When Total Film speaks with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in May, both sides of the Atlantic are in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the enforced isolation has some of us bored stiff, Gordon-Levitt (Joe to pals) has been firing on all cylinders, creatively. Continuing to work on his HitRecord platform (imagine a service to crowdsource creativity), he’s also making a YouTube Originals miniseries, Create Together.
“I feel mostly very lucky and very grateful that I’m able to work from home,” he says, expressing his admiration for the folks out there “doing work that needs to be done”. He’s leaning into the HitRecord community to create shorts, stories and more, all remotely. “I haven’t left my house,” he says. “But I’m really enjoying getting to do something creative every day. I think it’s been a big help for me to sort of deal with the uncertainty and disorientation of this new life we’re all living.”
Gordon-Levitt rose to fame a child actor with a leading role in extraterrestrial sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun, before a string of hard-hitting indies (not least Mysterious Skin) confirmed his ability, and he charmed in broader romantic/comedic hits like 10 Things I Hate About You and (500) Days Of Summer.
Collaborations with auteurs like Christopher Nolan and Rian Johnson cemented his reputation as an actor with serious clout. With Johnson, he upturned noir conventions in Brick, before disappearing under heavy prosthetics to play a young Bruce Willis in time-travel noodle-twister Looper (he’s since cameoed in all of Johnson’s movies, including The Last Jedi). For Nolan, he played extractor Arthur in Inception, hurled around a rotating corridor in the film’s iconic setpiece. Plus, he nabbed the keys to the Batcave as John Robin Blake in trilogycapper The Dark Knight Rises. Other directors who’ve sought him out include Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Robert Zemeckis and, for the upcoming The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin.
As well as acting, he’s also done significant work behind the camera: on top of numerous short films, he wrote and directed (and also starred in) 2013’s Don Jon. And in case he was in danger of underachieving, last year he fronted a podcast, Creative Process.
The starting point for our chat today is 7500, which will soon stream on Amazon Prime Video, after debuting at the Locarno Film Festival. Gordon-Levitt calls it an “art film” rather than a “thriller” but it’s an extremely tense experience: set entirely in the cockpit of a commercial plane, it follows co-pilot Tobias (Gordon-Levitt) dealing with a mid-air terrorist siege in real-time. It’s realistic, full-on, and features a remarkable central performance.
Gordon-Levitt’s immensely grateful to TF for covering “a smaller art film”, and can’t say enough good things about writer/ director Patrick Vollrath. “I’m saying it now, but this is going to be his lowerbudget movie that he did early… I’m not saying he’s going to direct Star Wars, but he reminds me of Rian and Chris in that way. They’re a similar type of filmmaker, and I definitely believe that if you watch this movie now, you’ll be watching this filmmaker’s career unfold, and you’ll see what he does next…”
It’s interesting to be talking about 7500 during lockdown, as it’s incredibly claustrophobic and contained. Was it the challenge of doing something so stripped back that appealed?
I took a couple years off acting when I had kids, and I knew my first thing back, I really wanted to just focus on something that would inspire and challenge me as an actor. Of course, there were plenty of career conversations like, “It’s been a while. You might want to get out there!” But I really wanted to purposefully ignore those kind of thoughts, which isn’t to say that I didn’t have those thoughts and don’t every day. [laughs] But I really wanted to focus on just finding something that would inspire the hell out of me, and remind me, “Oh, yeah, I love acting.” I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this movie was as challenging an acting job as any I’ve ever done, honestly. It was very, very hard. [laughs] And that felt great. [Writer/director] Patrick Vollrath, his whole process is about that immersion. It really provided me with what I was looking for in my first job back.
Was it a really small set you were on?
It was on a stage. It was a real plane, but cut in half. It didn’t have the wings but it did have some of the cabin, and it had a cockpit. It was just the real thing. Patrick’s approach is very focused on realism, really more so, by a lot, than any other movie that I’ve ever done. I know that sounds like a hyperbolic statement, but it’s true. He leaves the camera rolling for 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes at a time. You just kind of let yourself be the character, and be in the story. I found I was able to, at times, really feel like I was there.
Did it take a toll on you? It’s a very intense watch.
It really did. It’s a horrific situation that the film tells a story of, and it’s combining that with an approach that’s all about realism. It means that I’m spending all day conjuring up that horror. ‘Horror’ isn’t the right word, but those horrible feelings. Again, it’s fascinating to go so far away from reality. And I think it’s a big part of what makes us human beings. A lot of us don’t encounter such extreme circumstances on a day-to-day basis. For those of us who lead more sheltered lives, it’s easy to forget that actually a lot of people out there are under this kind of stress on a regular basis: people who are living in unstable countries or people who are living with violence in their household.
Is it difficult these days to find films to tempt you away from your other creative avenues?
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