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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Becoming Bruce Willis for 'Looper' and Whether his Upcoming Directorial Debut About a Porn Addict is Autobiographical

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire September 9, 2012 at 11:21AM

Unless you've been living under a rock this past year, you're well aware that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's stock in Hollywood has risen.
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Sony "Looper"

Unless you've been living under a rock this past year, you're well aware that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's stock in Hollywood has risen.

The former TV star has been cultivating a varied and impressive body of work since impressing critics with his turn as a male hustler in Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin." This year Gordon-Levitt had his busiest yet: reuniting with his "Inception" director, Christopher Nolan, for "The Dark Knight Rises;" leading both "Premium Rush," and Rian Johnson's high concept sci-fi spectacular "Looper;" playing son to Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Oscar hopeful "Lincoln;" wrapping principal photography on his directorial debut, "Don Jon's Addiction" (in which he stars alongside Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson); and heading his multimedia studo, hitRECord.

[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the Toronto International Film Festival. "Looper" opens September 28.]

"Looper," which kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night, is the next film out of the gate for the actor, and it marks his reunion with his "Brick" writer-director, Rian Johnson. Set in the future, "Looper" imagines a world where if the mob wants to kill someone, they send their target 30 years into the past where a hired guman (a Looper) awaits to execute them. Gordon-Levitt plays a Looper who is forced into survival mode when the target they send back for him to kill turns out to be his older self (played by Bruce Willis).

Indiewire sat down with Gordon-Levitt in Toronto, shortly following the world premiere of "Looper," to discuss the challenges associated with playing a younger Willis (he dons a prosthetic nose to resemble to "Die Hard" star in the film), and going behind the camera for the first time.

Sony "Looper"

You've become quite the action star over the past three years, something I for one didn't see coming. Did you?

Well, I really do like physicality in movies [laughs]. I don't know if I have an answer to that. The term sounds good to me.

Rian was ahead of the curve in terms of seeing you as an action type -- he started writing this, with you in mind, 10 years ago, right?

It wasn't long after we started shooting "Brick" that he started telling me about this time travel idea that he had. I mean, speaking of action, the action sequences in "Brick" are great. They had no money, which kind of makes them even cooler. The fun of them are in how well thought through, and how clever he is with the choreography and the camera work. He doesn't rely on big special effects, or anything like that. He's brought that same ingenuity to his filmmaking in "Looper." Now he does have the scale of a Bruce Willis action movie.

What did you first make of the completed script when he sent it to you?

I mean I loved it. I'd be hearing about it for a while, so my expectations were high. And then they were met. I loved it as a story, but also as a unique challenge for an actor. Because the premise of getting to sit down with your future self, that's fascinating. That means that I'm going to have to create a character that somehow convinces the audience instantaneously that this other actor and I are the same dude. That's what I really get off on when it comes to any acting job. I like performances where you can't see the actor, where you see the character on screen.

"I like performances where you can't see the actor, where you see the character on screen."

Given that you were cast first, did you play a part in the casting of Bruce Willis as your older self?

I mean I was involved. This is the film where I have an executive producer credit. But I wouldn't take any of the credit for Bruce getting involved. I think Bruce has a real talent for taking his enormous cachet as a huge movie star, and finding cool unexpected pieces of material to lend himself to. "Pulp Fiction" or "Twelve Monkeys" being two great examples.

When did the prosthetic nose come into play? Was it always envisioned that you would physically transform yourself to resemble whoever was cast as the older you?

Yeah. We always thought we would do something with makeup. But obviously we didn't exactly know what until Bruce came aboard. Bruce and I have compeltey different faces, so the makeup team was reticent.

The thing is, we didn't feel like we needed it to be exact. We just needed it to be enough to suggest to the audience that, look, these are the same people. I think that's what we did.


Sony "Looper"

Not only do you make a physical transformation, but you altered your voice and mannerisms. You seem to have really lost yourself inside this guy.

Thank you. I try to create a unique character for every movie, but this one required a really extreme and unique transformation. I studied Bruce's movies. I ripped the audio from his movies and put it on my iPod so I could listen it on repeat. He even recorded himself doing some of my voiceover monologues, and sent me that so I could listen to it in his voice. And then really the most productive of it was just getting to know him -- hanging out, having dinner, talking.

It's fascinating that you and Rian chose Bruce as the basis for who this guy is, and not you, even though you were cast first. Why did you guys decide to go down that route?

'Cause he's Bruce Willis [laughs]. And I think that that makes sense, in this case, that the younger man defer to the older man.

Would you be down to talking about your directorial debut?

Oh, of course, man! I'm glad you asked about it.

Now the film's about a porn addict. Given that you wrote it, and you play the lead guy, is it at all autobiographical?

Ah, the character's very different from me. It's a story that's not just about porn. The porn's a really good symbol for how we all kind of objectify each other. A guy addicted to porn is a good cinematic, visual metaphor for that. That's something we confront a lot, especially in our culture today -- the way the media works, the way the internet works. We're all so ready to pigeonhole each other to labels and surfaces. That's kind of what the movie's about.

As far as the movie being autobiographical, I wouldn't claim to be guiltless. We all are guilty of it to a certain degree.

" As far as the movie being autobiographical, I wouldn't claim to be guiltless. We all are guilty of it to a certain degree."

You wrapped shooting on it, right?

Yeah, we're editing it now. I think it's turning out great. Scarlett's fantastic in it. She's really transformed herself in this movie, speaking of transformation. Her character's totally different from anything that I've seen her do. Tony Danza's playing my dad!

How did this whole thing come to be? hitRECord is such a success, but it's such a collaborative endeavor on your part. Is this a result of your experience spearheading that, or is this something completely separate that you've always wanted to do?

I always wanted to direct a movie. hitRECord, I love it, but it's a really unconventional process. I do hope that one day hitRECord is able to make a feature film, and I think that's in the cards for us. But before I felt capable of leading a collaborative medium to a feature in such an unconventional way, I thought it was important that at least I make on in a conventional way.

What gave you the confidence you could pull it off?

It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. But I've seen it done a lot of times, and seen some of the greatest do it. In 2011, I got to work with Rian, then Christopher Nolan, and then Steven Spielberg. Even though the latter two are more well known, I would put Rian in that same echelon. Getting to spend time with those three directors was pretty key in me feeling courageous, or crazy enough to give it a try myself.

This article is related to: Toronto International Film Festival, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper, Interviews