Born in Los Angeles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was 6, successfully transitioning from TV to film, comedy to drama, and child actor to leading man. Starting with a two-episode appearance on Family Ties, he's popped up in Murder, She Wrote, China Beach, Quantum Leap, L.A. Law, and Roseanne, among other things. Yet he remains best known for his long-running stint as an alien boy on the hit NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun. After that show's six-year run ended, Gordon-Levitt switched gears by appearing in the independent film Manic as a violent, disturbed teenager, and he went on to establish himself as one of his generation's most exciting young actors, via lead roles as a small-town hustler turned gigolo in Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin and as a high-school gumshoe in Rian Johnson's Brick. In Scott Frank's The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a young man whose involvement in a car accident has left him with motor deficiencies and lingering guilt. Gordon-Levitt recently spoke to The A.V. Club about being a serious child actor, the logistical nightmares of filmmaking, and the directors that have taken chances on him.
The A.V. Club: Your character in The Lookout has limited mental abilities and motor skills, but he isn't exactly Rain Man. What did you have to do to strike the right tone with this performance?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I started by hanging out with people who had been through similar things. With some of them, you could tell right away that they were suffering from a brain injury. With others, you couldn't. And it seems like it fits the script better if you couldn't. And so the guys that I spent the most time with were mostly just like hanging out with anybody else, except for certain moments when you'd realize, "Okay, that just reminded me that your brain doesn't work the same way mine works. You've been through something I haven't been through." It's something I've discovered while preparing for movies like this one and Manic, when I have characters who have unique traits that I need to research. You can read about these [medical conditions] all you want, but once you spend time with [the afflicted], you start recognizing them as individuals, as opposed to lumping them in with everybody else who might have those symptoms.
AVC: Where does the script end and where does your work begin? How much of it is written and how much of it are you allowed to take on your own?
JGL: Well, that was another thing that obviously helped me play the condition, because I had to keep reminding myself that it's all there in the script. All those little isolated moments in the film when an outsider, someone who doesn't necessarily know the character, can see, "Oh there's something different about you," those are all in the script. And so I knew that those would be there. That gave me the confidence that I didn't have to spend every moment trying to make sure the audience knew that Chris Pratt had a traumatic brain injury. Which isn't to say I didn't spend every moment being true to the character, because I did. But I didn't necessarily have to be too expository about the condition itself. And to me, that's the truth of what it's like to live with a condition like that. It's not every single moment that you're thinking, "I have a condition, I have a condition, I have a condition." Even though it affects every moment of your life, it's not always front and center.
AVC: The character also feels this lingering shame about his responsibility in causing the accident.
JGL: That's true. And I think that Chris suffers from that more than he suffers from the brain injury. And that's something we can all identify with, whether you've been hit in the head or not. You know what it's like to be ashamed of yourself, to regret something. And those are powerful feelings, and they can tear your life apart. And I think that they are tearing Chris apart even more so than the scratches on his brain.
AVC: So when you're working with first-time directors like Scott Frank, Rian Johnson, or Jordan Melamed, is the nature of the collaboration different? Do they rely on you to some extent to tell them what you need?
JGL: Well, every director is different. All three of those directors have had very different approaches. And all the movies are very different, and the characters are very different. So they should have different approaches. The fact that Scott is a first-time director was not something I really thought about much. I think he's born to make movies. You can tell if you have a conversation with him about movies that the man thinks in cinematic stories. That's just how his mind works.
AVC: What do you need as an actor? How do you like to be talked to in order to get your best work out?
JGL: It depends on so many things. In Scott's case, I think that what we found that worked was that he would stay on top of the story and make sure everything fell into place, because The Lookout is so tightly written and put together. Every moment in the movie leads to the next, and there's a purpose and a payoff for every scene. It's just really finely sewed up like that. And I couldn't possibly keep track of all those things, so that's he did. He made sure that all those moments were landing in what I was doing. And I made sure that in trying to satisfy all his requirements that I was just being true to the character we had come up with. So that was the back-and-forth between us. He'd be like, "You have to do this, because it would make sense for blah-blah-blah," and I would be like "Okay, but that wouldn't happen." So we'd have to work out something else. And that would be the occasional conflict, but mostly, it all just kind of worked. I could just do what was laid out in the script, and it would work.
AVC: How do scripts for movies like Manic or Brick get to you? It seems like when actors reach a certain level of fame, there are these filters that prevent you from doing scripts from unproduced writers.
JGL: [Laughs.] There are definitely filters, but everybody builds their own filters, and I like to read everything. That means I go through a lot of bad stuff, because most of the stuff that's written is pretty bad. But occasionally something comes along that's good, and I want to do it.
AVC: So you don't have agents or managers pleading with you to do more commercial projects? When you reach a certain point of success, do you have to sort of feed the beast at some point?
JGL: I think the people who work for me understand that that's not how I think. But I think it's an interesting lesson to learn, because they're still working for me. And it's not that they're still working for me because they've grown some sort of altruism or something. They're still doing it for money. They do their job. That's their job, to make as much money as they can. And what's interesting about that to me is there seems to be a notion in Hollywood that if you want to make money, you have to sacrifice doing good work with integrity. And I think that's bullshit. I think that's an excuse, and it's what people say who are scared that they can't do good work. I think that there is a market for good movies, for true—I hate to use the word, because people will think I'm pretentious or something, but—"art." I think you can make money. If you look at all the movies that have made tons of money, almost all of them are great movies too. Even Titanic. I think Titanic is a great movie. I recently watched it, and I thought it was fucking great.
AVC: Do you always put a lot of time into researching your roles, or are there occasions where you can just grip it and rip it?
JGL: That's a tough one to articulate. Not only is it different for every character, it's also different for every scene of the character. It's probably different within moment to moment in a scene. I think that anybody who says "This is the one way to go about being an actor" has probably not done a lot of professional work before. Because the truth of actually working on a movie set is that you're in the midst of a logistical nightmare. There are so many things going on. There are many factors that keep your ideal scenario from ever happening. And you're rarely going to get that. Occasionally you'll really have it, and you're like, "Wow this is so easy, everything is so nice." And much more often than that, you won't have anywhere near it. And so you have to do what you can.
When I'm on set, I do whatever I can to find my focus. One thing that stays pretty consistent for all my jobs is, I listen to a lot of music while I'm working. Because when there's all this stuff going on, for me to be able to put on headphones and listen to music helps me keep my focus, and then I can pick music based on what kind of scenes I'm going to do that day. A big part of creating a character for me is finding the general palette for what kind of music I'm going to be listening to. For The Lookout, I listened to only one band, which was actually the first time that I ever narrowed it down so much. I just listened to Pearl Jam. Partially because it's something really familiar, it's something I've listened to ever since I was little. Partially because they're fucking great. Partially because I think it kind of fit the character. Chris is a man's man, and sort of macho and tough in a way. He's a hockey player. I never played hockey before, but I started playing hockey and it's fucking hard, probably some of the hardest shit I've ever had to do physically. And Pearl Jam has that kind of drive to get you ready for that kind of pain. And at the same time, they're really emotionally kind of vulnerable and honest. So that balance, I thought, fit the character real well. But I couldn't exactly say why it ended up that way. It was just an idea I had, and as I did it, it felt right, so I kept doing it.
AVC: There seems to be a huge gulf between being a child actor and being an actor, but you've been able to make that transition. How were you able to succeed where so many have failed?
JGL: Well first of all, I have to disagree. I think some of the best actors ever were little kids.
AVC: Yes, but some of the worst are also little kids.
JGL: Especially in America. I think there's something in our filmmaking culture where we have this assumption that kids can't act, so we cast them for their looks. But watch The City Of Lost Children or The 400 Blows or the beautiful Russian film The Return, or Cinema Paradiso. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful acting by little kids. And I think acting is totally conducive to being a little kid, because kids are less inhibited and use their imagination. Kids play pretend. I think that kids can be the best actors, and it's unfortunate that so many bad actors…
AVC: …are painfully precocious?
JGL: Well, thank you for not labeling me as such a thing anymore.
AVC: It's just that when you're on TV at 6 years old, it's hard to define yourself as an actor.
JGL: I did.
AVC: You did? You were serious even that early?
JGL: Yeah. I had a really cool teacher when I was really young named Kevin McDermott, and I actually worked with him on The Lookout, too. Like all the best teachers of young kids, he didn't talk down to us, didn't treat us like little kids. He treated us like real actors and artists. And he would have us do the coolest shit. And I learned so much about not just acting, but being creative in general, or just life in general from him. So maybe that was a big part of it. But even when I was really young, I hated doing commercials. I did some because my parents wanted me to pay for my college. And they convinced me, "Look, you have this opportunity to make this money, and we want to push you to do it." And they kind of bribed me. They said, "If you do two national commercials, we'll buy you anything you want. Or you can buy yourself anything you want." So I did. I did a Cocoa Puffs commercial and a Pop Tarts commercial, and I bought a Street Fighter II machine. [Laughs.] But even when I was really young, I hated doing commercials, because I would say, "That's not real acting." And it's not. It's embarrassing what they make little kids do in commercials.
AVC: But it's also difficult to gain respect as an adult actor when you were a child actor. What enabled you to make that transition?
JGL: It's kind of my general philosophy and approach to work—you make it about the work itself, about the movie itself. The reason I think it's difficult to make a transition—any transition, be it from kid to adult or from comedy to drama, or whatever, is because you get pigeonholed, right? Certain people, oftentimes like executives in suits, like to stick to the formula, because it's their money they're putting up. And like any good businessman, they want some sort of history to assure that their money is in good hands. So that makes it difficult, because when you have that kind of structure, saying "This person isn't proven as an older actor, he's made money as a younger actor"—that definitely counted against me. And I think the reason I was able to get the jobs I did is because I worked for some very strong, self-possessed filmmakers who wouldn't listen to the executive-suited wisdom, and they believed in me from director to actor. Not from salesman to commodity.
AVC: Did you have to hustle more to get these jobs as an adult?
JGL: Absolutely. It was hard, and Jordan [Melamed] was sort of the first one. He took a lot of convincing, but he was brave enough to believe what he saw in the auditions, more than what he saw in television shows that had been made five years prior.
AVC: Was that the key project for you in opening up the world of independent film?
JGL: It was. I did one independent film when I was 15 called Sweet Jane, but Manic was the first time I got to do a role like that. And then Gregg cast me in Mysterious Skin largely off of Manic. And Scott cast me in The Lookout largely off of Mysterious Skin. Each of those men had to take their own leaps. Even having seen me in Manic, Gregg wouldn't necessarily think I could be the kind of character that I played in Mysterious Skin, like a sexually attractive person. And Scott, for certain, took a big leap, in that in Mysterious Skin, I was still playing an 18-year-old young person, and he cast me as more of a man. That took a lot of courage on his part, and I will always be grateful to Scott for believing in me.
AVC: Mysterious Skin was a huge role for you, and it brings you into fairly uncomfortable territory. Was it a difficult shoot?
JGL: Believe it or not, it wasn't at all, actually. It was really easy. I did my homework, I learned my lines, I went and hung out in Kansas. I hung out with Scott Heim, who wrote the novel. And then I got to the set and tried not to try too hard, tried not to think too much. It was quite different from Brick or The Lookout.
AVC: Was Brick just difficult because the dialogue was tough to articulate?
JGL: It was difficult for that, and it took a lot of technical rehearsal and practice just to get the dialogue the way it was, but also, the character was just… The character in Mysterious Skin is mostly very easygoing. He mostly feels great about himself. He feels attractive, and people are attracted to him. But the character in Brick is constantly thinking really hard, constantly getting hit in the face, constantly in pain over a dead lover. He sees the one love of his life dead at the beginning, so he's in a lot of pain the whole time. So that was a lot harder. Then The Lookout was by far the hardest thing I've ever done. Partially because both Brick and Mysterious Skin were four- to five-week shoots, and The Lookout was nine or 10. So there's the marathon aspect, as well as the fact that Chris Pratt is having a harder go of it than either of the other two characters ever did. You know, waking up in the morning is difficult for him. Putting a sentence together is difficult for him. Getting dressed properly, driving a car, all these things… He can do them fine, but it's just much harder than it is for a normal person, so I had to try to make it hard for myself somehow. So it was challenging.
AVC: Brick was shot on film, and on a small budget. Was there a lot of preparation involved, knowing you didn't have an unlimited amount of time and takes to get a shot accomplished?
JGL: In Brick, yeah. We rehearsed a lot. We knew we'd only have a few takes. And I think it made it so much better. I think that kind of safety net kills a lot of movies. Because people come in not having learned their lines, not having put enough thought into what they're doing, because you know you can get it in take 15. And it's not just the actors' fault. There are directors that do 20 takes unnecessarily, and you kind of have to come in unprepared, so that over the course of those 20 takes, you'll find it. Because if you come in prepared and take two is your best take, they're not using it. And that sucks. So I really enjoy shooting eight pages a day, and only getting two takes like we did on Brick. It led us to a lot of rehearsal, and I think that's what really made it come alive.
AVC: Are you more of a first-take guy, or can you do a take 20 or 30 times down the line and still have it be as strong?
JGL: It depends. I'm not necessarily a first-take person. It really depends on the stuff. I did a movie that isn't out yet called Killshot, where I had a lot to say. A lot, a lot, a lot, of words. And my later takes were probably better than my earlier takes, because you get rolling and you get used to it, and you can stop concentrating on the words and just get into it.
AVC: The roles you've taken as an adult are pretty intense. When the camera stops rolling, is it hard to come away from that and be yourself again?
JGL: With Mysterious Skin, it was easy, because I started working on Brick right away. That's kind of what did it for me. With The Lookout, it was tough. I was pretty depressed for a while after The Lookout. And before I had really come out of that, I actually took another job, which is going to be called Stop Loss, probably, although it's still officially untitled. And I went immediately into playing a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, which was another tough one. And by the time I was done with that, I was really depressed. And it took me a while to start feeling again.
AVC: It's been a while since Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce has made a film. She has an incredibly intense personality. What was it like shooting that movie?
JGL: I love her. Incredibly intense is a good way of describing her. Brutally honest. Really sharp. She's a director for actors. That's what she's best at, sitting down with an actor and just getting to the heart of what a scene is. And getting to the heart of not just what the scene is and the character is, but what you are, and how to build that bridge between the "me" and the character, and those emotions. She's really sharp at that. Disarmingly so. To the point where I met her at an audition and within 20 minutes, I was so impressed with her that even though I did not want to work after The Lookout, when that movie came along and she asked me to do it, I couldn't say no. It was pretty much because of her. And the subject matter, I think. Pairing her with the subject matter.
AVC: Stop Loss is a studio film, too, from Paramount. Political films are often hard to make within the system, so it seems like it would have been hard to get off the ground.
JGL: Actually, I don't think it's a terribly political film. It's about soldiers coming home from Iraq, but it's really about people. It never stands up and says "This war is blah-blah-blah…" It's really about the guys, which is my favorite thing about it. Because nowadays, when people talk about the situation over there, they tend to talk about politics and governments and presidents, and that doesn't tell the whole story. No one tends to look at the guys that are over there getting shot at every day, and who they are as people. So that's what that movie is about.
AVC: Did you spend time with soldiers that had post-traumatic stress disorder?
JGL: Every day. There were guys who had been over there that were on set with us.
AVC: What sort of stories did they tell?
JGL: You know what I learned? It's funny. I haven't talked about this movie at all yet. What I learned that I don't think I quite understood before was that when you read the news, you think about the war in this kind of global-political sense. You don't think about what it would actually be like to be there. Once you're there—and pretty much every single guy told me this—what you care about is keeping your buddies alive and keeping yourself alive. That's it. You don't have time to think about anything else. It's so easy to start thinking about all of the ramifications about what this war means to the world and the country and the economy and all these things. But when you're actually over there, none of that stuff has anything to do with it.
AVC: You can't make choices on the ground based on how you feel about the politics of your mission.
JGL: Of course not. If you're thinking about that stuff, you're thinking about the wrong thing. You're going to be distracted, and you're probably going to fuck up.
AVC: You went to Columbia University for a while. Were you thinking about doing something other than acting as a career?
JGL: Yeah. Manic was the last thing I did before I quit, and I thought that could have been a good thing to end on. I had been doing the same job for six years, and I loved that job. I loved 3rd Rock From The Sun, and I'm really proud of it. But six years is a long time to do it, and I just didn't really enjoy acting anymore. Then once I moved away, I became a less selfish person, I think. And I wanted to connect with the world in a way that I never had before. That's when I came back to acting. I said, "Maybe I could do this, but for another reason—not just for my own pleasure, but also as a way to find my place in this whole big thing." But I didn't know acting was going to be that. I just wanted to move away, move to New York and have the future open.
AVC: Looking forward, what do you hope to accomplish in your career? Do you look to other performers and say, "That's the career I want"?
JGL: I want to keep working with people that care about what they're doing. It seems obvious, but it's not. It's sometimes hard to keep on that track. As far as other things I want to do, there's this website I make. [Hitrecord.org, which includes Gordon-Levitt's short films and journal entries. —ed.] I haven't really done anything with it for the past year.
AVC: Some of the journals have been updated.
JGL: That's so fun to me. I love that. I love putting something up there and having people write me the very next minute. It's so cool, and it's totally different from making movies that are meant to be played on big screens. You know, making little videos that you know are going to be on tiny windows is a whole different thing. So I would hardly even compare them, even though they draw from certain similar storytelling techniques. But that intrigues the hell out of me. I don't know what it's going to lead to necessarily, but it's certainly fun.
AVC: And you're behind the camera. Do you aspire to direct on a large scale?
JGL: Yeah maybe, I don't know. I think the whole thing's changing a lot. The traditions of Hollywood are grand and great and are going to survive forever, in a way. But they're not going to be the only way for much longer. The technology is such now that you don't have to have millions of dollars to make a movie. You can make one with a computer. Like the Ze Frank show. I don't know if you know who that guy is, but at ZeFrank.com, he makes a couple-minute show every day. What he does is fucking great, and he does it all by himself. I think those lines between "behind the camera" and "in front of the camera," the lines between actor, writer, director, the lines between audience and performer… all those lines are kind of dissolving. And I'm real curious where it's going to lead.