Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: From Dark Shadows to Dark Themed Indie Star
Expanded Edition of the 3-27-07 WCT Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Gordon-Levitt in 2006, a fateful encounter with Matthew Goode in The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet in the devastatingly
emotional last scene from 2005's Mysterious Skin
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from “Third Rock from the Sun.” After five years on the hit TV sitcom the talented young
former child actor has exploded on the indie film scene with riveting performances in Manic, Brick, and especially the searing
Mysterious Skin in which he played a gay hustler struggling with the long term emotional fallout of sexual abuse. Now he returns with
another portrait of disaffected youth. In The Lookout, Levitt plays the physically and emotionally damaged Chris Pratt who has
memory problems after a debilitating car accident and becomes involved with a gang planning a bank heist where he is the night
Highlights from our conversation:
WCT: You’re really good at playing these conflicted, screwed up guys. What appeals to you about these parts?
JGL: I think human beings in general are complex. It’s pretty unfortunately common in the movie business to write characters that
are simplistic. Maybe it’s because they’re talking down to their audience or because they’re just lazy writers or what. But to me the
most interesting characters to watch and to play are the ones who have more than one thing to them. There’s lots of things to them
– they’re complicated. There’s no black or white, there are lots of shades of gray and maybe they do contradict themselves. Those
are the ones I’m always attracted to.
WCT: Talking about this character in The Lookout in particular, you’re quoted in the production notes as saying something about him,
“How do you reconcile a past that has so much promise with a future that has nothing.” I’m curious how you would answer that
question about yourself. Because you’re a guy who has a bright future and what if you went through this kind of trauma?
JGL: That’s a good question. What if I did? You know, no one’s asked me that all day. Actually no one’s asked me that so far.
WCT: Well I’m an insightful guy (laughs). I just thought of the parallels between yourself and this character. He had a bright
future, a supportive family, etc. – not unlike yourself.
JGL: I think it’s interesting you bring up family because I think that’s one of the coolest parts of The Lookout is the scenes you get
to see with his family and I don’t think his family is handling the situation very well. His father is as trapped in the past as badly as
Chris is and is unable to accept the present. What would happen if it happened to me? My parents, I know, would love me no
matter what and would be there to support me through anything and I’m really, really to have that and really grateful and I think
that might make it a little easier for me than it is for Chris.
WCT: And don’t you also have a brother that you’re very close to?
WCT: Now you’ve worked with some really unique directors in the past. Greg Araki, Ryan Johnson, Barbara Kopple, Jordan
Melamed, how did they compare with Scott Frank who was on his first film?
JGL: Well everybody’s so different. You can approach directing from so many different ways. Scott is definitely a unique director,
he's known as a writer but he was born to direct. That’s how he thinks. He thinks in cinematic stories and you could tell from the
script everything was so tightly composed, there wasn’t a moment out of place, there wasn’t a single word in a single sentence in a
single scene that wasn’t there for a reason that didn’t somehow serve to move the story forward. And when he was on set he kept all
that in mind and he made sure that all those moments landed and at the same time was totally respectful of me and what I had to
do to try to keep the character honest. With my eye on that and his eye the other I think we were able to make the thing go.
WCT: Are you looking for a lot of direction?
JGL: It depends moment to moment. Sometimes you need more and sometimes you need less and sometimes as an actor you
can really pay attention to yourself. With the character of Chris I couldn’t. I couldn’t go over and watch the playback. It would make
me self-conscious in a way I just couldn’t be. So I had to totally trust Scott (Frank – the director) that when he thought that
something was good for me.
WCT: About your process to get to the essence of a character like this. It seems kinda tortured from what I’ve read. Are you able
to separate the character from yourself at the end of the day?
JGL: I don’t think I walk around as the character but when I was up in Winnipeg shooting The Lookout there wasn’t anything else on
my mind. I wasn’t concerning myself with anything else so even when I would go home at the end of the day it’s not that I was in
character but I was definitely absorbed with and thinking about what I was going to do the next day. And everything that I would do
would be aimed at making sure I was ready for the next day. It turned out that actually for me it was important to go away from the
character so that I could spring back to it the next morning. To do that I would do things that Chris couldn’t do. For example, pretty
much every night I’d come home and read the news for a little while. Just to stretch out that part of your mind that Chris just
doesn't have access to. It’s like scratching an itch that I can’t scratch all day.
WCT: Very interesting. I want to switch films for a second. I’m writing for a GLBT audience so of course I’ve got to ask you a little
bit about Mysterious Skin. I wrote in my review that your work was “exquisitely textured.”
JGL: Thank you!
WCT: But I have to tell you that it was terribly difficult to watch somebody in such terrible emotional pain. Can you talk about
making that amazing film for a moment?
JGL: Well thank you. I’m glad you liked it. What can I say? I’m not sure where to begin…
WCT: There’s a lot there…
WCT: Well, how about just talking about working with Greg Araki?
JGL: It’s interesting that you brought up, “How much do you like to be directed” because it does differ from character to character.
On Mysterious Skin Greg showed a lot of wisdom real early on in that I remember that one of the first times we sat down to talk about
how to approach the character and I came with my novel and my script and I’d made my notes and underlined stuff in the novel. I
kind of had it in my head that I wanted to map out what was going on with the character in each scene and make sure the beats
landed, etc. Greg answered all the questions that I had for him but then he said, “I don’t think you should think about this too
much.” It made me sit back and say, “Oh you know, he’s probably right.” From that point on I didn’t think about things very much.
I did my homework and some preparation – I learned an accent – but mostly I just took that shoot really easy.
WCT: More of a sensory process?
JGL: Yes, it was just kind of letting everything in and letting everything out. I was trying not to try.
WCT: I imagine it would have been very hard to prepare for the last scene in the film.
JGL: Yes, there was no preparing for that and there wasn’t any intention to it, either. It just kind of happened.
WCT: Can I just ask you a personal indulgence question?
WCT: Okay, my partner loves loves anything to do with “Dark Shadows.”
JGL: (brightens) Oh yeah!
WCT: Can you tell me anything about working on it? Did you ever meet the original David? What do you remember about Jean
Simmons? Or just anything you want to say about Dan Curtis or “Dark Shadows.”
JGL: Oh I had the biggest blast on that movie. I loved that movie. Not a movie, it wasn’t a movie. On that show. When I was
doing that show. I mean I was nine years old and that was back when I just loved working. It was just my favorite thing to do – to
be on set and so just getting to be on set everyday was fun. But then, on top of it, my favorite stuff was running away from
vampires and it was the most fun I’d ever had on a set. I had these beautiful women with fangs chasing me around the mansion.
WCT: Right – here comes Angelique or one of those other “Dark Shadows” ladies.
WCT: You’ve now played a gay hustler, a Mormon, a high school teen detective in the Humphrey Bogart mold, and now an
emotionally and physically damaged Every Man. Not to mention a comic alien on TV (JGL laughs). So what’s next in the JGL rogues
JGL: Well there’s a movie that’s going to come out this year called Kill Shot. I get to play a psychopathic, red necked killer with
Mickey Rourke. That was real fun.
WCT: Hmmm – no musical or comedy in the works?
JGL: (laughs) Not yet, not yet.