smiles, closing with a further expression of what makes this modest man tick: “I like a variety of different movies. Sometimes I want to go and have a big cathartic experience, and sometimes I just want to have a good time. But I like to think that with every character, somehow I can draw on one of their strengths or virtues and add it to myself…”