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Capone sits down with Joseph Gordon-Levitt to talk LOOPER, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and LINCOLN!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

I first interviewed Joseph Gordon-Levitt five years ago when he was doing press for a great little film he made called THE LOOKOUT (opposite his LOOPER co-star Jeff Daniels), and I remember thinking he was genuinely enjoyable young man to converse with and talk film. Up to that point, he's done some solid work in smaller films like MANIC, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, HAVOC, and STOP-LOSS. But one of his most impressive roles of that period was in writer-director Rian Johnson's debut feature BRICK, a crisply written film noir set in a California high school.

In the last five years, Gordon-Levitt has exploded into the mainstream with films such as G.I. JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA, INCEPTION, HESHER (okay, maybe that isn't exactly mainstream, but it is a fucking great movie), and last year's 50/50. And this past summer, he began a run of roles that will take him through the end of the year that include THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, director David Koepp's PREMIUM RUSH, Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN, and now Rian Johnson's sci-fi crime drama LOOPER, in which Gordon-Levitt plays a younger version of Bruce Willis in a time-travel scenario that sees the older Willis going back in time and meeting the younger version of himself (Gordon-Levitt), whose job is to kill the older Willis. Got it?

And it sounds like he'll begin 2013 offering up his feature directing debut DON JON'S ADDICTION (co-starring Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson, and Tony Danza as Gordon-Levitt's father) about a porn-addicted man who goes on a journey of self-discovery…okay, I could have worded that better, I'll admit. In the mean time, please enjoy my talk with Joseph Gordon-Levitt…

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It’s good to see you. How are you?

Capone: Good. Forgive me if we cover some of the same ground we covered last night.

JGL: Oh, are you kidding me man?

Capone: Last night was off the record.

JGL: Last night was a great Q&A, by the way. Thank you for that. I’ve done lots of Q&As, and that was a very good one.

Capone: Good. A lot of the work you've been doing lately has been very physical, and you’re getting hurts as evidenced by the outtake in PREMIUM RUSH. Talk about what you enjoy about the physicality of the acting process.

JGL: Sure, well that’s an interesting question. I do think you act as much with your body as with your face, even though the Hollywood tradition of filmmaking is close-up centric. You can do so much with a posture, and I often find that in those wider shots, you can see someone’s body language can be just as expressive, if not more so than a close up. It reminds me of these clowns that I really love. [Laughs] In fact, the first time that I ever saw them was at the Chicago Theatre before they came to New York.

Capone: A troupe of them?

JGL: Yeah, they are called Slava’s Snow Show, and if you ever get the chance to see them, man, I can’t recommend any art higher than these guys and their show. I’ve become friends with them over the years, but it came out from just a love of their show. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and have actually been in their show now dozens of times when; they let me put on the whole getup and be on their show. They don’t talk, these Russian clowns. Clowns in the Russian tradition are different than like American Barnum & Bailey goofy buffoon clowns. It’s something like the clowns in a Fellini movie or things like that--Commedia dell'arte--and it’s all with their bodies. They use their faces too, but I just found myself so inspired by them and I think of them a lot when I’m acting in movies.

Capone: Are they more emotional beings, more tragic?

JGL: Yeah, they don’t paint a smile on their face. The Snow Show clowns paint straight mouths, or occasionally it frowns a little. But they're very emotive, not like the early funny Chaplin stuff, but like CITY LIGHTS or something like that where it’s funny and it’s a comedy, but it’s really quite emotive, his performance in some of those movies. They do it in this kind of larger-than-life, physical way. Obviously, I’m not doing and Chaplin-esque in LOOPER, but you can really tell a lot from a guy’s stance, and that’s something I focus on quite a bit.

Capone: Can you talk about physical cues--not so much vocal cues--that you picked up on while watching Bruce in person, whether it's facial ticks or body movement?

JGL: There were. I don’t want to be evasive, but I feel like if I single those things out, it might contaminate a viewer's experience of it if you’re looking for it. It’s sort of like a magician revealing his secrets, you know? [Laughs]

Capone: I’ll put a note in the article: “Don’t read this until after you’ve seen the movie.” But it is those scenes that you and Bruce have together where you really start to notice what you’re up to, what you’re doing as an actor. You’re literally going back and forth between what is supposed to be the same guy, and we really start to see some of the things that you’re picking up on with him, especially with the face. It’s truly remarkable stuff.

JGL: Thanks so much. That’s wonderful to hear, man. That's what I was going for.

Capone: Was it ever contemplated that you would play both version of Joe?

JGL: A long time ago, I did say to Rian, “Dude, let me do it. I could do both of them. It’d be great!” And he was quite confident that the story demanded an actual older actor, and I think he was 100 percent right, because there’s something that you earn with age that no matter how strong an actor a young man might be, you just don’t have those years. It’s a quality, a strength, a confidence that Bruce Willis definitely has and I don’t yet, and maybe one day I will.

Capone: You’re also, for the first time, an executive producer on this film. What did that entail, specifically?

JGL: Well normally an actor gets involved a few months before the movie shoots, and this is something I’ve been sort of involved with for the last several years, pushing to try to make happen, try to raise the money, try to convince people to get involved. Rian was really inclusive in including me in the process of casting and all of the various choices that he was making. I don’t think there was ever a point where I was like, “No, you’re wrong! You’ve got to do it my way.” There was never any of that.

Capone: Not even just to see what it was like? Just throw a little muscle around?

JGL: [laughs] No, but being part of that conversation. To be honest, largely what it comes down to is that it helped get the money and get the movie made, talking to a variety of different people and saying, “I believe in this guy. I know what I’m talking about. He's going to make a great movie.”

Capone: In terms of the casting, it was great to see you and Jeff Daniels together again.

JGL: Oh, thank you.

Capone: Actually, the first time we met was when you came here with THE LOOKOUT. I admire him so much and will watch him in anything. Was that your doing? Did you have a hand at pulling him into this?

JGL: It was completely Rian’s idea, but I think it was largely inspired by what Jeff and I did in THE LOOKOUT. Yeah, so we have Scott Frank to thank for that, I guess.

Capone: Joe is a really broken man, almost from birth. There’s just something empty and horrible about his entire life, and we see that that continues well into the future. Where were you able to find his humanity?

JGL: Well there’s a scene late in the movie where the kid [Pierce Gagnon] asks Joe about his mom, and it’s sort of a quiet, understated scene, but I remember when I read it, it was one of my favorite scenes in the script. Everyone’s got their reasons and their story of how they got to be who they are, and the character I play in this movie has had it tough, you know? He’s never had a dad. His mom left early.

Capone: She sold him to vagrants.

JGL: Yeah, the mom sold him.

Capone: That’s all you really need to know, that’s pretty much the beginning of the end.

JGL: Yeah, his mom sold him. He had nothing and Abe, the Jeff Daniels' character, picked him up, put a gun in his hand, and gave him something that was his. No one wants to feel alone and lost, like we have nothing or are nothing. If you're talking about a kid who’s in that free fall, he’ll latch on to anything, and he latched on to being a hired killer, and I can’t blame him.

I think that kind of gets at one of my favorite things about the movie, that there aren’t good guys and bad guys really in this movie, because everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Even though both young Joe and old Joe are doing pretty horrible things, they are doing it for a reason that to them feels like the noble thing to do, the right thing to do, or the only thing to do, and I think that’s the truth about the world. When you look around at atrocities or the terrible shit that people do to each other--with the exception of some people who are just crazy--most people that are doing terrible things have some reason that they are doing it, and it’s not as simple as black and white. And that gets at that question, “How do you do it? Can you solve these violent problems with more violence? Or is that just an endless loop?”

Capone: Villains don’t think they are villains, exactly. The film takes this huge risk when it moves to the farm, it becomes almost a different movie. It’s all about talking and all about discovering the characters. That scene you were talking about before with the kid, that’s in the farm. Did that intrigue you to take a sci-fi film and devote that much time just being on a farm?

JGL: I loved that, because ultimately this is a movie that’s a drama. It is a sci-fi movie and it’s an action movie and it’s fun as hell to watch, but it’s a drama. You could compare it to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in that way. That’s a superhero movie, but at its heart, it’s a drama, and there’s long stretches of that movie without any action, and that’s what makes the action scenes more powerful. You care about the people who are involved. To me, that’s the difference, as opposed to an action movie that’s wall-to-wall action. It can be cool looking, but I usually get bored by the end. It’s usually fun the first time, but after the second big set piece and the third big set piece…

Capone: The gentleman that was your make-up artist here, you also worked with him on G.I. JOE. He's done a magician’s work. I can’t see any lines on your face, it all looks totally real.

JGL: He's an alchemist. There’s not really any digital. I think you can count on one hand any sort of digital correction to the work that was done on the makeup. We thought there would be more, we just figured there would be, and then as we watched the cut come together, we were like “Actually this is all just working.” It’s also worth crediting Steve Yedlin with that, he was a huge part of it. Even with the best prosthetic makeup, which I think I had, if you put it under the wrong light, it will show and so that’s also due to Steve.

But there were two guys. There’s the guy that designed the makeup, and his name is Kazuhiro Tsuji, and he’s the famous protégé of Rick Baker. He’s won an Oscar. Ask anybody in the makeup business who he is, and they're like “Wow, Kazuhiro. He's brilliant.” He designed it and he’s the guy I worked with on G.I. JOE and who we went through the process with for months doing tests and comparing photos of me and Bruce. He’s the one who designed it.

Rian told the story of the first time we met with Kazu, and he really didn’t think it could be done, and he brought up a photo of Bruce's face and a photo of my face and explained to us in a lot of technical detail like proportions, and the distance between the bottom of your nose and the top of your lip, the distance between the inside of your eyes, all of these proportions. It’s actually really interesting to break down a face with that kind of geometry. It’s not something I had ever really looked at in that much detail, but he really explained why this was terrible casting [laughs] to try to pull off what we were pulling off.

Rian’s response was “We don’t need it to be exact; we just need it to be enough, so that the audience understands.” Ultimately Kazu put together that suggestions of similarity. The other makeup artist to mention is named Jamie Kelman, and he's the one who actually applied it for three hours every morning, and that’s an art and craft obviously in itself. You have to do the utmost care and artistry, not only in the morning, but all day long. Normally you get a makeup touch up and then you do the scene. I would get a makeup touch up after every take. Jaime would just be there making sure everything was right, because we knew that if you saw anything, it would kill the movie.

Rian was a real hardass on Jamie, and I was also a real hardass on Jamie, but I would do it through Rian. [Laughs] I wouldn’t tell it to Jamie; I’d be like “Rian, come here and look,” then Rian would be like, “Jamie, come here and look.” But Jamie and I got really close and spent so much time together. He's a sweet guy, a movie lover--we talked about a ton of movies--and the guy really, really loves what he does. He’s like you and me, someone who’s a film geek.

Capone: Speaking of which, the next few questions are more film geeky in nature. Since THE DARK KNIGHT RISES came out, what have been some of the more outlandish interpretations presented to you regarding the ending, with your character in the Batcave. I’m sure people are like, “Wait, does this mean this guy is going to make his own movie?” Is there anything in the works here? I thought it was a beautiful, stand-alone moment that doesn't need any follow-up.

JGL: I agree. Everyone’s just so into the "franchisement" of movies now, so that’s where their mind instantly goes when they saw the ending of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. I don’t think that that’s what it’s about at all. Just to echo what you were saying, I think it’s a really smart ending to that story that [Chris Nolan] is telling with those three movies, to have a person other than Bruce Wayne in the batcave just speaks to the fact that Batman is a symbol, and “We all have heroes inside of us,” and that “Batman is more than a man.” I love that idea and I think that that’s a really cinematic and powerful way to put a point on it. But yeah, people are asking me all of these questions about Robin and Nightwing and Batman.

Capone: There’s certainly many directions they could go.

JGL: I guess. Forgive me if I’m repeating myself or if you’ve heard me say this before, but it’s all about a script and a filmmaker, so that’s what matters. That’s how I pick my projects.

Capone: Yeah, it is that sort of classic “Batman is dead. Long live Batman” ending. And then as you said yesterday, you worked with Steven fucking Spielberg on LINCOLN. How long did it take you to wrap your brain around that?

JGL: Absolutely. I had that experience really three times last year, with Bruce [Willis], being in a Chris Nolan BATMAN movie since I was such a fan of the first two, and then working with Steven as well as Daniel Day Lewis. The idea of it is one thing and that can be kind of intimidating, but then once you get on the set, that stuff really slips away. You would never think, “He’s the most renowned filmmaker alive today.” He doesn’t act like that. He was having so much fun, and that’s one of the things that I was most struck by. He was clearly having the time of his life making this movie. He was so inspired, and he had the energy of what you would assume a guy who was making his first film. You wouldn’t assume this is a guy who’s been doing it for decades who has been on top of the world for an entire generation. You would assume this was a young hungry filmmaker based on his energy and excitement on set.

Capone: That’s good to hear.

JGL: And then Daniel is just phenomenal.

Capone: You said yesterday that he has adopted this voice for Lincoln that isn't what we would expect.

JGL: Yeah, he doesn’t sound anything like himself, and the historical fact is that Abraham Lincoln did have a high-pitched voice, and they don’t do it that way in most movies or cartoons. Whenever you hear Lincoln, it’s like [in a deep voice] “Four score and seven years ago…,” but that’s not actually how Lincoln talked, and Daniel did extensive research, as much as he could, and came up with a voice that sounds absolutely nothing like I’ve ever heard him sound before.

Capone: I cannot wait. It was great to see you again. Are you thinking of making it to another BNAT.

JGL: I would love to, man. I had such a good time that year.

Capone: All right, thanks.

JGL: Thanks, Steve. Great to see you again.

-- Steve Prokopy
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