Whether as a fast-talking high schooler in a film noir (Brick) or a disfigured soldier in a big budget blockbuster (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be one of the most talented young actors. His new movie, Uncertainty, takes the viewer on a journey into two different worlds, where a flip of a coin takes a young couple (Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins) into an innocuous visit to her family and decisions about their future and another takes them into a strange criminal underworld where everyone is after a cell phone they found in a cab. Directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, Uncertainty was filmed on the fly with hand-held cameras in S16m and HD as the couple race towards their different futures. In this interview, we discuss the freedom of improvising within a structured world, his favorite movies, and what he can't say about G.I. Joe sequels or Christopher Nolan's Inception.
Cinematical: Can you discuss the beginning of the movie a bit? I was confused if it was symbolic or literal or what.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: What do you think was happening?
Cinematical: Well, I went back and I watched it again and wasn't sure.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I don't want to be evasive or anything... You know, it's the kind of movie that's meant to stimulate a conversation or provoke your own creative thoughts about it, so I hesitate to say, "Well, what it means is blah blah blah." First of all, because it means something different to everybody. And second of all, I would never want anybody to say, "Well, I read an interview where the actor said that it means blah blah blah, so it means that and it doesn't mean anything else. 'Cause to me that's the beauty of movies, is that it can mean really whatever you want. The act of watching a movie, I think, is a creative act; it's not just input. All of us, as audience members, we're telling the story the way that we see it.
Cinematical: Right. It's through our own lens and context. All of the scenes, but specifically the beginning scene really captures New York and is so beautiful. Was it really freeing to be shot with hand-held cameras? Was it on the fly?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It was. It was, creatively, I think freeing is a good word, actually. I'm going to have to start saying that. Because your normal Hollywood movie, there's a script, you have your lines, they set up the lights, you hit your marks, and you do what you're supposed to do. And Uncertainty was different. We knew basically what the scene was about and how it fit into the larger structure of the movie, but that's all we knew. And they particularly shot it and set up the lights and stuff so that we didn't have to hit marks and we could move around. Rain Lee, the cinematographer, this young woman who, you know, [was] not just setting up shots but really kind of playing the scene with us. The whole thing, I think, has an honesty and an immediacy that I think is unique, at least in the work that I've done.
Cinematical: You live in New York; did you have any input on locations?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well, I would say no to that. Scott and David had done a lot of homework and preparation and found all the locations. I mean, as much as the movie... See, I think this is what's cool about it. The movie was improvised in dialogue and in emotion and in the kind of the moments of the scenes, but the structure, the scenes and the story and the plot was all very precisely thought through beforehand so I think you get a nice blend, because a lot of improv movies feel less like a story and more like real life.
Like a John Cassavetes movie, for example. I love Cassavetes moves; they're some of my favorites. But Uncertainty is really different because it's not just, you know, a movie like Faces or A Woman Under the Influence or something like that – you mostly kind of hang out with these characters and see what their life is like. And there isn't a complex structure to the story or plot, and Scott and David have done something really different in that they've constructed a really high concept – they're going back and forth between these two sort of forks in the road, and that structure was all very thought through beforehand. They knew what moments in the yellow world were going to juxtapose against what moments in the green world, etc. All that was really thought through, and in that way I feel the movie gives you the best of both worlds, it takes you on a journey that's as precisely planned out as a, I mean these are lofty comparisons, but as like a Stanley Kubrick movie or something like that. But then [it] offers you the kind of immediate and authentic moments of a Cassavetes movie. Okay, that was rambly, but I figure you're Cinematical, so people like to read about these movies, right?
Cinematical: It's interesting that you refer to the yellow and the green worlds because that was a really effective plot device.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: What I love is that it completes changes the world and they don't do it at all with any computers or anything. Normally, in most bigger movies nowadays, if you wanted to communicate two different worlds, that'd be something they'd do with CG or some digital color filtration and blah blah blah, all this stuff that they would do to say, like, "Okay, this is one world and this is the other world," but Uncertainty is none of that. It's just the fact that, well, they just composed all the shots such that there's a green garden hose or a green wall of ivy and I'm wearing a green shirt and green sneakers and Lynn's wearing a green dress and it's actually extremely powerful without any special effects.
Cinematical: You were still alive at the end of G.I. Joe -- are you signed on to any sequels? Are you interested?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: We shall see.
Cinematical: Inception is a mysterious project. How did you keep it a secret? When someone comes up to you and is like, "Hey, Christopher Nolan wants you to be in his movie," how do you not tell everyone?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I did! [Laughs]
Cinematical: It's still fairly mysterious, though, but it looks amazing. What is your character Arthur about?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I think it looks amazing too. I can't wait to see how it all turns out. I can't wait to talk to you about it, too, but Chris is one of my favorite artists alive today, and it's important to him -- and this project, Inception, is really his baby, it's something he wrote all by himself, and having done The Dark Knight, which is, I think, one of the great movies of the decade, he now has the liberty to do whatever he wants, whatever he can think of, and this is what he's doing. And so it's really important to him that he gets to present it to his audience in exactly the way he wants to, and so he asked me, you know, "Don't tell anybody anything about it."
But to me, the most important thing, and this is how I feel about movies in general, regardless of how high-profile they are, I want to know who's involved, I want to know if they care about it, I don't want to know the details or the particulars or the story and the plot before I see the movie. Why would I want to know about that before I see the movie? It kind of ruins the movie. So that's just me. I don't like to watch trailers for movies that I want to see. I want the movie to be presented to me the way the filmmakers wanted to present it. And I really admire Chris for being able to accomplish that.
Cinematical: To play the devil's advocate, what do you think of having to go out and promote movies before they're released? If it were up to you, would you not talk to people about movies that you're in at all beforehand?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I love talking about movies. There's a difference about talking about the movie and talking about the particulars of the plot and the characters and stuff. But I'm really excited about to talk to you about Uncertainty. Notice I haven't told you any of the particulars of the plot or the characters in Uncertainty. But you've seen it, so you don't need me to tell you. To me, I'm just excited to have audiences come watch it because they're film lovers. I think there's a lot of people who love movies and would want to see not just the mainstream fare but something that was made for the love of the art of the craft, and that's really what Uncertainty is. So I'm totally excited to tell people about it. I want people to come [see it]. I'm going to be at the movie theater in New York City where it's playing this weekend, at the IFC Center. I'm going to be there at the evening shows. That gives what I do meaning, if what I've done is meaningful to someone else, and that's fantastic.