Q&A: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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Since making his full-time return to acting with 2004's "Mysterious Skin," Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been something of an indie darling. Film's like "Brick," "Stop-Loss" and "The Lookout" have put him on the short list for projects in need of a brooding young leading man. But this summer's turn in "(500) Days of Summer," a role in "G.I. Joe" and his recent gig hosting "Saturday Night Live" have helped bring him to an entirely new -- and growing -- audience. Gordon-Levitt recently talked to Chad Williams about romantic comedies, working with Zooey Deschanel and dancing in his living room.

The Hollywood Reporter: With a film like "The Lookout," you had a ready-made challenge in the form of a physical disability. With "Brick," you were dealing with tricky 1940s-style noir dialogue. How do you make a role in a contemporary romantic comedy a satisfying one for yourself as an actor?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Good question. Our philosophy on "(500) Days of Summer" was always that we wanted the comedy to come from the humanity. A lot of comedy comes from jokes and gags and -- and I think "(500) Days" is really funny -- but the laughs come more from empathy with the characters. You're watching it and you laugh and think, "Fuck. I know what that's like. I've been there before." So because of that, our goal was always to play it with as much grounded, genuine feeling and honesty as a drama such as "The Lookout" or "Stop-Loss" or any of those movies. The stakes aren't as high. No one's getting shot or anything. But I never wanted to do a comedy where the whole thing is silly or you're making fun of the situations or the characters. I wanted it to be as genuine as anything. It's just a situation that's such that people laugh when they see it.

THR: Did you identify with Tom?

Gordon-Levitt: I think everyone can identify with him to some degree. There's a lot of ways in which I do identify with that character and a lot of ways in which I feel very different. But what I liked about him was that he felt like a human being, which plays into the question that you just asked about comedy. The reason people don't talk about acting in comedies the way they talk about acting in dramas is because oftentimes the characters in comedies are not rendered as whole human beings. They're stereotypes or caricatures. And the characters in the script for "(500) Days of Summer" felt like full, fleshed-out, three-dimensional, complicated, hypocritical human beings -- like we all are. That appealed to me a lot. And then working with Marc (Webb) and Zooey (Deschanel) ... I think the characters became even more real, especially Zooey's character. I think Zooey really did a lot to make Summer a real human being, because the movie is very much from the guy's point of view.

THR: You don't really get to see a lot of her motivation in the film.

Gordon-Levitt: Well that's the thing; it's not really a movie about two people. It's a movie about one person's subjective view of the whole thing, and I think that's a big part of why Summer ends up leaving Tom. Because Tom's not really paying attention to what Summer's motivation is. Tom's objectifying her and putting her on a pedestal as this goddess that's going to change his life for him.

THR: He's more obsessed with the idea of love than the girl?

Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. I think it's kind of selfish. There's a great scene where Summer is telling him her dreams, but the narrator talks over the whole thing, which I think is really great because it represents what is wrong with Tom and what he has to grow out of, this sort of childish selfishness. He's not really listening to her talk about the dream; he's too busy congratulating himself on the fact that she's telling him a dream.

I've heard some people come out of the movie not liking Summer and saying, "how can she not be with him?" But when I watch it, I see a lot of problems with Tom. I see perfectly well why she leaves him and why that ends up being a healthy catalyst to help him grow up.

THR: Did you come to the set with a fully formed character or did that change as the shoot progressed?

Gordon-Levitt: Well, Zooey and Marc and I had spent a fair amount of time working on stuff together before we started shooting. But "(500) Days of Summer" was fairly organic and spontaneous compared to some other things I've done like "Brick" or "The Lookout," where I'd really thought through in much greater detail what I was gonna do. In "(500) Days," I felt like I understood how the character fit and how he related to Summer but it was really about showing up and playing with Zooey. It was really all about Zooey. (laughs)

Oftentimes I'm listening to music the whole time (on set) and just staying as focused as I can on what I'm making in my own head. With "(500) Days of Summer," on my way to work every day I would listen to "She and Him," the album that Zooey's put out of her songs that she wrote and performed. So I'd just show up with "She and Him" coursing through my head and just ... play with Zooey. And that's where it mostly came from as opposed to already having something built in my head that I was trying to re-form.

THR: You've worked with a number of first-time directors. What was your relationship with Marc Webb like?

Gordon-Levitt: While this was Marc's first feature film, he didn't feel like a first-time director because he'd shot so much stuff, mostly music videos. He knew exactly what he was doing; how to run a set; what he had to do in order to get what he wanted. That's not typical of a first-time director. That's something you get from a more experienced, seasoned craftsman. So there's that. But Marc also has something that is one of my favorite qualities in some of my favorite directors and I think it's important for any director. ... They strike a balance between having a very particular vision of what they want but at the same time leaving room for spontaneity and collaboration in the moment and listening to what other people have to contribute and valuing that and encouraging it. And Marc is really really great at that. He's able to strike that balance and I think that's a big part of why this film is so good. Because everyone working on it felt inspired to come and play their "A" game.

THR: The chronology of the film jumps around a lot. How did you keep track of where you were emotionally at any given moment?

Gordon-Levitt: It did add an extra layer of challenge in that any time I do a scene I want to know what comes next and what came before. So in "(500) Days of Summer" there are sort of two layers to that. Any scene I'd do, I'd want to know what comes next and what comes before in the movie and what comes next and then what comes before in the chronological story. And both of those things were important, because if you know you're about to set up a contrast where, for example, you walk into the elevator and you're feeling great and then the elevator opens back and you're feeling like crap, you want to know both that those scenes are supposed to be next to each other when the movie's been edited but you also want to know that in the story this is three months later and this, that and the other thing have happened and that's why you're feeling this way. So Marc did a great job of helping us keep track of both those layers of chronology.

THR: What was your most memorable day or moment of the shoot?

Gordon-Levitt: The dance scene was one of -- if not the most -- remarkable days of my entire life. It's written in the script really quite like that and Marc, as good as he proved to be at making scenes of dialogue in a feature film, is extremely experienced at making a good song come to cinematic life. He knew just what to do. He hired choreographer Michael Rooney, who's choreographed a ton of things -- one of my favorites is the Bjork video 'It's Oh So Quiet' -- but he's also done a lot of other mainstream stuff and he's a really accomplished, talented guy. We were in the middle of shooting, so it wasn't like I could take the day off and rehearse all day but they taught me the steps during a couple hours they were shooting with Zooey and then I went home at night and practiced it. Yeah, that was me in my living room, moving the coffee table out of the way and dancing to Hall and Oates. There was a day in between when I learned it and when we actually shot it. So I'd sneak off somewhere where I'd didn't think people could see me and try to work out the moves. I mean, I like to dance, and I enjoy going out dancing but that's very different from learning specific steps that you have to do in a specific order. It turned out to be so much fun. (Watch a video of the dance scene below.)

Now I'm going to wax actorly on you. (laughs) In the post-Brando era, the culture of movie acting has really become about realism. People believe that the best performances are the most "real" -- where you watch it and it's like you're watching a documentary. But that's actually relatively new compared to what drama and comedy and theater have been throughout their history, including most of cinema's short history. And I love acting realistically in movies like "The Lookout" and I love watch Cassavetes movies, but I also think you can transmit a lot of feeling while being more stylized. What I love about the dance number in "(500) Days of Summer" is the fact that it's not just some side dance number that has nothing to do with anything. It actually very potently tells the story. It's exactly what Tom is feeling right then. I think it expresses that really well and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about "(500) Days." It's not just a bunch of jokes and gags, it's about feelings just like any drama or any great movie. And that number I think really makes the audience feel what Tom is feeling. And that's what I love about it. I think it's really well conceived in that way and Michael Rooney choreographed it in that way and Marc Webb executed really well it in that way. To not just be a flashy song and dance but really focus on what that scene is about. It's the morning after he's finally made love to the girl he's smitten with. It's perfect.

THR: Do you allow yourself to ever think about your career in any sort of calculated sense when choosing roles? For instance, do you see a part in a movie like "G.I. Joe" come along and think, "Gee, it couldn't hurt to be in a blockbuster action movie."

Gordon-Levitt: I think I can honestly say absolutely not. Which isn't to say I don't listen to people whose job is to think that way. But to me that's perfect. That's what an agent is for. "I can pay you to think that way and then I don't have to." Because to me, that kind of thinking is really sort of poisonous. Which, again, isn't to say I don't listen to what they have to say. But, no, I only decide to do a part because I'm creatively inspired to do it. And it's funny you bring up "G.I. Joe." I mean, I did "G.I. Joe" for the same reason that I do all the movies that I am lucky enough to do. That I feel excited to do them. "G.I. Joe" is not a drama. It is what it is, and I think it's a really good example of what it is. And I got to play a really fun character. I got to wear this crazy mask and makeup and costume, which is not something I'd normally get to do. And when I was given the opportunity to do that, there were things that inspired me in a way that "(500) Days of Summer" wouldn't inspire me. I've got eclectic taste and I get off on different things when it comes to being creative and that's all I pay attention to. I sort of made a vow when I started acting again. I sort of promised myself that I'm not gonna do this unless it's something that I can be inspired by and creatively fulfilled by. And that's when I did "Mysterious Skin" and "Brick" etc. And "(500) Days" is no exception. "G.I. Joe" is no exception. They're eclectic little corners of my creative libido, but that's where they all come from. I don't think you can really predict what's a good career move or what's going to make money. There are a lot of people who would beg to differ because they can predict within some small margin error exactly what a movie's going to gross etc. Maybe it's just me but I think it's a little more magical than that.

I also don't think it's an effective way to approach it. I think the ratio of success if you go about trying to make a movie with the goal of making it a smart career move or making it a big commercial success ... I don't think it really raises your batting average that much. Whereas if you always try to be true to your own creativity and artistic desires -- and I hate to use the "art" word in the trades and some people might smirk when I say it, and they do (laughs) -- but that's how I go about it. And sometimes you'll have certain things that resonate with lots of people and some that resonate with very few people and maybe you'll have certain things that resonate with absolutely no one but yourself. But if it's still at least resonating with you then I think that's great and that's a success. The other stuff you can't really control.

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