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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Hesher, Unlikely Turn-ons, and Acting in His Underwear

In person, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is unfailingly polite, well-spoken, and considerate ... and it almost cost him the starring role in his new movie Hesher. Director Spencer Susser initially couldn't reconcile the clean-cut Gordon-Levitt with the wild, anarchic Hesher, a character who becomes intertwined with a grieving young boy and a mousy grocery store clerk (Natalie Portman) then blithely turns their lives inside out, but Gordon-Levitt has always been good at reinvention: After all, how many child sitcom stars have grown up to be critically acclaimed actors who toggle easily between character roles and leading men? Recently, Gordon-Levitt sat down with Vulture to explain what he did to win the role, what you didn't get to see from him in Inception, and what he looks for in a director.

I look at you and Natalie and someone like Ryan Gosling, who was also a child actor, and it feels like you're hungry for the same kinds of independent movies.
Maybe people who have been doing it for a long time are attracted to a wider variety of things. I'll just say that I'm turned on by all sorts of things. As long as it seems inspiring and fun and like a challenge … it doesn't have to be dark, per se. The movies that are just purely dark are just as bad as the movies that are just purely light, and it's about finding that balance. You know, people give me shit sometimes for doing G.I. Joe. I loved doing G.I. Joe! When I was reading that script, I was totally turned on! I said, "This would be a fucking blast — look at this script, look at this costume!" If I feel that connection and it makes me want to work, then I'll try to get the part.

Acting can be cathartic because you get to live out things you never would do in real life, and I would think that an uncensored character like Hesher is the best example of that.
That's true, and he's behaving in a way that I think we all wish we could be in some moments. He's detached himself from the baggage that we all carry around, and he doesn't concern himself with material concerns like a house or clothes. He doesn't worry about the future, he doesn't worry about consequences. He just lives in the present tense, and I think we all could do with a little bit about that.

No, Hesher doesn't worry about clothes, but when you realize that you'll mostly be in your underwear for the entire shoot, do you worry?
The irony is that I got in real good shape for shooting Inception, and I shot Inception right after Hesher.

But you wore suits throughout Inception.
Exactly! So right after I did a whole movie in my underwear, that's when I finally got in shape, and then I was wearing suits the whole time.

Were you psyched to get so much Metallica on the Hesher soundtrack?
Man, that was the biggest coup. I was so honored. I grew up a huge Metallica fan, and we based a lot of the character on Cliff Burton, their old bassist. I remember when Spencer showed me the first rough cut with temp music and he had Metallica in it, and I was like, "That worked awesome. Too bad we'll never get to use it." But then he showed it to the band and they dug it so much that they let us use their music, and they don't let anybody use it.

At first, Spencer didn't want you in this role.
Yeah, at first he was pretty certain that I couldn't do it. Then we met for dinner, and there's no real way to be Hesher when you meet for dinner.

Did he make you read for the movie?
Oh, yeah.

You're willing to still go out and audition for microbudget movies?
Oh, sure, sure. I grew up auditioning.

That's why a lot of people don't want to do it anymore once they reach a certain stature.
I guess, yeah, but I understood why he thought I might not be able to do it. Even after dinner, he said, "He seems real nice, but no, he can't be this character." And that's when I said, "Let me audition for you, let me show you," and that's when I changed his mind.

Speaking of auditions, Joe, I'm gonna try to get you to confirm something that's become part of your lore. When John Cameron Mitchell does press, as he just recently did during Oscar season, he often talks about the fact that you sent in an audition video tape for his sexually explicit film Shortbus, even though you didn't end up doing the movie.
Correct.

Will you confirm the contents of what was on that videotape?
Uh … no. [Laughs.]

I've heard rumors that it was you getting intimate with yourself to the tune of a Janis Joplin song.
Uh-huh … Well, it was a fun little workshop he had going, and it was a cool process. I knew John — actually, my producing partner is friends with him — and I knew what he was doing and found it really intriguing.

You're about to reunite with your Inception director Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight Rises. Did he tell you early on that he wanted to work with you again?
No. [Laughs.] But I'm so excited to be working with him again. I think the world of him, and I think that a huge part of what makes his movies so great is that they maintain that dignity and artistic integrity that a filmmaker like Spencer Susser has in this small movie. Chris is able to do it on a large scale, but Memento came through Sundance, too. He doesn't pay attention to the committees and the market research and all these other things that can make movies stale … if he wanted to do his movies in a more standard way, he'd probably have a lot less fights, but the movies would be a lot more boring. Because he stands up for his own individual vision and executes it as he sees it, not as the numbers dictate, I think that's at the heart of what makes his movies so special.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images