About three quarters of the way into an interview in a Lower East Side New York hotel room, Joseph Gordon-Levitt explains the underlying current of unease humming like an old refrigerator wire through his lanky body. “Interviews in general—I’m looking forward to a different experience with you—in general the truth is they’re all really pretty much fiction. I don’t mind,” the actor says with a tight smile. “It’s sort of the thing; it’s what it is. And occasionally there are exceptions. I think it’s good for readers of magazines to know that. I think actors especially…a lot of liberties are taken with artists, because it’s a little less consequential than, like, politicians. Although I imagine if you ask government officials they’d say the same thing. Press is basically a created story. It’s all just stories.”
The main character of this story is built like a long, single-lane stretch of road leading to boyish features weighted with recognition of the world. His black, heavy-hooded eyes smile when he smiles—a near-constant expression that does not always indicate happiness. The animated eyebrows are a better measure of his feelings—lowering, arching, curling, straightening, dropping, and jumping, even seeming to dance at times. Along the inside of his right arm snakes a gnarly purple scar, explained simply as “31 stitches, bike accident,” earned shooting the thriller Premium Rush, out in January.
At 30, Gordon-Levitt’s been acting for the past 24 years, growing up under the intense gaze of the camera. Famous as the brainy alien kid on the hit series 3rd Rock From the Sun, he left during that show’s sixth season, and after two years of college reentered the Hollywood atmosphere in attention-grabbing roles: the raging, institutionalized teen in Manic (2001); the gay street hustler—“I hate it when they look like Tarzan and sound like Jane”—in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004); the high school gumshoe in the neo-noir Brick (2005); and the brain-injured bank janitor in The Lookout (2007), infusing those damaged characters with the dark allure of someone who needs saving.
Lightening up in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer, Gordon-Levitt embodied the winsome, sensitive, super-cute guy every girl crushes on in high school and hopes to see at the 10-year reunion. The easy charm and open emotion—the song-and-dance number!—earned Gordon-Levitt a Golden Globe nomination, amping up his profile. When James Franco fell out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception due to a scheduling conflict, Gordon-Levitt stepped into the mind-bender to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s wingman. Now he has to wrap his head around the odds of surviving cancer in this month’s 50/50, inspired by the real-life story of comedy writer Will Reiser. The film costars Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, and Seth Rogen—a producer on the project who also happens to be Reiser’s close friend. “Seth’s basically playing himself,” Gordon-Levitt says. “Will and Seth and Evan [Goldberg, Rogen’s producing partner] worked on Da Ali G Show years ago when Will got sick and went through this awful experience. And they cajoled him into writing a screenplay.”
“It was so heartfelt and smart, very head-on,” says Huston, who plays Gordon-Levitt’s smotherly mother. “I felt tremendously close to the situation. I’d been through a long year of caring for my husband when he was ill and died. And having been in the hospital situation, it’s intense, and there are these moments of lunacy.”
The first day of shooting was a scene in which Rogen’s character shaves Gordon-Levitt’s head in a preemptive strike against that side effect of chemotherapy. “There wasn’t much scripted for it,” Rogen says. “It ended up indicative of Joe’s performance—there was a real weight to it, but at the same time it was funny. That scene was our tonal benchmark for the rest of the movie.” Director Jonathan Levine remembers another key scene in which there actually was a lot of written dialogue. “Joe said, ‘I don’t think I should talk so much.’ It’s remarkable for an actor to ask to say fewer lines. He can convey so economically and with such realism.”
It’s his stock in trade. His “power in silence,” as Reiser puts it. Throughout his films, there’s scene after scene of Gordon-Levitt on mute projecting myriad emotions, from loneliness to love, knowing to confusion, rage to resignation…with some subtle inner shift. He’s the flesh equivalent of a loaded gun sitting on a table—you can’t take your eyes off him. Howard, cast as Gordon-Levitt’s shallow girlfriend, has a word for this gift—equipoise. “My dad [director Ron Howard] said Tom Hanks always talked about equipoise,” she says. “It’s total relaxation and complete focus at the same time. That’s the biggest struggle for an actor—not to be focused but amped up, or relaxed and sloppy. Joe’s relaxed and hyper-present always.”
Offscreen you can bet Gordon-Levitt’s not big on manufacturing small talk. “There’s no unnecessary chatter,” says Kendrick, who plays his psychologist. “It’s like the only thing that was said was what was real. He’s not cold—not at all. When he is open with you, it feels more genuine because he doesn’t need to prove to everyone on set that he’s the Nice Hollywood Guy.”
Then too, the subject at hand didn’t exactly lend itself to “mucking about,” Huston says. “I found him very much unto himself. Gentle and quiet, playing music while he’s working, so he often has his ear buds in.” Says Gordon-Levitt, “I spent a lot of time—most of my days—thinking about what it would be like to be facing death while I was shooting. But, to be honest, I think about that all the time anyway.”
There’s a knock on the door. Gordon-Levitt jumps up. “I hope you don’t mind; I ordered some room service,” he says. “Would you like something?” As he signs for his steak salad, I notice a pale string around his neck disappearing behind his navy blue T-shirt. When I ask what’s on the end of it, Gordon-Levitt fishes out two snail shells. “They aren’t just shells,” he says. “There are different names for it: the Fibonacci spiral, the golden ratio…The spiral in a snail’s shell is the same mathematically as the spiral in the Milky Way galaxy, and it’s also the same mathematically as the spirals in our DNA. It’s the same ratio that you’ll find in very basic music that transcends cultures all over the world. You know that Leonardo da Vinci drawing of the human body, Universal Man? The ratio is all over there.”
He began wearing the spiral in 2006 when he made the short film Escargots with Brick director Rian Johnson. “Before that, I didn’t necessarily believe that there was really much of any connection or meaning to anything,” Gordon-Levitt admits. “You could have described me as some sort of nihilist or something—‘Oh well, it’s all in your head, and it doesn’t really matter.’ This symbol grew to represent what I started to see. There are certain patterns and repetitions and connections in my world, and throughout all of creation, that lead me to believe that there is a connection and there’s a unity and we all—everything—are all one thing all at once.” All part of the same story.
The dark shell—“a real fossil; they say it’s millions of years old”—was given to him by his friend Greg, known as Dr. Gory on hitRECord.org, Gordon-Levitt’s multimedia production website. “This is a man-made one,” he says, fingering the other ivory-colored spiral. “This is my brother’s.” Dan Gordon-Levitt was just 36 when he died last October of undisclosed causes. Known as Burning Dan for his fire-spinning talents (dancing while twirling balls of fire on the ends of ropes), he described himself on Tumblr as “a Flow Artist, performance photographer, swashbuckler, computer programmer and Internet citizen bent on saving the world with panache.”
The day after breaking the news of his brother’s death on Twitter, Gordon-Levitt posted a message on hitRECord.org that read in part: “BURNING dAN brightly embodied that bold beastly bliss sometimes referred to as ‘the creative spirit.’ He was my chief collaborator on the foundational incarnations of hitRECord.org over the years and continues to inspire us ever the more. He would absolutely positively insist that we not let this bad news deter us on our collective mission. That said, I might not feel up to it for a little while.” Looking back on it now, Gordon-Levitt says he was grateful “to be able just to say what I feel directly, without anybody else having to be the messenger for that.”
A month later, he was called to Vancouver for reshoots on 50/50. “We had become a family at that point,” Levine says. “Joe was obviously incredibly close to his brother, and watching him come back and do what he needed to do is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen, and I have such a sense of gratitude.” “Everyone was so worried and sad,” Howard says. “And Joe was such a light. He wasn’t hiding his feelings or anything, but he’s such a peaceful, incredible, soulful human being. I will always remember that. It was the closest I’ve been to someone who was walking a path to enlightenment—I don’t want to say that word—but he had such grace.”
His face bathed in computer light, Gordon-Levitt proudly shows off images of his website’s firstborn—hitRECord RECollection: Volume 1, a “best of” the collaborative art, writing, music, and video created by a collective of more than 50,000 artists. The $30 coffee-table book, with a CD, a DVD, and 64 pages of art and writing, is on sale this month, with half the profits going to Gordon-Levitt’s company (he’s the founder and president) and the other half split among his collaborators. “Posting something on the site is like burying a seed in a very fertile ground,” says Rian Johnson, who will next direct Gordon-Levitt in the upcoming time-travel thriller Looper. “I wrote a poem (‘The Man in the Herringbone Hat’) and put it up there, and Philip Baker Hall did a recording of it.” And another artist added visuals. “This is a Tiny Story,” Gordon-Levitt says, stopping on a scan of an illustrated tree with the Tiny Story: “ One day I will be a book, thought the old tree, I hope I am a good one.”
“Here’s a poem I wrote.” He points to “Nothing Big,” which reads: “Nothing big, nothing grand/ nothing useful, nothing planned/ nothing smart or at least not very/ nothing revolutionary/ nothing urgent, nothing hot/ maybe quiet, maybe not. Nothing hard, nothing wet/ nothing naked, well not yet/ nothing witty, nothing wise/ no big deal, no first prize. Nothing solemn, nothing set/ nothing much to give or get/ nothing now but me and you/ nothing more, thanks, that will do.”
Gordon-Levitt was studying French at Columbia University and trying to work in independent films when he conceived hitRECord.org. “Nobody wanted to hire me—I can see where they wouldn’t want the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun,” he says. “I came to the conclusion, I’m not going to wait for somebody to tell me that I’m allowed to be creative. The metaphor of pushing that red button sort of became my symbol for that kind of self-started creativity.
“Here’s the most grand thing we made,” he says, clicking on the short film Morgan and Destiny’s Eleventeenth Date—The Zeppelin Zoo, a fantastical melodrama that stars Gordon-Levitt as Morgan, his pal Channing Tatum as “that dastardly dip-stick Lionel,” and a lovely Zooey Deschanel-esque girly-girl as Morgan’s “lovebuddy” Destiny. “Her name is Lexy Hulme; she’s a friend of mine,” Gordon-Levitt says, smiling at the screen. “She’s a dancer in the dance sequence of (500) Days of Summer. That’s where we met.”
She’s your girlfriend?
“Well, I don’t think there’s any reason for me to be talking about that,” Gordon-Levitt sputters, surprised. “But that’s how we know each other—she’s an actress as well as a dancer.” The end credits roll, citing “306 collaborators,” which leaves you wondering who has to write all those checks.
Tomorrow the actor flies back to England, where he’s reteamed with Christopher Nolan on the next Batman installment, The Dark Knight Rises. Surely this will be an easy topic. “What I can say is that I’m having a ball working with Christopher,” he says. “I can’t talk about my character”—his character being John Blake, a reported member of the Gotham police force.
Well, I guess we have no choice but to turn to the “do you believe in soul mates?” question.
“That’s my punishment?” Gordon-Levitt asks, half-smiling, brows knit together. Yes, and anyway, he once referred to the possibility of soul mates in an interview. “That must have been one of those interviewers that was getting creative,” he replies.
Nonetheless, Joe, for the record: How many soul mates have you had? “That’s a good line!” He laughs, poking the air. Wouldn’t it just be easier to talk about Batman? “Chris crafts every aspect of his audience’s experiences….” Gordon-Levitt begins to begin.
Okay, okay. His eyebrows drop. “I was in the middle of saying Chris likes to craft every aspect of his audience’s experiences, and there’s a rhythm to that. And at this point, it’s really too early to begin telling the story. He will begin telling the story when he’s ready to begin telling the story, and I will not preempt him.” Alrighty, then… “Come on, I just gave you something interesting to write!” Gordon-Levitt says. “What I said was pretty interesting, no?” Not so much. He has the good nature to smile at this.
Just as Gordon-Levitt’s loosening up, seeming slightly more at ease, it’s time to say goodbye to the actor, producer, Internet impresario.
“It’s unfair how f–king talented he is,” Levine says. “He’s one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet. Maybe that’s a little much….” He catches himself, chuckling. “But the guy is pretty cool.”
Gregg Araki puts a finer point on it. “It’s great when younger actors are trying to do things besides be a movie star and drive fancy cars and go to clubs,” he says. “Joe’s a creative artist; he has a thirst for knowledge and art and experience. He’s not living a superficial life.”
And that concludes the story of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s true. But don’t take my word for it.