I first interviewed Joseph Gordon-Levitt five years ago when he was doing press for a great little film he made called THE LOOKOUT, and I remember thinking he was genuinely enjoyable young man to converse with and talk film. Up to that point, he's done some impressive work in smaller films like MANIC, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, HAVOC, and STOP-LOSS. But one of his most impressive roles of that period was in writer-director Rian Johnson's debut feature BRICK, a crisply written film noir set in a California high school.
In the last five years, Gordon-Levitt has exploded into the mainstream with films such as G.I. JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA, INCEPTION, HESHER (okay, maybe that isn't exactly mainstream, but it is a fucking great movie), and last year's 50/50. Although he has yet to appear in a 2012 film beginning this week, he'll begin a run of roles through the end of the year that include THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, director David Koepp's PREMIUM RUSH, Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN, and Rian Johnson's sci-fi crime drama LOOPER, in which Gordon-Levitt plays a younger version of Bruce Willis in a time-travel scenario that sees the older Willis going back in time and meeting the younger version of himself whose job is to kill the older Willis. Got it?
But perhaps Gordon-Levitt's greatest challenge, both in terms of patience and endurance, was having to sit between me and Johnson at Butt-Numb-a-Thon 2011. And while I tried my best not to annoy the guy, we did end up having quite a few conversations about everything from music, to his magnificent job hosting "Saturday Night Live" a couple years back, to his excitement at working with one of his boyhood idols, Bruce Willis. I'm not sure it would qualify as a bonding experience, but I felt fairly confident he'd at least recognize me when we met at Comic-Con to discuss LOOPER. He's still a great interview, and I look forward to talking to him again once I've seen LOOPER. Enjoy Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Photos come courtesy of Gavin "Malone" Stokes.
Capone: How are you?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Good to see you again.
Capone: I think the last time I saw you was at Butt-Numb-a-Thon, and you and Rian were just starting wrapping up pre-production on LOOPER, and now here we are.
JGL: Yeah, we were about to start shooting.
Capone: It makes it seem like such a long time ago. Yeah, you were literally going from Austin to New Orleans.
JGL: I think you might be right.
Capone: I remember Rian saying that’s what you guys were up to.
JGL: Yeah, we were about to go, and then I asked Rian when he was leaving, and he said he was leaving early to go to Butt-Numb-a-Thon, and he had told me about it in prior years, and I was like “Oh, I've always wanted to go to that,” and so last minute he managed to get me a seat and I was stoked. That was a really great experience.
Capone: That was a lot of fun.
JGL: I know, I missed it this last year; I couldn’t go.
Capone You’ve been a busy guy, man. Even though Rian has offered me many opportunities to learn more about this movie over the years, I’ve tried not to.
JGL: Good for you. I think you'll probably enjoy it more.
Capone: I think so too. You’ve worked with him before on a very different kind of movie with very different style of dialogue. Is there still something about the way he's writing that is different than everybody else?
JGL: His writing is just really sharp and really smart. It’s a little bit heightened just in that it’s a sci-fi movie, but it’s not like BRICK. BRICK was all about this really highly stylized language, and LOOPER is I think Rian’s most grounded movie by a lot, even though it’s set in the future, and there are some fantastic things happening. You don’t feel like you are watching a stylized world; you feel like you are watching reality.
Capone: Do you kind of get to play with that psychological trauma of meeting yourself and possibly having to kill yourself. There’s some deep, damaged stuff that’s buried in that. Is that something that gets to get played with a little bit?
JGL: That’s exactly what we played with. That’s the point. Rian didn’t do a sci-fi movie just so that he could make cool-looking, futuristic gadgets and buildings. The movie does have some of that, but that’s not the point. It’s really, I think, quite a sophisticated drama, with the skin of a sci-fi action movie, sort of like how [Christopher] Nolan makes his movies, whereas it’s a Batman movie, but it’s a drama, it’s a dignified, grown-up drama.
Capone: Do you like that as your career continues these really talented filmmakers keep wanting to not just work with you but bring you back in and try you out with different things? You do develop a relationship and a shorthand. Is that one of the goals as an actor, to develop that kind of working relationship with these great filmmakers?
JGL: Well it is wonderful to work again with Rian or with Chris, because you’re right there is a shorthand and a trust that both is me trusting the director, but also the director trusting me, and that’s huge, because you both need each other. The performance doesn’t get made by the actor, the performance is a collaboration where the actor provides the ingredients, but the director is the one that sort of cooks them up and puts them together into what the performance ultimately is that the audience sees.
Capone: Yeah. I’ve heard Rian comment about how in hiring you, he pretty much hired the one guy who looked the least like Bruce Willis.
Capone: And I know they did some make up on you, but the look is one thing, it’s partly out of your control, but in capturing the essence of Willis, what did you do to get a voice or mannerism?
JGL: Yeah, I just studied him. I studied his movies. I watched his movies a lot. I would take the audio off of the movies and put them on my iPod so I could listen to it. He was really helpful. He even sent me a recording reading some of my voiceover lines, so then I could hear how he would sound saying them, which was just really generous of him. The most productive thing though was just hanging out with him and getting to know him. He’s a sweetheart, Bruce is, such a nice guy and just fun to talk to, smart, not to mention he’s Bruce-fucking-Willis. [laughs] We grew up with him. He’s a hero and such a good actor. I’ve admired him for a long time. Obviously, he’s a big star, but then what other big action star ends up being in PULP FICTION and 12 MONKEYS and those sorts of movies?
And he was stoked while we were doing it. He obviously was really in love with the material and really got along with Rian, and so he was just having a ball, and we had so much fun together. That’s I think where I learned the most of what I wanted to put into my… It’s not an impersonation; it’s a character that’s based on him. But mostly I think, I just took it from him personally.
Capone: And you’re right, of all of those guys that are associated with being these huge action guys, he is the best actor if of the bunch too.
JGL: Yeah, he’s in a different league.
Capone: I don’t know that much about the relationship that your character has with Emily [Blunt], can you talk about what your interaction with her is in the film a little bit, if you’re able?
JGL: Yeah, I don’t want to give anything away, but… So a looper in the story is a certain kind of assassin that uses time travel to commit murder, because murder is sort of impossible in the future,. Because it’s so illegal, the mob that employs me in the future wants to sever their ties, so they send me my future self to kill, which I fail to do, because he’s Bruce-fucking-Willis.
Capone: Is that what you say in the movie when he popped up? “It’s Bruce Willis, I can’t shoot him.”
JGL: Exactly. And so then it becomes a bit of a cat and mouse, and all I can really say about Emily’s character is she and her family become embroiled in the chaos that ensues after I let my loop run.
Capone: That works. What is the red button? [Joseph has a small red button pinned to his jacket.]
JGL: It’s a record button just like this one [points to a red light on my recorder; his button is promoting his company hitRECord, an open collaborative production company].
Capone: I thought that might be the case. That’s actually what I thought it was. I know what that is [points to the small Batman logo on his tie]. Let me ask you this: I’m seeing DARK KNIGHT RISES on Tuesday.
Capone: So I won’t even bother asking you anything about it in terms of plot, but there’s been a lot of mystery about the character you play, and I’m wondering, when everyone has seen it and the mystery is revealed, is it a secret that has to be kept? Is it important that we don’t know until we see it? Or are you all just laughing at us jumping through hoops trying to guess?
JGL: When there’s a movie that I really am excited about seeing, I try to avoid knowing anything about it, because I want the story to be told just like the filmmaker intended it. I’m sort of picky. Like I hate DVD menus, because to me the first image of a film… That’s very important. I don’t like missing the beginning of a movie, because whatever he filmmaker chooses to be the very, very first thing that you see, I think is important. So it pisses me off when I put in a DVD, and it shows you a whole fucking montage of the movie.
Capone: Or an important scene out where you’re like “I don’t want to see this out of context.”
JGL: Yeah. A good DVD menu to me is just like a still of the poster with a “Play Movie” button. That’s it! That’s all I want! I don’t want to hear anything. I don’t want to see any fucking pieces of a scene. [laughs] It’s true. You can ask my girlfriend, I’m always complaining about DVD menus.
Capone: Secrets are important.
JGL: Yeah, that’s why. Chris and Jona[than Nolan] really came up with a great story, and I don’t think it’s exactly what people will expect and I think they'll enjoy it the most if they don’t know what to expect.
Capone: I know people that have seen it now and I wont talk to them. For a week or so, I’m not going to talk to them, because I know I’m seeing it soon. It was really great to see you again man and I’m really excited to see this movie.
JGL: It was good to see you, buddy. I’ll see you soon.