Joseph Gordon Levitt Talks Redemption, Art And LOOPER

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is like a poster child for what there is to admire about American cinema today. Between really entertaining ambitious films he's made any number of powerfully good small indies. I myself am a big fan of Mysterious Skin (2004), The Lookout (2007),  and 500 Days of Summer (2009) which not only showed off the young performer's range but also signaled changes in American cinema itself.

But none of those indies was odder than Brick (2006) directed by a then unknown Rian Johnson. A stunning mix of 1940's noir patois, and modern teen melodrama set in a high school the film exploded Johnson's career and also signaled that Gordon-Levitt was likely to remain full of surprises. Cut forward a few years and sure enough he's starring in huge budget Hollywood fare like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises which he's then used to kick-start a cutting edge collaborative production company called Hit Record.

His new film, Looper, also directed by Johnson, is a time travel crime drama called in which he plays a a young hitman chasing and being chased by an older version of himself. Devastatingly entertaining  the film  plays like a hip cross between Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Dark City (1998) with a little of famous Johnson patois thrown in just for kicks. Oh, and Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like a younger version of Bruce Willis who plays his older counterpart...and he's damn good.

TWITCH: You and Rian have had a similar career arc since the release of Brick (2006) moving on to bigger and better things. Having worked with him a couple of times now I wonder about your interaction when it comes to artistic choices. For instance is he going to be an influence or even a spiritual support for your upcoming directorial debut?

JGL: Oh, all of the above. Rian's been one of my closest friends since we did Brick together. In fact he already had the idea for Looper at that point. We've been talking about it that long. But we've also been making little videos and songs this whole time in between. We're neighbors so we go to the movies together that kind of thing. We're pretty tight.

As far as Don Juan's Addiction - and thanks for asking about it, by the way - he was the first person I went to when I had a draft ready to show people. I really feel he's been a mentor to me and really supportive.

TWITCH: Your approach is very much a craft approach. But last year you did 50/50 on just a few days notice and hear you talk about Looper which you and the director have been talking about for almost a decade. What's the difference between those two situations for you as an actor?

JGL: Well, of course, those are two very different movies. I had six days to prep for 50/50 which was extreme. [laughs] But I actually think that in that case it helped. 50/50 is the kind of film you don't want to over-think and Seth and Evan have a very realistic  sort of improvisatory approach. Diving in wasn't a problem there.

Now, a Rian Johnson movie is different. Rian's stuff is highly composed, it's not improvised at all. That isn't to say he's not open to spontaneity on set. As an actor you always have to be able to meet the director where he is. One approach isn't better than another but some stories work better with some approaches is one way of looking at it.

TWITCH: Once you add in the music things you do, it makes me wonder if the ping-ponging is something that you need.

JGL: Well, I mean first I'm just grateful I get to do these things at all.  I just like to work with people I connect with on things that inspire me. It's pretty intuitive. Hit Record has been pretty planned out but, for instance, right now it's going great gang busters so it makes sense to be focused on it. And there's a synchronicity there.

For instance Sony just put out Looper. We were able to make a deal with Sony that will allow us, for the rest of the year, to pay our artists more than we have ever been able to do on our money making projects before. That's really great. Doing this at a high profile is a real privilege. Of course I'm excited when I get to do that. But it connects you to other people. That's better than anything else. You see each other grow, you can support one another.

TWITCH: It's like taking the middleman out of the music business.

JGL: Well, it's artists and creative people working together and supporting one another. But the truth is everybody out there is doing that same thing right now. Everybody has to have their own business model. The market is different. I'm friends with Rain Wilson who is doing his own Soul Pancake thing. There are similarities to Hit Record there but there are big differences too. It's a scrappier approach but it seems like that's gonna be the future. There is no one model anymore. It used to cost so much money to make art and get it out there and that just isn't the case anymore. Connecting with an audience is easier now.

TWITCH: I just saw this great video of you covering a Sesame Street song called I Don't Want To Live On The Moon. You were in this small club and talking to this audience about losing your brother and I thought to myself how incredibly cool it was to watch you trying to really connect to people through art instead of just show off or use art to create a beautiful  wall. You totally demolished any notion of celebrity there.

JGL: [laughs] Thanks. Man. Geez. I'm gonna get all Kum Ba Ya. That's it. connectivity. That's what art is. We are all connected and yet there are all these forces that isolate us in our culture and teach us to be competitive and get us fighting for status. That isn't what life should be about. That isn't going to make anybody happy. I know a lot of people at the top of that heap that aren't happy.

TWITCH: Yeah, it's odd but even the really big films you've done are mostly made by people that are doing big really personal, intimate things. Their projects have really strong characters. Chris Nolan is an obvious example but then again so is Rian. He's made three really great movies in a row. I that sense they loom very large yet his movies definitely reduce down to the journey his characters are on. His characters are after the things that matter.

JGL: Well, that's what I want out of a movie. I don't want to go to the movies to be marketed to. I want to connect to the artists involved. You can do that on any scale. It's amazing and so wonderful to be part of that. But I think to do that you as an artist have to be willing to offer yourself to the audience. Chris Nolan does that. Rian does that. I totally think Seth and Evan did that with 50/50.

TWITCH: Having played in and around genre so much do you have a favorite at this point? Does that guide your choices when taking projects on?

JGL: Not a favorite. When I look at a script or interact with a filmmaker I'm looking for a connection. You have to be able to collaborate with people. It starts with the project maybe. It doesn't happen all that often that everything aligns that way but I always look for it. When it does I get really excited.

I do like playing archetypes. Premium Rush, for instance is a really straightforward action movie. It was a blast to make. I wound up riding my bike all over town that summer because of it. But more often than not it's more satisfying to create a character when you have some sense of who they are as a person with their dark and lights instead of just seeing them as the good guy or the bad guy

TWITCH: What was it like playing a young Bruce Willis?

JGL: Bruce was always there for me. But I really didn't want to go for an impersonation or an imitation. I'm not all that good at that sort of thing anyway. I thought the character would work more if it felt like him. I watched a lot of recent stuff instead of stuff where he was young. It's funny but every job is terrifying. You always have a moment or moments the night before where you say, "Fuck. I am going to blow this."

Sin City was one movie of his I fixated on. It has a lot of voice over and a noir element to it and something about just connected. I ripped a lot of audio from his projects and he even sent me some line readings of my own monologues. But the most help came from just being around him. That was where it really sank in.

TWITCH: Was it ever suggested that he play an older Joseph Gordon Levittt?

JGL: Uh.....no. [laughs]

TWITCH: The morality of the characters is really complex.

JGL: My character isn't  a hero really, he's a bit of a lost soul. Looper is kind of a redemption story in a way. But I like that about it. It's fun to root for good guys and bad guys but Looper is more of a drama than a genre film. In real life those roles kind of blur in everybody and I think our characters are really complex. Who should I root for? That's a big question in Looper.

That really is the crux of the story for me. Everyone in the story is doing what they think is right. Young Joe and Old Joe both have some noble motivations but sooner or later you have to break the cycle or the loop of violence and identify the selfishness to get at what's really right or best. 
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  • Got Luger'd

    Thanks for providing this great interview, Canfield. JGL is my favorite actor today and it's good to know he's a pretty thoughtful, cool, down-to-earth guy in real life. Great stuff!

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