Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes life by the handlebars
By Jedd Jong
When one thinks of cool, badass movie rides, what comes to mind? One of the myriad souped-up sports cars in The Fast and the Furious movies? James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5? The time-travelling DeLorean from Back to the Future? The Batmobile? Whatever it is, it probably isn’t a bicycle. Sure, extreme sportsmen and professional racing cyclists can make the things look cool, but as the wheels of choice for an action hero? Premium Rush aims to prove that you don’t need a flux-capacitor or retractable machine guns, all you need are those two wheels, with a savvy bike messenger who knows his way around the streets of New York at the handlebars.
Intriguing as it sounds, others have had similar ideas: beyond the lawsuit leveled at the filmmakers by Joe Quirk, author of similarly-plotted novel The Ultimate Rush, Kevin Bacon played a bike messenger in 1986’s Quicksilver, and Taylor Lautner is due to play one as well in Tracers. However, this fall the bike lanes belong to Wilee, a bicycle courier tasked with delivering a mysterious envelope that soon attracts the attention of a corrupt cop indebted to the mob, played by Michael Shannon (who will be Superman villain General Zod in next year’s Man of Steel).
So, who really is the guy pedaling frantically away on the brakes-less, single gear ‘fixie’ bike? Why, he’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, probably one of the most-admired younger actors working in Hollywood today, equally known for his dedication to the craft as for his easy, boyish charm and demeanour. He’s an actor who has made a near-seamless transition from being a prolific child performer in commercials, film and television shows to doing equally impressive work in an eclectic filmography peppered with smaller independent comedies and dramas and huge big-budget blockbusters. He’s one of the few child actors to escape the fate of becoming a “Baby Jane” and carve his own way – perhaps he could be considered the male equivalent of Natalie Portman, whom he incidentally co-starred with in Hesher. In addition to Premium Rush, this year sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt appear in The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Lincoln, propelling him ever further up Hollywood’s A-list and cementing his position as the guy to watch.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt was born in 1981 to Dennis Levitt and Jane Gordon in Los Angeles California, and grew up in the Sherman Oaks suburb, and wasn’t the first in the family to break into show business: his maternal grandfather Michael Gordon was a movie director from the 40s to the 70s, helming films such as Pillow Talk and Cyrano de Bergerac, and his recently-deceased brother Dan was a professional fire dancer and photographer. Gordon-Levitt’s first acting role was as the Scarecrow in a preschool production of The Wizard of Oz, and the audience loved it – so much so that his mother was approached by an agent who was managing two of his cast mates in the school play (remember, this was a suburb of L.A.). The agent wanted to cast Gordon-Levitt in commercials, and the young boy was open to the idea. “I told Mom it sounded awesome”, he recalled in an interview with the New York Times. And so, a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt began starring in television advertisements for Sunny Jim Peanut Butter, Kinney Shoes, Pop-Tarts and Cocoa Puffs. However, even then he was beginning to show signs of artistic integrity. “I didn’t really like doing commercials,” he admitted. “You had to behave like you were on angel dust or something.”
Gordon-Levitt found film and television work more to his liking, and had his first such role at age six, as Tommy Lee Jones’ son in the TV movie Stranger in My Land. More work quickly followed, such as parts in TV shows including Family Ties, the remake of Dark Shadows, Quantum Leap and The Powers that Be – the latter two earning him Young Artist Award nominations. It was his turn as Young Norman alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt in the Robert Redford-directed A River Runs Through It that actually won him one. After that came guest appearances on Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman and Roseanne, and a leading role in Disney’s remake of Angels in the Outfield. By the time the first episode of the TV show he’d eventually become known for aired, he had appearances in over 20 other TV shows and movies under his belt.
That particular TV show was, of course, the science-fiction family sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, about the exploits of a team of alien researchers sent on an expedition to earth and masquerading as a regular human family. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrayed Tommy Solomon, an intelligence specialist who appears to be the youngest of the family but is really the oldest alien of the crew, in the guise of a teenager. The role showcased his comic timing and earned him critical acclaim, netting the young actor two YoungStar awards, one Young Artist Award and a Teen Choice Award, in addition to several more nominations. It also turned him into something of a teen idol and led to his being featured in teen and gossip magazines, something he didn’t particularly like. Reflecting on it, the guy who once played an alien seems very down to earth – “Supermarket tabloids and celebrity gossip shows are not just innocently shallow entertainment, but a fundamental part of a much larger movement that involves apathy, greed and hierarchy. Celebrity doesn’t have anything to do with art or craft. It’s about being rich and thinking that you’re better than everybody else.” In an age when every former child star seems to have sunk to the lowest depths of party-going, drunk driving and rehab stints, Joseph Gordon-Levitt remains a steadfastly focused actor who emphasizes the acting and not the lifestyle commonly associated with Hollywood stardom. “Actors didn`t use to be celebrities,” he says with no delusions. “A hundred years ago, they put the theaters next to the brothels.”
While he was on the show, Joseph Gordon-Levitt also took movie roles – in romantic thriller The Juror as Demi Moore’s son, in horror sequel Halloween H20, and, memorably, in Ten Things I Hate About You, alongside the late Heath Ledger. That’s right; the Joker went to high school with Gotham Police Detective R. John Blake. If you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises, then you know what the ‘R’ stands for, and the circle of irony is complete. Joseph Gordon-Levitt bowed out of 3rd Rock in its final season, asking out of his contract, to which the producers agreed. “Acting was still fun, but a spark was missing,” he said. “I wanted a new challenge.”
This new challenge came in the form of a stint at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where Gordon-Levitt studied history, literature and French Studies – the school also figures in Premium Rush; it’s where Wilee picks up the strange envelope. While a student there, he developed a love for French language and culture, learning how to speak French (which probably makes him all the sexier) and a taste for snails (which should make him a little less sexy but probably doesn’t). While most teens at the time were likely lusting over Playboy centerfolds and the girls on Baywatch, Gordon-Levitt’s celebrity crushes were French New Wave actresses such as Anna Karina, Corrine Marchand and Brigitte Bardot. “For me,” he said, “few things are more erotic than a woman speaking in a French accent.” However, when he did make a trip to France at age 20, the ladies there didn’t return his affection. “I tried to meet French women and struck out left and right,” he sighed. There is something reassuring that even the alien-boy-turned-heartthrob is only human.
Speaking about returning to acting after that, Gordon-Levitt told Movies Online, “well, the conscious decision was that I wanted to be in good movies.” As a younger actor, he was in it for fun, but he soon began taking acting more and more seriously, becoming the craftsman audiences known him as today. “When I started acting again,” he continued, “I wanted the acting to engage with that connection whereas, when I was younger, I was really unnerved when anybody would recognize me for something I’d done.” Many child actors desire to break out of the “cutesy” mould and attempt to do so with one or more performances that are as shocking as possible – it can be said that Gordon-Levitt did that to a degree. In Manic he played an abused teen committed to a mental institution, in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin he played a homosexual prostitute who was a victim of sexual abuse, in Latter Days he played a Mormon missionary (who has a cycling accident – amusing in retrospect), in Havoc he played a trailer park faux-gangster alongside Anne Hathaway (aka Catwoman), in Stop-Loss he became a traumatized Iraq War veteran and in Rian Johnson’s Brick he played a teen detective who gets embroiled in a drug ring. Quite the selection of heady dramatic parts indeed, seemingly a far cry from Tommy on 3rd Rock or his voice acting role as Jim Hawkins in Disney’s Treasure Planet.
Of course, Gordon-Levitt really made all the girls sit up and take notice in (500) Days of Summer, a quirky little subversive romantic comedy film that in itself was a deconstruction of various chick flick tropes, billed as not a love story, but a story about love. The film, helmed by Marc Webb (who’d go on to direct The Amazing Spider-Man) paired Joseph Gordon-Levitt up with manic pixie dream goddess Zooey Deschanel. The chemistry between the two was explosive and just brought smiles to moviegoers’ faces, and the most iconic onscreen hipster couple in recent memory was born. The two leads also played a part in earning the film near-universal acclaim, putting it in “top ten best movies of 2009” lists in magazines and newspapers everywhere. For his efforts as the sweet, aw-shucks architect-turned-greeting card designer, Gordon-Levitt was nominated for a ‘Best Actor (Musical or Comedy)’ award at the Golden Globes.
The same year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in a very different film – the blockbuster action flick G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra, based off the line of Hasbro Toys which had earlier inspired comic books and the nostalgia classic cartoon series. As for his role in the film, *Spoiler Alert* - he’s Cobra Commander. The serious young actor playing a cartoony villain in a toy movie? No way! The film’s version of Cobra Commander was formerly a mild-mannered US soldier, presumed dead after a mission goes awry. Keeping his survival a secret, becomes the insane, scarred head scientist of weapons manufacturer MARS. Gordon-Levitt was nearly unrecognizable, in a mask with prosthetic makeup beneath it as a Darth Vader of sorts. The actor recalls being excited by conceptual art for the film. "I was like, 'I get to be that? You're going to make that (makeup) in real life and stick it on me? Cool. Let me do it.' That's a once-in-lifetime opportunity." It also helped that Gordon-Levitt’s friend and co-star from Havoc and Stop-Loss, Channing Tatum, had been cast as main character Duke. Joseph Gordon-Levitt won’t be returning for the sequel, with Cobra Commander being played instead by Faran Tahir. Gordon-Levitt has moved on to bigger, better things.
Namely, Christopher Nolan’s cyber-punk inspired action drama magnum opus, Inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrayed the “point man” Arthur, partner-in-crime to the film’s main character Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. “When problems arise,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt explained, “it's sort of Arthur's job to smooth things out - and problems inevitably arise." The part was originally intended for James Franco, who became unavailable due to scheduling conflicts. Aside from his penchant for stylish waistcoats, Gordon-Levitt as Arthur is also remembered for the mind-blowing action sequence set in a hotel corridor, where he tangles with his opponent in zero-gravity, bouncing and running off the walls and ceiling. Gordon-Levitt performed the sequence himself, barring one quick shot. About working with the Inception stunt team, Gordon-Levitt said, “They were really cool and brought me in and taught me a lot, and let me do it. It was hard and it hurt sometimes, but it was so much fun." At the Scream Awards that year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt took home the Best Supporting Actor award, and his gravity-defying hallway skirmish was named ‘Best Fight Scene of the Year’.
Once reaching the big leagues, however, Gordon-Levitt didn’t abandon his dramatic aspirations and continued to appear in smaller films such as the quirky erotic comedy Elextra Luxx, the afore-mentioned drama Hesher alongside Natalie Portman and in the comedy-drama 50/50 alongside Seth Rogen. His role as a cancer patient, which was partially based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, got him a second Golden Globes nomination for ‘Best Actor (Musical or Comedy)’. Gordon-Levitt also directed and starred in two personal short film projects featuring his character “Morgan M. Morgansen”, which were super-artsy and screened at film festivals. Gordon-Levitt’s other pet project is hitRECord, an online collaborative production venture where contributing artists share in the profits. Gordon-Levitt oversees this alternative outlet of multimedia artistic expression from a computer setup in his home studio.
And now, 2012 is well and truly Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s year. Christopher Nolan enjoyed working with him in Inception so much that he was cast in The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Gordon-Levitt played Det. John Blake, an idealistic policeman whose optimism and sincerity did not go unrewarded. Gordon-Levitt even got an action figure made in his likeness. Soon, he will appear in the science-fiction action film Looper, from his Brick director Rian Johnson. In the time travel assassin tale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays – get this – the younger version of Bruce Willis. According to him, the prosthetics makeup people baulked, but eventually came up with something (it mainly involves giving Gordon-Levitt more of a chin). And he rounds out 2012 in Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic Lincoln as Robert Todd Lincoln, the 16th US President’s first son.
But first, he’s got to ride for his life, in Premium Rush, under the direction of veteran screenwriter/director David Koepp, whose writing credits include Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and Mission: Impossible. While expert cyclists and other stunt performers were used, Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a fair bit of the high-speed riding himself, and suffered for his art: he was cycling too fast and hit the back of a taxi, flying into its rear windscreen and slashing his arm, which required 31 stitches. A home video taken on the set shows Gordon-Levitt laughing the painful injury off, remarking “this is f***ing cool” before issuing a disclaimer for viewers not to try it at home – it is then that the cameraman realises that it’s time to whisk Gordon-Levitt away to the paramedics. That’s as cool as they come, folks. Come next year, Gordon-Levitt will take the title role in Don Jon which he will also direct, a retelling of the tale of Don Juan which re-imagines him as a young sex addict.
There is no doubt that in the past several years, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s remarkable talent has come to the fore, and audiences are embracing the actor. On his status as something of a sex symbol, Gordon-Levitt remarked “I've played the smart kid, the funny one, the nice sweet one, even the angry one, but never the sexy one.” There certainly is something sexy about him, and it probably is – above everything else – that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the real deal. He’s a movie star who’s all about the “movie” part and not the “star” bit, someone who has plainly said “the whole concept of celebrity pisses me off” and that “astronauts and teachers are much more amazing than actors”, someone whose appeal is that he comes off as a genuine guy with no airs about him – someone who takes life by the handlebars.