Why Joseph Gordon-Levitt Took a Break From Hollywood

Joseph Gordon-Levitt attends the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards - Getty-H 2020
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
The star, who returns with Amazon's airplane thriller '7500' after taking time off from acting for fatherhood, reflects on working with Rian Johnson, 'Inception' and what he learned from '3rd Rock From the Sun.'

After hitting the pause button for the longest period of time in his 33-year career, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is back and ready for his second act. He may have taken two years off to focus on fatherhood, but Gordon-Levitt still has quite a busy slate this year including Amazon Prime Video’s cockpit thriller, 7500, Netflix’s sci-fi thriller Project Power and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Plus, his collaborative platform, HitRecord, just released Create Together, a six-episode YouTube series that connects creatives from around the world in an effort to collaborate together during quarantine.

Returning to the screen in Patrick Vollrath’s 7500, Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias Ellis, an airline co-pilot who’s tasked with protecting the airplane’s cockpit from three hijackers. The rub is that Tobias’ girlfriend, Gökçe (Aylin Tezel), who’s also the mother of his young son, happens to be a flight attendant in harm’s way. As it turned out, writer-director Vollrath took a cue from Gordon-Levitt’s familial life and rewrote Tobias to be a relatively new father.

“In the original script, the character was not a father,” Gordon-Levitt tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And the filmmaker, Patrick Vollrath, when he came to my house for the first conversation that we had, he met my family, and I think he took some inspiration from that. He later asked me, ‘Hey, would you be open to adding this story element because seeing you with your kids made me think that it would feel really powerful and true to you.’ And it was the first time I’ve ever played a father.”

In the fall, Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort, The Trial of the Chicago 7, begins its awards season run, and Gordon-Levitt is now opening up about being a part of a who’s who of actors including Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton.

“His dialogue is brilliant. It’s a very Aaron Sorkin movie, and the script was a very Aaron Sorkin script,” Gordon-Levitt shares. “And I loved every syllable of it and I learned every syllable of it, down to the comma, which was just a pleasure. But I completely appreciate that when you’re as good a writer as he is and when that much effort has been put into the script, and when you’re achieving that certain kind of just slightly heightened style of things being a little faster and a little smarter than real life, adhering to the script is really the way to do it.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Gordon-Levitt also discusses the 10th anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, John Lithgow’s impact on his life and career and future collaborations with Rian Johnson.

So you took a couple years off from acting, became a father and focused on your various other creative outlets. What perspective did you gain during that time period as far as life and career are concerned?

Well, having taken some time off, the perspective that I’ve returned with was just really wanting to focus on the art and the craft that I love so much. There were, of course, voices in my head expressing concern about momentum, career building and things of that nature. But I knew that if I wanted to be happy, I had to choose my first project back as what would challenge me as an actor and really intrigue and inspire me. And with 7500, I think I really did find that. 

Actors often say that their acting ability is largely determined by their life experience. Did the life experience of becoming a father lend itself to playing 7500’s Tobias Ellis and the tough choices he had to make with his son in mind?

Very much, actually. It’s a good question because in fact, in the original script, the character was not a father. And the filmmaker, Patrick Vollrath, when he came to my house for the first conversation that we had, he met my family, and I think he took some inspiration from that. He later asked me, “Hey, would you be open to adding this story element because seeing you with your kids made me think that it would feel really powerful and true to you.” And it was the first time I’ve ever played a father. You don’t meet my character’s child, but you do meet the mother of this child. That storyline is important, and I absolutely think that all of the powerful feelings I have as a dad were a big part of the powerful feelings that came to the surface in this movie. And this is exactly what Patrick is so good at. He gears his entire filmmaking process around the actor’s ability to feel real and powerful feelings.

A big part of what drew me to his project was him telling me about this unique approach to filmmaking that he takes. This is his first feature, but he made a short film, which is brilliant. It’s called Everything Will Be Okay, and it was nominated for an Oscar. When he told me about how he made his short and how he wanted to use the same approach making this feature, I was fascinated. It really felt like that creative challenge I was talking about a second ago; it was what I was looking for. What he does is he really strips away so much of the technical aspects that you usually are having to deal with when you’re acting in a movie. We’re always trying to feel real feelings as actors. That’s our whole thing. That’s what’s going to make a performance good, but we’re always having to balance feeling those feelings with all these technical components. We have to obey continuity. We have to hit our mark so that the lights will hit us right and that the camera will hit us right. We have to do the same scene over and over and over and over and over again, so that they can shoot their coverage and edit together what looks like a traditional movie. Whereas Patrick just doesn’t do any of that. There is a script that kind of puts up the guide rails, but then, we don’t stick to the script at all. We don’t do one scene over and over again. He just lets the camera roll for 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes at a time, and you don’t hit any marks. The whole set is lit, and the camera, which is all handheld, will just find you, whatever you do. So, ultimately, I as an actor — all of the actors — were instructed, “Don’t worry about any of the other stuff. Only focus on being real and we will capture it.” And he gears his whole process around that. That is an invitation I had never been offered as an actor, and I’ve been doing this a long time. It was fascinating, very challenging but a really rewarding experience.

And to your question of the perspective I gained as a father or the feelings that come up because of that, when you have a process that’s so geared towards the actor being able to access their real feelings, those are the things that can happen, and I think it’s a big part of why the movie elicits such a strong emotional response in people who watch it.

From 2005 to 2016, you were a part of at least one well-regarded movie every year, and you worked with titans of the industry such as Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Robert Zemeckis. You even wrote and directed your own movie, Don Jon, which was well-received and profitable. In terms of acting and filmmaking, was your break partially inspired by a sense of creative fulfillment? That 11-year run would be a full career to most actors.

I’m incredibly grateful for all of the things that I’ve gotten to do, but stopping wasn’t because I wanted to stop acting or stop working. It was because I wanted to spend time with my kids. So, now I’m finding that balance. And whereas I used to go shoot three movies a year, now I’ve shot one a year. Well, we shot 7500 in 2017, Project Power in 2018 and then, The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2019. All three of those movies are now coming out in the second half of this year. (Laughs.) But yeah, it was a great two-year break, and that was the longest break I’d ever taken from acting in my entire life and since I was six years old. It meant a lot to me, and I’m extremely grateful that I get to do it. I hope I get to keep going forever.

Carlo Kitzlinger, who plays Tobias’ captain, used to be a real pilot, and it’s my understanding that he advised you on the terminology and process of being an airline pilot. Did you also do a ride-along in a real cockpit to prepare?

Yes. And I also did flight simulations and lots of training. Yeah, Carlo is a great actor, but he also had an entire career flying for Lufthansa Airlines. So he’s a real pilot, and he taught me all the stuff. And we would drill and drill and drill. We really wanted to make that authentic. It was excellent not having to have your tech consultant off somewhere else but have it be the actual guy who’s playing your captain. I could just ask him any little thing really quickly, and he could just give me a quick answer so we could make sure that it all felt really real.

When Tobias would watch the security monitor in the cockpit, was the surveillance footage already shot so you could react to it?

No, it was all happening in real time. The whole thing was all done for real. The actors were there doing that.

I really appreciated how the film didn’t turn Tobias into John McClane or give him a “get off my plane” moment. In fact, his most powerful moment is when he answered a question with utter silence. The way Tobias behaved is how most people would likely behave in such extreme circumstances. Were you attracted to the project because it didn’t treat the material like most Hollywood movies would?

Absolutely. That was really important to me. You hear, “Oh, it’s a movie about a hijacking, a terrorist attack,” and one’s mind instantly goes to a more conventional Hollywood narrative, which oversimplifies things into heroes and villains, and tries to deliver an audience a thrill through a good guy beating up a bad guy. This is really the opposite of that. It’s much more complicated, and it doesn’t deliver that kind of simple, crowd-pleasing happy ending, if you will. It really tries to humanize everybody. And halfway through the movie, the whole thing slows down and changes, and you kind of shift into the perspective of this young man. The character’s name is Vedat; the actor playing him is named Omid Memar. He’s a brilliant young actor. For anybody out there who’s interested in great, young, up-and-coming actors, check out this young man. He’s a young German kid of Iranian descent, and his performance is so honest, nuanced and vulnerable. I just loved working with him. And to your question, this is exactly the opposite of that normal kind of thriller genre convention because it’s no fun to beat up a bad guy if you’ve spent time watching the bad guy cry on the phone with his mom. But this is where our movie goes, and it’s really all about taking apart the oversimplification that often happens, whether in Hollywood or in the news or coming out of our sensationalistic President’s mouth, who oversimplifies, demonizes and otherizes people for his own gain. This movie does the opposite. It says, “Here are those people who are often so oversimplified and put in a box, but we’re not just going to treat them as others. We’re not just going to put them in a box. You’re going to experience a fleshed-out human portrayal of these human beings, and you’re going to be forced to think about why have they found themselves doing this terrible thing.” Like I said, it’s different than the crowd-pleasing thriller, but it’s something that I’m really proud of and I think is really relevant in today’s conversation.

Your collaboration platform, HitRecord, was already a major creative outlet for you and your community, but amidst the pandemic, have you developed a whole new appreciation for it since it’s a lifeline for a lot of people right now?

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. HitRecord has always been about people being creative together even though they’re not in the same physical place. It’s an online community of people collaborating on all kinds of projects. And so, when quarantine started and so many folks were facing that feeling of isolation, HitRecord, just by virtue of doing what we’ve always done for years, filled this need for, I think, a kind of a human connection, but different than what you get on other places on the internet. You can chat with people on other platforms. You can see what other people are posting, and that can be great, of course. But as we all know, I think sometimes that kind of social media can start to feel scatter-brained or disposable. Whereas when you’re in collaboration with people, when your interactions online are, “Let’s make something together; we have a common goal and we’re pulling together to try to actually accomplish something,” it feels very different. It’s a vulnerable and substantial human interaction that is a lot of what I know I was looking for and what a lot of people were looking for online during this time where a lot of folks were stuck at home. And it was really bittersweet and uplifting to see. So that’s the story that we have been telling on this series Create Together, which is documenting that process of people coping with this strange time of pandemic and isolation. By not only being creative, but being creative together with other people.

When Anne Hathaway’s dress broke at the 2013 Critics’ Choice Awards, you famously came to the rescue with your HitRecord pin. Did the HitRecord pins fly off the shelves the next day?

(Laughs.) I don’t remember. Maybe, yeah. You can still get one if you get a t-shirt or one of our books. There’s tons of collaborative art that our community has made, and you can buy books, records, things like that. And every time you buy one, you get a pin! So, I’m hustling, but you brought it up. So there you have it. (Laughs.)

When it comes to The Trial of the Chicago 7, was Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue as rhythmic and uptempo as any dialogue you’ve had in your career?

(Laughs.) His dialogue is brilliant. It’s a very Aaron Sorkin movie, and the script was a very Aaron Sorkin script. And I loved every syllable of it and I learned every syllable of it, down to the comma, which was just a pleasure. And it’s the opposite of 7500, of course, where we didn’t stick to the script at all. It’s also quite different than normal movie-making; it’s a little looser with the dialogue. But I completely appreciate that when you’re as good a writer as Sorkin is and when that much effort has been put into the script, and when you’re achieving that certain kind of just slightly heightened style of things being a little faster and a little smarter than real life, adhering to the script is really the way to do it. It’s more like theater in that way. And we were working with a bunch of theater actors. You know, Eddie Redmayne comes from Shakespeare. Mark Rylance, too, et cetera. Frank Langella. And so, it was just a pleasure for me. It was like Actor Olympics or something.

The 10th anniversary of Inception is right around the corner. Have you gotten used to the fact that your hallway fight is on every cinematic highlight reel/supercut and will continue to be long after we’re gone?

(Laughs.) I don’t know. I haven’t quite thought of it that way. It’s an honor. Carrying on in the grand tradition of Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. I love that movie. I think back on shooting that sequence with just such enormous fondness. We had such a blast. Chris, his entire crew, everyone was just having such a good time. I think everyone kind of knew that, as we were doing it, like, “Holy shit, this is incredible.” (Laughs.) Even though it was really, really hard work. So yeah, I don’t have much to add, but I’m grateful.

And you didn’t get motion sickness during the shooting of that sequence?

No, no. (Laughs.)

Throughout your career, you’ve developed lasting relationships with people like Rian Johnson and Seth Rogen, as well as others that aren’t public knowledge. Keep in mind, there are plenty of actors who don’t have these types of relationships that lead to multiple collaborations including fun cameos. So, in an effort to find the root of all this, did you get advice early on that it’s not just about being a great actor and that it’s just as important to be someone that your peers want to be around for 12 hours a day? Would you trace this back to anyone or anything in particular?

Wow, that’s an interesting question, man. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. Where my mind goes first is John Lithgow. And everyone in that [3rd Rock from the Sun] cast, actually. Everyone was so good to each other, but he really set the pace. He was such a shining example of a kind and dedicated leader. He was a mentor to all of us. He was always there to help, and he always just brought 110 percent to this TV show. An actor like that could be resting on his laurels and being like, “Okay, I’ve proved myself. I’ve done Shakespeare. I’ve done Oscar movies. Now, I’m just going to do this sitcom. It’ll be easy, and I’ll take it easy.” And he treated it the opposite of that. He worked so hard, was so supportive of everybody else and just had so much fun. He brought so much positivity every day. I do think that that was infectious and something that he instilled in me in a lot of ways — or hopefully, at least somehow. And yeah, that show was so formative for me. I was on that show from age 13-19, so all my teenage years I spent with that family of people and they’re incredibly dear to me. I’m singling out John, but Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, Jane Curtin, Simbi Kali, Wayne Knight, everybody. Everybody was so, so sweet. Not to mention Bonnie and Terry Turner, the creators of the show. I mean, I could just name names. Everyone was so good to each other, and I really think that that experience was huge for me. When it was my turn to be the lead of a movie like Brick, I absolutely think that I was taking a page from the way that John approached being the lead of 3rd Rock from the Sun. I tried to set that pace for, like, “Okay, I’m the one. I’m the actor kind of leading this, and here’s how I’m going to approach it. I’m going to bring 110 percent to this little movie, and I’m going to support every other actor just like John supported me.” And Rian and I made really good friends during that movie, and we’ve been friends since. So, I don’t know. Maybe that’s an answer to your question, which is very flattering. Thank you.

On his recent press tour, Rian sounded pretty fed up with having to cast you in two consecutive cameo roles and not a lead role. Are you going to avoid a third straight cameo since that would qualify as an official streak?

(Laughs.) Hope so, man. We’ll see. Of course, I would love to… I just love working with Rian. It’s such a pleasure.

While I hope you end up as a lead in the next Knives Out-adjacent movie, the glutton in me still wants another “Detective Hardrock” voice cameo.

(Laughs.) I hope so as well. And I hope Slowen Lo gets to make another appearance in Star Wars in some way.


7500 is now available on Amazon Prime Video.