Joseph Gordon-Levitt was born on February 17, 1981 in Los Angeles, where he began acting at the age of four when he played the Scarecrow in a community theater production of The Wizard Of Oz. He subsequently grew up in front of the camera, appearing in television commercials for Pop Tarts and Cocoa Puffs and on such shows as Family Ties, Murder She Wrote, L.A. Law, Roseanne and Dark Shadows.
Joseph first enjoyed widespread fame on tv, playing Tommy Solomon on 3rd Rock From The Sun, which led to his breakout role on the big screen in 10 Things I Hate About You. He has since blossomed from a teen heartthrob into a truly talented thespian with both big box office and art house appeal.
That versatility is reflected in a resume with acting credits ranging from sleepers such as 500 Days Of Summer, The Lookout, Brick and Uncertainty, to bona fide blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Premium Rush and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is set to be released in November.
Here, Joseph talks about Looper, a mind-bending sci-fi thriller where he and Bruce Willis play the same character. The story revolves around a hitman who has no problem traveling 30 years into the future to murder for the mob until the day he is ordered to assassinate his future self.
Hi Joseph, I’m honored to have this opportunity to interview you. I think of you as the best actor never to have been nominated for an Oscar.
Thanks, Kam. That’s very kind of you.
I love a lot of your artsy films that many people might have missed. Movies like 500 Days Of Summer, Uncertainty and The Lookout.
Why, thank you!
What interested you in doing Looper?
First of all, having a chance to work with Rian [Johnson, director] again. He’s a dear friend of mine. We’ve known each other since making Brick . I also found the story incredibly intriguing, as well as the role.
What attracted you to the role?
It posed a unique challenge to me as an actor, to have to play the same character as another actor. It was a challenge that required a real transformation, and my favorite thing about acting is becoming somebody else different from me.
Watching the movie, I kept wondering whether that was you, because you looked and sounded so different.
Well, thanks. To me, the highest compliment you can really pay to an actor is saying, “I didn’t recognize you.” My favorite acting performances are the ones where the actor disappears and you just see the actor onscreen.
I’m curious to know how much you adapted to Bruce Willis’ physicality and looks for the role, and how much he was made up to look like you?
It was me basing my character on him. It only felt proper to me for the junior actor to defer to the senior actor. So, I studied Bruce. I watched his movies. I ripped the audio off his films so I could listen to him on my iPod. And Bruce even recorded himself doing some of my character’s voiceover monologues, so I could hear what they would sound like in his voice.
What was the most challenging aspect of doing Looper?
The biggest challenge was being somebody other than myself. And not only was the character different, but he was specifically connected to another actor, and Bruce Willis was sitting across the table from me.
Since you speak French and are a Francophile, would you have any plans to do a film in French?
I would love to! That would be a dream come true.
You’ve played such an array of characters. Which one was the biggest stretch and which one comes closest to how you see yourself?
I try to make something different from myself in every character I play. I don’t think I’ve ever played a character that’s all that similar to me. But this one was possibly the most transformative of all, partially because of the make-up. I actually have a different face. But also because I was making myself move and sound like Bruce Willis.
On a separate note, do you still support the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Absolutely! And the 99 percent. In fact, I think that Looper offers a really subtle but powerful warning about what the future could look like if the rich keep getting richer without any regard for everybody else. You might eventually have tents lining the streets of Kansas City.
What is the biggest misperception about you?
(Chuckles) Uhh… I don’t know. I try to not pay attention to stuff like that, I guess.
What do you do to relax between films?
I go to the movies.
Are there any comedic moments in the non-stop, sci-fi time travel action film?
Yes, there are. It’s actually quite a funny movie. Rian’s a funny guy with a great sense of humor. So, my answer would definitely be “Yes!”
When was the last time you had a good laugh?
Last night, while Rian and I were having dinner together.
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
No, I don’t think so.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
I don’t know, and I probably wouldn’t tell you if I did.
What was the last book you read?
I was just reading this really cool book of poetry called Eunoia. The author, Christian Bök, takes a fascinating approach to writing where each chapter only uses one vowel. Putting limits on creativity like that forces the artist to figure a way around any limitations.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
When I was doing Looper, it was a bizarre experience looking into the mirror and seeing a face other than your own. And it was also weirdly inspiring.
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
A human being.
What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
First of all, you have to be yourself. You can’t imitate anybody. The most important thing is focusing on what you love. As for me, I love movies, and that’s what I focus on. There are a lot of other accoutrements that come with success, and if you start to focus on those trappings, I think you’re doomed.
Have you ever wished you could have your anonymity back?
What would make your life easier?
(Laughs) I don’t know.
What are some of your favorite films and directors of all time?
I think Walt Disney was a fantastic filmmaker. I love Dumbo, Mary Poppins, The Matrix trilogy, Lysistrata and Sunset Boulevard. I also like Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Michel Gondry, Edgar Wright and Jacques Audiard, who’s a really good French director.
What’s it like to try to assess yourself on the big screen.
It’s a skill you have to acquire, because at first it just feels weird. When I was younger, it was really hard because you get self-conscious. It’s almost disturbing to hear your own voice and to see your own face. But, if you practice, you can get used to it, and learn to be critical and productive. I’ve always played with video cameras and made little movies with myself in them.
Well, you’ll be making your directorial debut next year with Don Jon’s Addiction. And you wrote it, too. How did that go?
It went great. I wrote a part for Scarlett Johansson, she agreed to do it, and was fantastic and very funny in it, playing a character very different from anything she’s done before. Julianne Moore, one of the greatest actresses alive, is also in it.
How hard was it to act and direct at the same time? I think of directors as disciplinarians who have to keep a lot of balls in the air at the same time.
It is a bit of a juggling act, but I think it turned out pretty well.
What is your favorite charity?
I like to give to public media, like PBS and NPR.
How do you want to be remembered?
(Chuckles) I don’t know. That’s not up to me.
Thanks again for the time, Joseph. Best of luck with Looper and I hope to speak to you again when Don Jon’s Addiction is released.
I look forward to it. Thanks so much, Kam.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new film, Looper, is in theaters now. For more information, go to loopermovie.com.