Joseph Gordon-Levitt on His 'Project Power' Bike Accident and 'Dark Knight Rises' Memories
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s big year continues as Project Power, the second of his three 2020 films, hit Netflix on Aug. 14 and immediately became the streamer’s most popular film in the U.S at the moment. Gordon-Levitt plays Frank Shaver, a New Orleans detective who’s investigating the source of a new superpowered street drug known as “Power.” In order to level the playing field with the criminals who are taking Power, Shaver also ingests the pill which yields bulletproof skin in his case.
Unfortunately, eight years after he injured himself doing a bicycle stunt on David Koepp’s Premium Rush, Gordon-Levitt suffered his second freak bike accident while riding a “Blue Bike” on Project Power’s New Orleans-based set. Blue Bikes are part of the city’s bike-share program.
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“I’m sure it would’ve been in the movie if it was on camera. It happened off-camera and after I passed the camera. In fact, they used the shot right before it happened,” Gordon-Levitt tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was fucking around, and that’s part of why I fell. I was fucking around, looked right at the camera and came close to it. And I was going too fast. And then, when I hit the brakes, the brakes on that public bike were not good brakes, but again, I shouldn’t have been going that fast. The front wheel seized up and dumped me off the bike right into the concrete. I wish I could’ve seen it.”
Eight-plus years after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises hit theaters, Gordon-Levitt reflects on the similarities and differences of Gotham City Police Detective John Blake and Det. Shaver.
“Frank Shaver is, in many ways, actually kind of similar, and then, in other ways, sort of the diametric mirror opposite of John Blake,” Gordon-Levitt explains. “One is East Coast, Gotham, which is very New York, and then, Frank Shaver is very New Orleans. One is very clean-shaven, and one is exactly the opposite of that and scruffy. John Blake is sort of a goody-two-shoes; he’s kind of a stand-up cop. Although, he is a hothead, I guess. ‘Someone get this hothead outta here!’ But yeah, they’re similar in that they’re both altruistic protectors of a city that they feel a lot of love for.”
As one might expect, Gordon-Levitt still can’t believe that he had the honor of filming the concluding shot of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy.
“I mean, I was pretty excited. I don’t know what to say. It was quite an honor just to get to be doing another film with Chris. And certainly, yeah, that is the cherry on top,” Gordon-Levitt recalls. “But after having such a wonderful time with Inception and being so proud of that movie, to then have him call me up and say, ‘I want you to be in the next one. Come read it, and then have dinner,’ I’m so, so grateful for my friendship with Chris, Emma (Thomas) and his whole mishpacha, as we say in the old country. Yeah, it’s a real pleasure.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Gordon-Levitt also discusses the significance of his 2007 film, The Lookout, to Project Power and Inception, as well as Project Power’s musical collaboration with his company, HitRecord.
So I owe you a softball first question after your reaction to our last interview’s first question. What power would you opt to ingest in pill form assuming it was completely safe and legal?
Wait, I want to remember now. Why is it that you owe me a softball? What did you start with last time? Forgive me, I don’t remember.
It was something like, “What perspective did you gain during your two-year break as far as life and career are concerned?” and you were pretty bowled over.
Oh yeah. (Laughs.) Well, that was a suitable question to start off an interview for 7500, and this is a suitable question to start off with for Project Power. What power would I choose? I like the idea of extreme empathy where you could actually see and hear and feel and smell and taste what someone else is sensing. I think that would be a cool superpower. It’s sort of like what we try to do as actors by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. If you took it to the extreme level of a superpower, that probably would be kind of fascinating.
If only we could give everyone a dose of this particular power...
Your character had quite the introduction with the motorcycle powerslide and a Dirty Harry-type monologue with weapon drawn. Where does Frank Shaver rank for you in terms of your characters’ flashiest introductions?
(Laughs.) Let’s see. Shoot. It is a pretty flashy introduction, and I’m trying to think of other flashy introductions. It’s a flattering question. I mean, with the Don Jon introduction, you start out by looking at pin-up girls and then, it’s straight to me in a picturesque dolly shot. jerking off in front of a computer. So that’s a fairly flashy introduction, as well. We’ll put this right below that.
When I saw that you were playing a cop in the trailer, I began to wonder if there’d be any similarities to The Dark Knight Rises’ John Blake, but that thought was immediately put to bed during Frank’s introduction. I suppose you could say that they’re both underdogs who love their cities, but when you’re deciding on a role, how much influence do your past characters have in terms of not wanting to repeat yourself?
I definitely am inspired by getting to do something new. And it’s funny: no one else has brought that up, but it’s something I’ve thought of before. Frank Shaver is, in many ways, actually kind of similar, and then, in other ways, sort of the diametric mirror opposite of John Blake. One is East Coast, Gotham, which is very New York, and then, Frank Shaver is very New Orleans. One is very clean-shaven, and one is exactly the opposite of that and scruffy. John Blake is sort of a goody-two-shoes; he’s kind of a stand-up cop. Although, he is a hothead, I guess. “Someone get this hothead outta here!” (Laughs.) But yeah, they’re similar in that they’re both altruistic protectors of a city that they feel a lot of love for. It’s definitely an interesting moment to be playing a police officer, and none of our current conversations around criminal justice and police brutality are new, of course. But they are certainly more prominent now than they’ve been in a few years.
When bulletproof Frank was shot in the head, I’m guessing they used a Phantom camera to achieve the slow motion, but what did the filmmakers do to make it look like you were hit in the face with something?
It was this powerful blast of air. They had this hydraulic pump or something that could shoot out this really sudden and strong burst of air to make my face look like it was being impacted in that way. And Henry (Joost) and Rel (Ariel Schulman) are just such gifted visual filmmakers. They have so many unexpected and fun, oftentimes weird ideas about ways to just make an image they haven’t seen before. And that’s definitely an indelible image. I remember when they showed me the first test of it, I was like, “I get to do that?! Amazing. Perfect.” And it really worked.
Did you rewatch Dirty Harry to fine-tune your Eastwood persona?
I did not rewatch Dirty Harry, nor have I ever seen Dirty Harry from front to back. I’m more of a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly kind of guy. I like the Man with No Name trilogy. Dominique Fishback had the line of her favorite Clint Eastwood movie being The Bridges of Madison County, which is brilliant. That’s one of my favorite lines in the movie, and she just totally improvised it. Since you’re writing for The Hollywood Reporter, I should just say that anybody who’s interested in rising talent and up-and-coming artists is definitely going to want to check out Dominique Fisback. She’s so good. She’s so smart. She’s so talented. And it was nothing but a pleasure to work with her.
So, as much as I enjoyed the film, I have to admit that I was hoping they would find a way to incorporate your blue bike spill into the bank robber chase scene. I presume you aren’t disappointed by its omission, though?
(Laughs.) I wish they caught it. I’m sure it would’ve been in the movie if it was on camera. It happened off-camera and after I passed the camera. In fact, they used the shot right before it happened. It’s in the movie, which is kind of ridiculous because I look right at the camera, something you’re not supposed to do. I was fucking around, and that’s part of why I fell. I was fucking around, looked right at the camera and came close to it. And I was going too fast. And then, when I hit the brakes, the brakes on that public bike were not good brakes, but again, I shouldn’t have been going that fast. The front wheel seized up and dumped me off the bike right into the concrete. But Henry and Rel used that shot, even though it’s blatantly breaking the rules. Actors are not supposed to look right at the camera, but they just liked that I did that for some reason. I kept telling them, “Guys, you can’t put that in the movie,” but they kept putting it in the movie. So, it’s in. The fall itself is off-camera. I wish I could’ve seen it.
Despite these two freak bike accidents, did you develop some decent cycling skills from your days with David Koepp on Premium Rush?
I thought so, but apparently not. (Laughs.) I mean, I would say I’m a decent cyclist. I’m a lot better than I would’ve been had I not done Premium Rush.
I really liked the fact that I could feel New Orleans in this movie. There was a real sense of place. The film even brought some recent history into the mix with Frank’s “remember the last time we trusted guys in suits” line, and his Steve Gleason jersey. Did those elements really unlock who Frank was for you as a character?
Yeah, definitely. His love for the city is a big part of his character’s motivation, and if he doesn’t have that, there’s not a great reason why Frank is doing all the things that he’s doing in the movie. But New Orleans makes it really easy to sell that because New Orleans is a city that people truly love, and I always admired that every time I visited that city. People who are from there really feel the sort of pride of place that people have for their hometown. And the way that people feel about their football team, the New Orleans Saints, is unlike any sports team that I know about, at least in this country. And I’m a big Lakers fan. People in L.A. love the Lakers and the Dodgers, but the way that people in New Orleans are about the Saints is a whole different thing. So, wearing that Gleason jersey was pretty perfect. We got to meet Steve, actually, and he was a really, really sweet guy. It’s incredible what he’s been through and all the work that he continues to do.
You’ve done a great many things on-screen, but I don’t think you’ve sprinted down the street in a towel until Frank Shaver.
(Laughs.) Yeah, after Third Rock from the Sun, I think John Lithgow sort of showed the way. You could be trying to reserve a hotel speaking Thai with cucumbers on your eyes, or you could be posing nude for a painting class. Sky’s the limit, really, and the whole point is to have fun doing the most ridiculous shit that you can do. Being a graduate of Third Rock from the Sun university, I think I bring that to the table any time I’m doing something comedic.
John Blake would never do that shower-and-towel chicanery that Shaver did to get the bad guys to leave Robin’s mother’s house.
(Laughs.) Exactly. Yeah, they’re opposites in many ways.
Yeah, it was exciting because Netflix came to us with this idea. It wasn’t my idea or anybody at the HitRecord office’s idea. Netflix approached us and said, “Hey, can we do some kind of HitRecord thing? Maybe a collaborative piece of music inspired by the movie.” And we were like, “Absolutely. This is exactly what we’re good at doing.” And the first thought I had honestly was, “If we’re going to do that, then we should do it with Dom,” because it’s her character who’s the musical soul of the movie. Her character is an aspiring rapper, and she’s also just got such a positive energy to her. She’s kind of perfect to lead a project on HitRecord. And so, doing it together with Dom was what I added to it, and when I texted her about it, she was really excited to do it. It’s been going great. We just launched it, and there’s already tons of great stuff that’s coming in. And for those reading that don’t know, this isn’t like a contest where we say, “Hey, submit songs and we’ll pick a winner.” It’s a real collaborative, creative process with people iterating and remixing each other, and then there’s a real back-and-forth between me and Dom, as well as other producers working for HitRecord. All these creative people from all over — rappers, musicians, writers, artists — are inspiring each other. It’s a positive and uplifting thing for people online to not just be chatting and not just be sort of one-upping each other, but to actually be collaborating, to be trying to achieve something together that might not have been possible alone. This is what always makes me feel so good about the stuff we do on HitRecord and why I keep doing it after all these years. It’s always really inspiring to me. It kind of never fails, watching people from all over making art together. I just really love it, and so, I really appreciate Netflix’s support since they came to us with this idea.
In my ongoing effort to find connections that are usually just coincidences, is Frank’s line, “You’re the lookout! It’s an important role,” supposed to be a wink and a nod to a similar line from a certain 2007 film [The Lookout] starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt? “That’s the most important job of all; you’re the lookout” is the line that was said to your character in that film.
(Laughs.) That’s a great question. You’re catching all the stuff. I don’t think that anybody else noticed that, but I definitely did. And that was a very important role for me. That was the movie that Chris Nolan saw that I think inspired him to cast me in Inception.
Do you remember how you felt when you first read “Blake rises, and is swallowed by the darkness of their wings and we — FADE OUT” on the last page of The Dark Knight Rises script?
Yeah, I mean, I was pretty excited. I don’t know what to say. It was quite an honor just to get to be doing another film with Chris. And certainly, yeah, that is the cherry on top. But after having such a wonderful time with Inception and being so proud of that movie, to then have him call me up and say, “I want you to be in the next one. Come read it, and then have dinner,” I’m so, so grateful for my friendship with Chris, Emma (Thomas) and his whole mishpacha, as we say in the old country. Yeah, it’s a real pleasure.
Is it true that you nailed your big monologue at Wayne Manor in one take?
We definitely did more than one take of it, but I was not going to come in and miss any takes on that day. I like to be prepared, but we definitely shot more than one take of it. There’s more than one angle of it, but yeah, I think I learned it pretty thoroughly.
In the summer of 2005, I was outside playing ping-pong with a friend in Newport Beach, and he suddenly had the idea to see a particular movie. The thing is, he wouldn’t tell me what movie he wanted us to see, but he insisted it was good. So we drove to this indie theater near UC Irvine, and he asked the box office for two tickets to Mysterious Skin. Keep in mind, I knew absolutely nothing about the film at the time, so I asked him who was in it. He then mentioned your name, and I said something like, “Cool, I’ve been watching him since Angels in the Outfield.”
Naturally, I wasn’t prepared for how powerful that movie is, as it was one of the most impactful moviegoing experiences I’d had to that point. So, with that in mind, do you have your own example of a movie that you went into blind, only to have it hit you like a ton of bricks?
First of all, that’s really kind of you to tell me that story, man. Thank you. It really means a lot to me when I hear that something I worked on was meaningful to someone else. It’s quite different than someone just being like, “Oh, I’m a fan,” or whatever. Thank you for saying that. What comes to mind? I remember going to see Sling Blade, which is sort of a similar kind of movie to Mysterious Skin. It’s a small-budget, little independent movie that came through Sundance, and I was probably sixteen or something like that. This was the first time that most people really saw Billy Bob Thornton, and he’s had such a wide-ranging career now. Sling Blade is this extremely powerful, heavy drama that he wrote, directed and acted in — and he’s unrecognizable. He doesn’t look like himself at all, and his character is so thorough and convincing. I remember, I went to see it with my buddy Mike at the Sunset 5, which I think actually exists again. It stopped existing, and now it exists again. It’s an arthouse… I think Sundance might be part owner of it now, or something. It was where you could see Sundance movies and little indie movies. I remember going to see it, and as soon as it was done, we just went and bought tickets to see it again. We watched it again that same night. So, that’s one.
Project Power is now available on Netflix.
by Richard Newby
by Katie Kilkenny
by Rick Porter
by Richard Newby