But before he goes all historical adaptation on us, he first has to travel to the future (2044 to be exact), in Rian Johnson's "Looper." Here, Gordon-Levitt plays Joseph Simmons (first name synergy!), a hired assassin known as a "looper," a person tasked with taking out people sent back in time from the year 2077, which sounds all fine and dandy until the day Joseph finds out he has been tasked with killing his older self (what is referred to in the movie as "closing your loop"), played by Bruce Willis.
Here, Gordon-Levitt talks about the process of emulating a young Bruce Willis on screen (which included a three-hour-a-day makeup job to help him better resemble the "Die Hard" actor), the bewildering experience of being a child star, his role in "Lincoln" and one of the most frightening child performances on screen ever, done by his "Looper" co-star, Pierce Gagnon.
You worked with Rian Johnson on "Brick" and you're both good friends. So when he asks you to be his movie, do you pretty much join no questions asked? Yes! There are not many filmmakers that I would say that about, but he's definitely one of them. He started telling me about this time travel idea not long after we finished shooting "Brick." So he and I have been talking about it since then; that's 2003. So my expectations were high when I finally got to read a draft of the script, and they were met. I just think it's a brilliant piece of writing and storytelling and I was honored that he wrote me a part. That's the first time that ever happened to me, where someone wrote a part for me.
Is it weird to watch a movie you're in where your character doesn't look quite like you? I love it. One of the main ways that I measure my work is if I can't tell that it's me. If it's convincingly somebody else, that means that the transformation of that character is thorough enough that I did a good job. In this movie I got to transform unlike I ever had before.
Was that CG or was that all done through makeup? No digital effects. It was three hours of makeup every morning. At one point it was suggested that we try something digital and neither Rian and I were interested. I don't think that stuff looks real yet. Maybe one day.
How do you go about emulating Bruce Willis? Do you watch a bunch of his movies? Do you hang out with him a lot? Both. I watched a lot of his movies. Even more so I focused on the audio. I was really into his voice. I would rip the audio off of his movies and put him onto the iPod so I could just listen. He also recorded himself doing some of my voiceover monologues and sent me that recording so I could hear how I could say it. But actually, what you said is true: The most productive thing was hanging out with him, having dinner, talking, just soaking it in.
What movies of his were you watching? Mostly recent [ones], because I wanted to match him now. The point really wasn't to create a young Bruce Willis. The point was to create a character such as the audience would understand that these two people on screen are the same man. "Sin City" was the one I probably fixated on the most, because it kind of has that noir feel to it and there's a lot of voiceover in it.
I want to talk about the kid in this movie. Pierce [Gagnon]!
I feel like he's the most terrifying child on screen since "The Shining." I loved working with Pierce. I was an actor when I was that age and not as good as he was. But I am of the belief that kids are as capable, if not more so, of being stellar actors because they are kind of closer to that uninhibited place base where we all start. He's just phenomenal. I never treated him like a kid when we were working. When we weren't working, when we were having lunch or whatever, then it was more like he was just a normal kid -- we would wrestle around and go on adventures. But when we were working, I just treated him like any other colleague, like any other good actor that I was working with, and I think he really appreciated that. Because I remember when I was a kid working on sets, I liked it when people wouldn't talk down to me. I figured that I have to do this job just as well as everyone else has to do the job so why are you treating me like a kid? I think I did my best work when those around me understood that, so I didn't want to treat him like a kid. And it's also worth mentioning his mom, because she was doing a fantastic job and she reminded me a lot of my mom.
That always fascinates me, the dynamic between the parents and the child actors. Yeah, well she spoke to him like an actor, and I never saw her spoil him, I never saw her talk down to him. She really talked to him like an actor and like an artist, and so he would rise to the occasion. My mom was the same way: She really taught me as much as anybody, if not more than anybody, how to be an actor. She was the one taking me to auditions every day, she was the one who would read the scripts to me before I could myself, and really the first one to teach me how to do.
It feels like this movie -- along with films like "Inception" and "Prometheus" -- is proof that the smart sci-fi movie is making a comeback. I think audiences do want to think and want to see something new and original. Obviously there's no one reason for that but I would give a lot of credit to Chris Nolan. I think he demonstrated that you can have a movie that's very commercial and also somewhat demanding of the audience. I remember very specifically Rian and I talking about "Inception" when it came out and when it was a success and that we were both so happy when it happened because we wanted to make "Looper." This was great evidence to support that we could make a movie like this that was entertaining but also smart, and there was an audience in that. I love it. I think it's great. Those are the kind of movies that I like.
It seems like "Looper" also falls into the "Inception" category of learning something new each time you see it. Oh sure. I feel like the first time you watch "Inception," you're figuring out how it all works. But on subsequent viewings, I remember just focusing more on the story of Leo's character, Cobb, and his wife and his kids and what he's going through -- and that's actually what the story is about, similar to "Looper." Upon first viewing, I think you'll just be jazzed by how cool it is. But when you watch it again, I think that there's so many layers to it and there's a lot of questions that it dramatizes: Questions about yourself, one's past, one's future, one's fate, one's destiny vs. free will; questions about violence; questions about what causes violence and whether you can stop violence with more violence and whether that's just a loop. Yeah, I think there's a lot there, and for me, when I see a movie that I like, I love watching it again.
Well it's about focusing on the little things, and how the directors and actors made the movie. Yeah. And also, when you're familiar enough with a movie -- because I think being an audience member is creative --you have to apply your own creativity to the story, because a good movie doesn't just serve you the point, a good movie kind of provokes some questions and sets a tone. Then it's up to the audience to bring their own meeting and interpretation to it. Those are my favorite movies. When you're familiar with a movie and you're watching it a second time, for me, I think I am more able to bring my creativity to it, to use it however I need to be using it that day. If something is bothering me that day, I can bring that to the movie, and the movie will often kind of give me back things, depending on what I brought.
So you have "Lincoln" coming up. Yeah, man!
Obviously, everyone knows about Abe, but not everyone knows about your character, Robert Lincoln. It was a bit of a strained relationship with his dad in this story, because the movie "Lincoln," it's not an entire biography. It's focused on the one month during which time he managed to pass the Emancipation Proclamation. At that time, Robert really wanted to enlist in the army, but his parents didn't want him to because it was too dangerous. But every young man his age was in the army fighting for the Union, and so he felt like an outcast, and that was a real strain on their relationship and that brings up some really complicated questions on their relationship: You're the president, what do you do? Do you give your son special privileges? How do you handle it?
When the cameras stop rolling, do you just spitball with Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln, or does he come out of the role at that moment? He's in-between. He's more like Lincoln than he is like Daniel, but he's not silly about it.
So does the film include the assassination at all? Because I've been curious, the role of John Wilkes Booth hadn't been cast. It's not really about that... To be honest, Tony Kushner wrote the script -- it's a really smart script. It's not just a feel-good bio pic. I mean it feels great, I think it feels better because it actually delves into something. It's not just patriotism and icon worship. It really examines him as a human being and all of his imperfections and both his virtues and his flaws. It is a fascinating script. I can't wait to see it. It is such a brave take. Steven Spielberg, he's the biggest filmmaker in the world. There would be a lot pressure on him to make a more watered-down version of the story and I think it's so brave of him to have really done something provocative and interesting.
"Looper" hits theaters on September 28.