Joseph Gordon-Levitt may now be starring in the time travel film “Looper,” but the actor has long made giant leaps look easy.
From “10 Things I Hate About You” to “Mysterious Skin” to “Brick” to “(500) Days of Summer” to “Inception,” Gordon-Levitt never does the same thing twice. In the last year alone, his screen roles have had him battle cancer (“50/50”), support Batman (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and pedal for his life (“Premium Rush”).
In writer-director Rian Johnson’s exceptional “Looper,” opening Friday, Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, who in 2044 works as a looper, an assassin who kills people sent back from 30 years in the future. When he’s assigned (and fails) to kill the future version of himself (Bruce Willis), Joe has a big, mind-bending problem on his hands.
The 31-year-old L.A. native always has been protective of privacy—to the point that he won’t even specify what else he’d like to do on screen. In the dark, wooden bar at the Peninsula Hotel, he talked about a glitch of the brain, kicking your own ass and the difference between meeting Daniel Day-Lewis, his co-star in the upcoming “Lincoln,” and the real President Lincoln.
Your recent comments about our perception of time possibly being an illusion were interesting. What do you think of the concept of déjà vu?
Oh, that’s a good one. Let’s see. What do I make of the concept of déjà vu? I don’t have a solid theory about it, but … our brains I think do construct this picture of the past, present and future because we need it to solve our basic problems like figuring out how to survive—how to get food or whatever. But I don’t think that’s necessarily how the universe works. Like it’s all in one linear, forward-moving time thing; I think that’s something our brain does. It’s a survival mechanism. So déjà vu is probably some glitch in that activity.
And sometimes we don’t know how to get food, as evidenced by “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”
[Laughs.] But they’re trying really hard. I just saw that movie, actually, first time.
What did you think?
I loved it, actually. [Laughs.] It completely surpassed my expectations. I thought it was really good. I can’t wait to see the second one.
When Joe sees that he grows up into Bruce Willis, why doesn’t he know right away that he’ll try to kick his own ass?
[Laughs.] I think he does know that. He knows it very soon. He ends up on the ground, passed out, because he just got his ass kicked.
So there just wasn’t time to react.
Well, yeah. He was probably sort of stunned to see his own self. And older Joe took advantage of that.
How do you feel like the complexity of “Looper” compares to the complexity of “Inception”?
They’re two completely different movies, but they’re both movies that are on the one hand really fun, bangin’ action movies that you can just have an entertaining time at. And on the other hand they give you something to think about, something to talk about. And hopefully it stays with you once you’ve left. It gets at some deeper questions. I love movies like that that can kind of walk that balance.
We haven’t seen much from “Lincoln” yet. How much does the movie cover his vampire hunting days?
But a little bit?
Um, no. Not at all. Sorry.
What’s something you feel like you learned from Daniel, and what’s something you might have taught him?
Well, I wouldn’t presume to say anything to the second part of that question. But I mean, when you’re acting it’s all about commitment. It’s about going for it 100 percent or more. And Daniel does that as much as if not more so than anybody I’ve ever seen. And I think that’s something that applies to more than just acting.
For a long time you’ve talked about wanting to be a chameleon on screen, someone who people may not be sure if it’s you sometimes. Do you see him as someone who represents that?
Yeah, he’s the epitome of that. It’s an honor, and I had absolutely no problem ever just believing that I was speaking to President Lincoln. Luckily I was actually—I was there working on the last day of shooting, so I got to see him shed it. Just a really incredible thing to see.
What was that process like?
I had never met Daniel. I had only ever really interacted with the president. He was a great guy. But [he was] completely different than later that night. He showed up in jeans and T-shirt and I heard his voice for the first time.
Was he like, “Nice to meet you”?
No, he didn’t say “Nice to meet you,” but it was sort of a re-meeting. It was on completely different terms. He’s such a sweetheart and struck me as a normal guy having a Guinness like I would with any number of my friends.
What performances come to mind that feel like they were inspiring to you, when you saw actors and they didn’t seem like themselves on screen?
Well, certainly Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood.” I actually remember the first time I saw “The Dark Knight,” it had been a number of years since I had seen “Batman Begins” and it slipped my mind, ‘cause maybe I was watching the movie in a certain state of mind, that I just forgot that Gary Oldman was in it, and I remember when the credits rolled and it said that Gary Oldman was playing Commissioner Gordon, I was like, “Holy [bleep], that’s right! That’s Gary Oldman!” He’s so different as Commissioner Gordon than he is in so many of his parts. That’s another good example.
You’re hosting “Saturday Night Live” again soon. How did you feel it went the last time?
It was one of the greatest nights of my life. I will not try to repeat it. I’ll try something else.
Why was it so meaningful fo you?
‘Cause it was “Saturday Night Live.” I grew up watching it. Ever since I was a kid it was one of my favorite things to do is stay up late Saturday night and watch. I grew up when it was Phil Hartman and Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. Really really fantastic cast. It was a great era of the show.
I’m interested in the porn addiction story “Don Jon’s Addiction,” your feature debut as a filmmaker. How difficult was it to do research, all that porn you probably had to watch?
[Laughs.] Yeah. Really, really tough. [Laughs.] I thought that porn was a really funny and also a cinematic symbol for a guy who just objectifies everything in his world.
Is there a movie in particular you watched as research that was particularly helpful?
Well, movies that you could reference, you could talk about “Shampoo” as one. That’s a good one to reference. Warren Beatty in that movie plays a Don Juan type of character who has something to learn, and it’s funny but it’s also a character study.
A lot of people seem to talk about you as going from an old soul in a young body when you were younger to now being an extremely youthful adult. What do you think of that characterization?
It’s very flattering. I still feel like an old man.
I don’t know. Maybe I just think old men are cool and it’s wishful thinking.
This bar is a good setting for feeling like an old man. Why are we not smoking pipes right now?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. Do you have one?
One-sentence reflection on the experience of making:
“Premium Rush.” “I got to ride a bike around New York City all summer. It was a lot of fun, and so is the movie.”
“The Dark Knight Rises.” “Man, how do you sum that up? ‘Premium Rush’ is much easier to sum up in a sentence than ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ I was Gotham City police department. What’s cooler than that? Or how about this: I have a badge from the Gotham City police department.”
“Looper.” “I got to make a movie with one of my dearest friends in the world.”
“Lincoln.” “Daniel Day-Lewis is a phenomenon.”
On Chicago: “I really haven’t spent much time at all. I’ve done this a few times, but that’s about it. I really have not seen any of the city.”
What he listened to to pass the three hours in the makeup chair each day for “Looper”: “This American Life,” Bill Evans, Glenn Gould. “Pretty gentle stuff because it was usually before the dawn. So just easy piano music.”
If there’s anything he didn’t get to do in “The Dark Knight Rises” he would want to do if he got to play Robin again in any capacity: “Well, it would be a completely different movie. I don’t see that character, the character that’s in “The Dark Knight Rises,” I don’t see that as a set-up for a continuation. I see that as a really well-done conclusion to the story that Chris was telling in those three movies.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “Well, I don’t feel guilty about any movies I like. How about ‘Attack the Block’ that came out last year? Just a really fun genre movie that was extremely fun to watch.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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