Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on the short list of child actors who emerged unscathed from adolescence to become real adult talents. Now 30, the former star of the hit TV show "3rd Rock From the Sun" has been alternately charming and wowing audiences in a slew of features ranging from indies to blockbusters. Whether it's "500 Days of Summer," "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" or "Inception," the Los Angeles native has displayed a wide acting range and a joy in performing that's truly infectious.
Now in his latest, "Hesher," which opens Friday, he gives a pedal to the metal performance as a wild-man hippie type who insinuates himself into a grieving family and changes their lives. Lewis Beale caught up with Gordon-Levitt by phone from L.A.
The "Hesher" character is a dirty, foul-mouthed, dope-smoking wild man. What attracted you to the role?
He's gotten into a bit of an illuminated place where he's detached from his past and future, just living in the present, and there's something admirable about that. Just to spend time in that mental space, we very rarely take a moment that's just about the here and now, that's all that Hesher does, and I found that interesting.
You're one of those lucky former child actors who never had substance-abuse issues, and don't seem to be obsessed with the Hollywood scene. In other words, you're pretty normal. What advice would you give to kid actors starting out in the business today?
Pay attention to what matters, which is the work itself. There is a lot of ancillary stuff that goes along with Hollywood, and that can be very distracting. That never interested me very much.
You come from a pretty liberal tradition. Your father worked for a public radio station, your mom once ran for Congress on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, and your grandfather, a film director, was blacklisted for his political beliefs. How did this background affect your work?
My parents instilled a feeling in me that an individual is part of a larger world, and we're all connected. That's a part of any of the Leftist movements. When I was a kid, I think I acted for selfish reasons, because I enjoyed it. I didn't really care what anyone else thought of the work I was doing. When I got older, I think I sort of came to discover for myself what my parents had instilled, that it's not just about me; I'm nothing without everyone else. I still act for the same selfish reasons, but I also see the work I'm doing as a way to connect with people. I like to make movies that might mean something to somebody now, whereas, as a kid I didn't care.
What's the best advice you ever got about acting?
One tenet I learned from the only acting teacher I ever had, he had this thing he called the magic "if" -- how would I feel if I were in this situation. That's the crux of acting, and how I go about my life in general. The ability to put myself in other people's shoes has served me well.
How about the worst?
When I was 19, I stopped acting for a while , and when I came back, a lot of people thought I should do another comedy to cash in.
You've just signed to appear in the new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises," directed by Christopher Nolan, whom you worked with on "Inception." What is it about Nolan that you want to work for him again?
Chris loves movies, loves telling stories, and he always makes it about that; it's never about anyone's ego. It's just about making the movie true and genuine to itself, and it's amazing he can accomplish that on the scale that he does. But he does it.
By the way, can you please tell me what "Inception" was about?
[Laughs.] It leaves room for its audience to be creative in making meaning out of it. I hesitate to answer the question, saying definitively "it was about this," but I do think that creativity is at the heart of the movie for me.
You studied French poetry in college, and are known as something of a Francophile. What is it that intrigues you about the French?
They're very elegant with their speech, very formal. English is very informal, whereas, French sort of rolls off the tongue. It's the same reason I enjoy the old Hollywood movies -- they're more formal in their speech.