It’s been quite a year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it’s barely half over. The 31-year-old actor is riding high after the success of The Dark Knight Rises and an acclaimed, unclothed return to Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and he’s now promoting Rian Johnson’s Looper, a brainy sci-fi thriller where Gordon-Levitt plays a young hit man assigned to kill his future self, and since that future self comes in the form of Bruce Willis, there are plenty of prosthetics involved. After that, Gordon-Levitt will be seen playing son to Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated biopic Lincoln, and in the meantime, he’s putting his finishing touches on his directorial debut, Don Jon’s Addiction, where he costars with Scarlett Johansson. Suffice it to say, Gordon-Levitt’s a busy man, but he still found time last week to sit down with Vulture and talk it all over.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but until this year, you had never played a real person before, right? And now, you have two films coming out — Looper, where you’re channeling Bruce Willis to an extent, and Lincoln, where you play Abraham Lincoln’s son — where your preparation as an actor must have been distinctly different.
There’s no way you would have found this, but I did do a TV movie when I was 12 years old and it was based on a real person, and you just made me think of it. It was called Gregory K, and now I think it’s called Switching Parents or something. It was one of those “ripped from the headlines” TV movies. 50/50 was sort of autobiographical, but it wasn’t like I was trying to look like him or behave like him. So yeah, I guess since that TV movie, Robert Lincoln is the first historical character that I’ve played.
But in Looper, did it feel at all like you were playing Bruce Willis playing the character?
No, because Bruce Willis is an actor, and I wasn’t interested in playing it like I was young Bruce Willis, the actor from Moonlighting. I was creating a character that would match to the character that Bruce was playing, so I wouldn’t say it was quite like playing a real person.
How much help did he give you in matching those performances up?
Oh, tons. He was really key in me being able to pull it off. I mean, I did do some homework on my own, but one thing he did was record himself doing some of my voice-over monologues, and that was really crucial listening material. I do think that the most important part of preparing for me was just hanging out with him, spending time with him and having dinner. Whether we were just talking about the movie or having conversations about other things, just being around him and letting his nature seep in was probably the most productive part.
What did you glean from those hangouts that surprised you?
There’s one thing in particular that I focused on. Because he’s such a powerful presence, both on and off screen, you would assume if you didn’t really look twice that he’s loud. He’s not. He’s actually really soft-spoken. He doesn’t come across as timid in the slightest, though, so there’s an odd combination there of someone whose presence is really powerful and strong, and yet he speaks quietly oftentimes.
I know you studied his filmography, too, so what’s your favorite underrated Bruce Willis movie?
I do like Hudson Hawk, I gotta say. I haven’t seen it recently, but I remember loving it when it came out. [Laughs] Sin City was the one I probably focused on the most, but also, 12 Monkeys and Pulp Fiction … I mean, Pulp Fiction! I don’t need to tell you, because you’re around my age, but Pulp Fiction is The Movie.
When you have that Bruce makeup on, do you stay Bruce-like in between takes, or do you become this weird Joe/Bruce amalgam?
Probably some of both. One of my good friends visited the set and was really disturbed, didn’t want to talk to me. My mom, too. She said, “When I stand next to you, you feel like my son, but when I look at you, you’re this different guy.” She found it a little odd.
You didn’t want to maybe hit up Disneyland or do something incognito in that makeup?
Oh, that’s funny! But no, you just want to get that stuff off your face as soon as you possibly can.
Do you feel totally walled in while wearing it?
You’re able to forget it enough that it doesn’t distract you while you’re working, and it doesn’t impede any facial movement, but you never forget it’s there. I mean, there’s glue on your lips. You don’t forget that.
So you don’t have those moments where you accidentally scratch your face and peel off the makeup?
Oh, you have those moments where you want to scratch your face. But you know you can’t.
You’re not the one tasked with donning tons of prosthetics to look like someone famous in Lincoln. But you do get to wear a pretty fly mustache.
Thank you, thank you. Yes, that’s historical fact, that mustache.
Did you grow that out?
Oh, no. No no no. I don’t think I could grow a mustache like that. I have really weak facial hair, plus I had just finished doing The Dark Knight Rises. If I were to grow a mustache like that, it would have taken me months, and we didn’t have months. So no, that was excellent makeup.
After working with three very visual directors in a row — Rian Johnson, Chris Nolan, and Steven Spielberg — what did you learn that you could apply to your own directorial debut?
Oh, thanks for asking about that. You’re absolutely right, working with Rian and Chris and then Steven really did play a big part in encouraging and emboldening me to try it. I’ve always kind of wanted to do it, and I finished the first draft of the script while I was in London shooting The Dark Knight Rises. I told Chris and Emma [Thomas] and Wally [Pfister] and some other people who I’m really close to and I really admire, and they were all so supportive. I do think that made a big difference, because they could have been politely disinterested. And that would have been totally understandable, even! I mean, what do they know about my ability to do that? They wouldn’t know if I could or couldn’t, so just the fact that they took it seriously and said, “You’re gonna be good at that,” it was huge for me. Chris even came to our set one day.
Was that nerve-wracking?
We had one day of shooting on the Warner Bros backlot — we spent way more of our budget than we maybe ought to have, but they gave us a deal, which was nice — and Chris was on the lot mixing sound. He came by at lunch, because I think he didn’t want to be intimidating. What he wanted to do was come by and congratulate me and let me know that he supported me, and I just thought that was the sweetest thing. For him to take time out of his day and do that, it really goes to show that he cares so much about the people who work for him, and I think that’s why people do such a good job for him.