When Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes a seat across from me at our small two-top at LaMill Coffee on the east side of Los Angeles, it is everything I can do to not reach across the short distance that separates us and stroke his forearms. It is not necessarily on account of him oozing sex. He doesn’t. He is actually a disarmingly regular Joe.
Except for his arms, which are neatly folded on the edge of the table, that look as though they’ve been chiseled from a piece of smooth marble, then upholstered with a kind of caramel-colored velvet.
I push a menu across the table, and he mercifully props it up in front of him. It obscures most of his body.
“I’m starving,” he says. He orders two breakfasts—a large plate of eggs with hollandaise, salad, and grilled toast on the side, as well as a heaping bowl of granola. Looking up at the waiter with a smile that’s all affability and no flash, he asks to hear LaMill’s selection of non-dairy milk-type products. Gordon-Levitt chooses almond and puts down the menu. And then his arms are back. It occurs to me that his arms and the almond milk are the only subtle tells that differentiate him from anyone else in the bustling café, the two things that indicate that there’s anything “Hollywood” about this person. There was no barometric pressure shift when he entered the room, no megawatt grin that could power an office tower, no discernible star quality beyond a preternatural self-assuredness. But none of this changes the fact that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very much an actor on the brink of something bigger, thanks in part to his turn as John Blake in Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster The Dark Night Rises and, in perhaps a more meaningful way, to his stunning, nuanced lead performance in Rian Johnson’s near-flawless sci-fi action thriller, Looper.
“Leading man is not a term I would use to describe myself. I’m lucky enough to play parts I enjoy. Here in L.A., they like to distinguish a ‘leading man’ from a ‘character actor,’ and I don’t like that. I think a leading man is someone who simply plays themselves and who also happens to be handsome. Someone like Cary Grant. And I love Cary Grant. But I’m not him.”
By that classical definition, he might be right. In Looper, Gordon-Levitt is Joe, a Kansas City-based killer who is employed by an organized crime syndicate in the year 2042. His job is to dispose of mob targets that are sent back in time from 30 years in the future. In short: a target is shoved, blindfolded and strait-jacketed into a steam-punkish porthole that exists in 2072, sent back in time to the edge of a cornfield, where young Joe is waiting with a shooting implement called a blunderbuss, which he uses to annihilate any person who materializes from the ether of the space-time continuum. Joe disposes of the body, collects his payment in gold bars, and, when the day’s work is done, gets high on an intravitreal drug at exclusive nightclubs to numb his mounting psychic pain and general anomie. Joe is faced with a true existential brain-boggle when his future self, played by Bruce Willis, appears in front of him. Cocking the gun, he hesitates for just a moment, allowing his older facsimile to escape. This sets off what Gordon-Levitt calls a “bangin’ action movie” that also happens to have a serious mind-body dualism as its thematic undercurrent.
It’s not exactly the type of role that would have had Cary Grant clamoring for the audition sides.
And yet, Gordon-Levitt is reaching a level of prolific output that rivals Grant in his heyday. In 2012 alone, his name is attached to Looper, the aforementioned Batman film, a David Koepp vehicle called Premium Rush, and Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, in which he plays Robert Todd Lincoln, the first son of the 16th president of the United States. Next year, he’ll release Don Jon’s Addiction—a film he wrote, stars in, and is currently directing. (The latter is also the reason he looks like an airbrushed version of himself, as he plays a porn-addicted lothario with a devastating Jersey Shore tan.) Not to mention, Rian Johnson—who was one of the earliest filmic champions of Gordon-Levitt—wrote the character of Joseph Simmons with the actor in mind.
Johnson, over email, explains why he wanted Joe as the lead: “Partly I wanted to work with my friend. But I also knew this role would require someone who not only had charisma, but who could pull off the transformation into a younger version of another actor. Joe embraced that, and while spinning those plates in the air also created a living, breathing character.”
Having a character written for him is a mark of distinction that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t take lightly.
“That’s the first time that’s happened in my career. And obviously, it’s a real honor, coming from a filmmaker I admire so much. Not long after we shot Brick together, Rian started telling me about this time travel idea he had. That was in 2003. A couple years later, he wrote the script and we took it from there.”
I ask him what it is about his particular type of acting style, or personal presence, that inspired the character. He deftly maneuvers around the part of the question that requires waxing poetic on his specialness—this propensity to give an interesting answer while not exactly answering the question is noticeable in a lot of his responses.
“I think the connection between me and Rian has to do with the fact that he’s able to explain to me what he wants, and I’m able to do it really quickly. That doesn’t always happen between an actor and director. And he has a very particular sensibility. The dialogue in Looper is not nearly as stylized as in Brick or The Brothers Bloom, but it still has a snap to it, which not all actors enjoy, because some actors just want to be real. But I like stuff when it’s a little heightened.”
Gordon-Levitt cites his television roots as the reason why he gravitates toward roles that require a slightly more affected interpretation. As a teenager, he spent five years playing Tommy Solomon, the lanky alien wiseacre on the hit show 3rd Rock from the Sun. There, he was surrounded by live theatre actors—most notably Jane Curtin and John Lithgow—to whom he attributes his attraction to characters with a theatrical flair.
“They taught me that you can’t get by on just talent and courage. There are certain skills that just take practice. It takes some time to find… (snaps) those… (snaps)… beats… and take those turns that make it really cook. Like in Tarantino movies, or stuff by the Coen brothers. It’s like playing an instrument.”
Gordon-Levitt has used his instrument to great success, though up until now, in a more modest capacity. He’s the first to admit that his presence within the Hollywood unconscious has been a bit of a slow burn, a gradual rise. After 3rd Rock wrapped, he starred in the tiny indie film Manic, where he played Lyle, a disturbed young man committed to a mental institution. While it grossed only the most modest of sums, it caught the eye of Gregg Araki, who called on him to play a teenage hustler in his film Mysterious Skin. It also sparked an interest in Johnson, who remembers being so impressed by the young actor that he cast him as a hyper-verbal teenage loner in Brick.
“Manic was my first real exposure to his work,” Johnson says. “His intensity and commitment jumped off the screen. It was obvious he was a terrific actor. It was a very dark part, and you could tell he just threw himself into it.”
Manic and Mysterious Skin both premiered at Sundance, caused a discreet ruckus, and eventually helped him land the lead role as a brain-damaged janitor in The Lookout, which Christopher Nolan saw. Nolan then tapped him to play the somewhat reluctant, sad-eyed dream invader in Inception.
I try again, asking Gordon-Levitt what it is about him that gives directors like Nolan and Johnson the bug. He knits his brow and stares into his granola for several moments.
“I think it’s honesty. My performances feel honest.”
But it’s more than that. “Honesty” is too broad. You’d be hard pressed to find an actor who will admit to being dishonest in their craft. What Gordon-Levitt weaves into the honesty is the vulnerability of the everyman, a kind of incredulous surprise in discovering that he is the hero of the story. He has an indelible knack for finding what is real about the character he’s playing, no matter how preposterous or abstract or unbelievable the context is. While surprising and delightful and completely whimsical, there’s nothing weird about the choreographed group dance scene in (500) Days of Summer, where Gordon-Levitt bops around the sidewalks and parks of Los Angeles in post-coital ecstasy, giving the winks-and-guns to passersby and sharing conspiratorial looks with the blue cartoon bird who lands on his finger. Similarly, he doesn’t dress up his stomach-churning, gravity-defying hallway fight scene in Inception with a bunch of exaggerated faces and overwhelmed protestations, he simply beats up the bad guys, grim-mouthed and a little stricken, because that’s his job in Nolan’s multi-layered world of dreams. In Looper, he comes at his character in an equally grounded manner, and when describing him, uses no hyperbole or myth.
“He’s a sad guy. On the surface he looks like a badass and a killer, but in reality, he’s not living the life he wants to live. He doesn’t have anyone or anything he cares about.”
But what about the almost inconceivable paradox of meeting himself as a 55-year-old man and holding a gun to his balls under the table of a shitty diner on the outskirts of Kansas City? And the idea that he’s trying to change his own mind, even though he’s been told by his future self that his present self is incorrect? Or that his character, in every single moment of the film, must internalize the duality that is the very engine of the film?
Gordon-Levitt shakes his head gently. He explains that while Looper’s entire premise is heightened, that it is “pretty much a drama,” and that’s what Johnson wanted the audience to walk away with—not only exhilaration, but real human emotion.
“I try not to be too much of an escapist,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I try to revel in the present, in the immediate, as much as I can. Acting is all about being present. You have to decide what your present tense is, and make the decision and go for it. Right now, it’s sitting in a café and talking to you. I could say I’m tired and would like to be sleeping right now, but there’s really no good in that. The character I play doesn’t know how any of it works either. He’s just an employee. He knows he has to show up on time and pull the trigger. With any genre of movie, if you’re too caught up in the technical details, you’re missing the point. In The Big Sleep, there’s a huge plot hole, but it doesn’t matter because Bogart and Bacall are fucking rad.”
He thinks on this for a moment.
“Of course, in some big action movies, sometimes they don’t make any fucking sense, and it’s just a bunch of pretty pictures. And that’s a problem. But the world in Looper is solid enough for you to care about the characters.”
However convoluted, there’s the answer to the question he was initially evading. Here is an actor with the freakish ability to politely consider the present, and wholly inhabit the space he is in, here and now. Considering that film sets are very frequently as chaotic as an episode of The Muppet Show, that is no small feat. Johnson explains that part of Gordon-Levitt’s chops come from his complete and relentless immersion in the medium. “Joe is an actor who is also a filmmaker,” he says. “He understands every aspect of the process. That, combined with the history of trust between us, makes for the type of deep collaboration you dream about.”
Gordon-Levitt has cleaned his plates, drained his iced espresso and is looking at me placidly. The hour we’ve been allotted is nearly done, and he needs to leave to meet his trainer for a workout, which will bring him another step closer to the transformation he’s currently undergoing. He gives a polite thank you, and I watch him navigate his way out of the restaurant inconspicuously, without causing a hint of a stir.
He should enjoy it, because something tells me that’s about to change.
Stylist: Jenny Ricker
Prop Stylist: Ariana Nakata
Groomer: Cheri Keating
Production: Jessica Tosoc.
Styling Assistant: Jenny Reyes.
Grooming Notes: Repairing Moisturizing Emulsion and Anti-Fatigue Firming Eye Serum by Dior Homme Dermo Stystem. Yokan Craft Texturizing Melt by Shu Uemura Art of Hair.
This article originally appeared in Flaunt Issue 123 – The Nether Issue.