|Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Toronto for TIFF 2012. (QMI files)
If there's one thing Joseph Gordon-Levitt absorbed from the movie Looper, it's that science-fiction movies are always about something other than they appear.
In the case of Looper (in theatres Friday) -- in which Gordon-Levitt plays a hitman whose victims are sent to him from 30 years in the future -- it was all about director Rian Johnson's near-obsession with the idea of meeting one's younger self.
To that end, both Johnson and his younger leading man (Bruce Willis plays the older version) have been fascinated lately with a viral YouTube video in which a man "converses," somewhat testily, with a video of his 12-year-old self.
But Hollywood's hottest and most eclectic actor (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, 50/50, (500) Days of Summer, Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln) is able to see his childhood self every day in every market -- whether it's on reruns of the sitcom Third Rock From the Sun, or movies such as Angels in the Outfield or Beethoven.
So what, we ask, would the 31-year-old Gordon-Levitt tell his 12-year-old self?
The actor pauses, and then says, "I'd tell him to relax, it's all going to work out."
Gordon-Levitt thinks a lot for a Hollywood actor. Maybe too much (for a Hollywood actor). Our limited time together almost got wasted with a circular argument over time-travel paradoxes and "closing the loop" (which I couldn't explain here without going all "spoiler" on you).
At one point, as I attempt to change the subject, he says, "Dude, I just offered you a plausible theory. You owe me a response." When I complain about how much time we could kill going in circles, he laughs. "I just enjoy stuff like that so much, it makes my head spin."
So it's easy to imagine the compulsive self-examiner having a mid-life crisis through his teens. Though he didn't get the press of a Culkin or a Fanning, Gordon-Levitt was one of the busiest child actors around. And something about that status didn't sit right with him. At 19, he quit the business to study French and French literature in Columbia University.
And then? "And then I discovered I missed acting.
"At first no one was giving me a job," he says. "They would have hired me to go and do another television comedy. But I didn't want to do another sitcom. I wanted to do interesting movies."
So Gordon-Levitt eschewed a Hollywood payday to work with newbie filmmakers with budgets of next to zero. Rian Johnson changed his life with Brick, a "noir" tribute to the works of Dashiell Hammett, about a high schooler on the trail of a drug murder.
Brick debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, as did Mysterious Skin, Gregg Araki's raw drama about abuse and compulsive sexual behaviour.
Thus did the jump from child actor go into hyperdrive. Gordon-Levitt can trace most of the milestones in his now bustling career to either of those two films -- like a kind of film-based social networking, or a game of Six Degrees of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
"No one wanted me to be in interesting movies. And Rian was one of the first who did. Brick absolutely made people look at me differently. There was that one Sundance where Brick played and Mysterious Skin played simultaneously. And those were really the kind of movies that other filmmakers saw. Scott Frank saw Mysterious Skin and put me in The Lookout (a 2007 film about a kid with a McJob as a janitor, who becomes involved in a heist). And Chris Nolan saw The Lookout, and he cast me in Inception (and later The Dark Knight Rises).
"And that's how it's gone. Somebody sees me in something and casts me, and somebody else sees me in that. I love to work and I'm lucky to do the work that I do."
Johnson remembers meeting the ex-child actor (whom he'd seen in a low-budget psycho suspense movie called Manic with his future (500) Days of Summer co-star Zooey Deschanel). "He'd just gotten into his 20s, he'd taken some time off and was re-engaging with acting. But even then he was so clear-minded," Johnson recalls. "With Brick, the only reason to sign onto that movie was it got him excited. Reading that script, it could have been a mess.
"What you get from Joe is a man who's picking his projects based on what excites him, stories he wants to tell people. It's the only criteria he has. It's not about building a career as an action star or a leading man."
In the case of being Bruce Willis' younger doppelganger, Johnson reports that Gordon-Levitt did all the heavy lifting. "We used very subtle prosthetics on Joe to bring him closer to Bruce.
"The rest was acting. Joe wrapped himself around Bruce instead of the other way around. He studied Bruce, he listened to the audio from his movies, he hung out with him -- all to create a living, breathing character you could buy as a younger version of Bruce."
Going forward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to be a happy multi-tasker indeed. Between movies, he bounces from what are basically whims -- such as the viral video duet What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? he recorded with his friend Deschanel -- to serious-minded art projects such as HitRECord (hitrecord.org), the online collaborative art mash-up site for which he just signed a funding deal with Sony.
Meanwhile, there indeed seems to be no thread running through his choices. He's just wrapped a comedy with Scarlett Johansson called Don Jon's Addiction (which I suggest sounds like "Shame with laughs" -- "Y'know I still have to see that movie," he says of the moody Michael Fassbender art film).
And working opposite Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln (Gordon-Levitt plays the Great Emancipator's son Robert Todd Lincoln) was yet another memorable stop in his pinball career.
"I can tell you what Daniel Day-Lewis did was like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. I had no problem believing I was actually speaking to Abraham Lincoln.
"It was just a magnificent experience."
A random sampler of time-travel movies
The Terminator series
Entertaining as heck, but little regard to paradoxes (Why kill Sarah Connor? Why not her grandmother, back in the horse-and-buggy days? And if you change the future so Skynet never happens, then Skynet never happens so you do nothing to change the future, so Skynet happens.)
Back To The Future
Arguably the best time travel movie ever. Funny and very smart in the way it played paradoxes for both drama and laughs (people disappearing from pictures, Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly turning into a bad guitarist in the middle of Johnny B. Goode). Plus I love saying gigawatts as if it starts with a "J."
Hot Tub Time Machine
Aw, the heck with paradoxes. Give a nod for questionable taste to any movie that uses a radioactive Russian energy drink called "Chernobyl" as time-travel fuel. A reasonably funny movie, but John Cusack has been in a lot funnier (High Fidelity for one).
The Time Machine
Perhaps aware that madness lies in going backward, H.G. Wells' story goes forward - all the way to the 8000th Century where Morlocks feed on Eloi. Skip the terrible 2003 version with Guy Pearce. Check out the 1960 film with Rod Taylor, and Yvette Mimieux as one fetching Eloi.
Peggy Sue Got Married
Kathleen Turner faints at her high school reunion and goes back in time. If only it were that easy.
Honourable mention: Cyborg 2087 (cool B sci-fi from the '60s starring Michael Rennie, with the absolute same plot as Terminator. Just sayin.'), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Time Bandits, Timecop, the Austin Powers series, Midnight In Paris.