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It’s a standard question in the young-actor interview playbook—a warm-up, really. But ask Joseph Gordon-Levitt who he’d most like to work with, and after cursory nods to the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, he pauses to really think and comes up with this: “You know who I think are really, really great and smart are the Gregory Brothers. You know who I’m talking about? They do Auto-Tune the News. They did that Antoine Dodson thing last year. I just think they’re really brilliant with the art that they make. With the remix art that they make.” It’s an unusually humid summer day in Gordon-Levitt’s native Los Angeles. The actor is sitting on a bright-orange couch on the third floor of a borrowed Beverly Hills mansion. At 30 years old, Gordon-Levitt looks like he’ll carry the descriptive phrase “boyishly handsome” for another half decade at least. His frame is slightly sturdier than you’d expect, given how often he plays guys who occupy the zone between adolescence and adulthood. He’s composing himself after an all-day photo shoot and easing back into his own clothes: a pair of worn black boots, dark Levi’s and a black T-shirt that bears the red-dot logo of hitRECord.org, the online community/group-sourced production company he founded in 2005. His dark hair is buzzed short. His narrow mouth, which until now hasn’t risen much past its X-axis, lifts into a smile when he discusses the little artistic network he presides over. “This might sound cheesy, but I really do—I get excited about people that you wouldn’t know about,” Gordon-Levitt goes on.
“There’s a guy on hitRECord named Wirrow,” he says of one London-based member who only goes by his screen name. “He’s a brilliant storyteller, great writer, artist, illustrator, animator and musician.”
Gordon-Levitt is in L.A. on a brief respite from London, where he’s filming The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s $500 million Batman trilogy. It is his second outing with the director, who helped hoist the actor’s profile to another level last summer when he cast him in Inception. After Batman, Gordon-Levitt is off to work alongside Daniel Day-Lewis on Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating Lincoln, in which he’ll play the 16th president’s eldest son. He is due to appear in at least four films next year. This month he stars as a 27-year-old cancer patient in 50/50, a Seth Rogen-style stoner comedy that treads in deeper existential waters than that sort of thing tends to.
In short, Gordon-Levitt, former child actor turned critical darling, is having an honest-to-God moment. “It’s like when you invest in a house and then a nice restaurant opens across the street,” jokes Rogen, who played opposite Gordon-Levitt in 50/50 and, as a co-producer, had a hand in hiring him.
And yet, presented with a hypothetical free pass to work with anyone he’d like to, Gordon-Levitt is name-dropping the Internet pranksters who set local newscasts to R&B beats and some guy in England he met on the Web.
An actor with an outside interest isn’t exactly new in Hollywood. Gordon-Levitt, though, belongs to a generation of young performers who seem determined not to let one business or creative pursuit define them, or are at least bent on taking their side gigs beyond serviceable blues-rock-band territory. The hitRECord project places him somewhere on that continuum beyond freshly minted MySpace minority stakeholder Justin Timberlake but short of the hurricane of culture that is James Franco. Even Ashton Kutcher has somehow reimagined himself as an angel investor.
Gordon-Levitt chalks all the extra creative energy to a lowered barrier of entry. “On a consumer-level computer, you have all the tools necessary to produce and distribute a movie,” he says. Rogen, who’s worked with both Franco and Gordon-Levitt, cites an ennui with the traditional moviemaking business that is particular to its younger veterans. Whatever the cause, Gordon-Levitt has found himself both a rising star of old media and a new-media instigator.
The premise of hitRECord.org is simple. Users upload text, film, music or visual art with the expectation that other community members will, to use Gordon-Levitt’s preferred terminology, “remix” away. He is a fan of the Harvard Law professor and new-media scholar Lawrence Lessig, who has written in praise of remix culture and advocated for intellectual property distinctions that are better tailored to the digital age. “When I was younger, I had some weird neurotic phobia about people interacting with this work that I had done,” says Gordon-Levitt, who began acting at 6. “I loved going to work every day, but I sort of wished that we could have just burned the film….As I grew older and became less of a selfish little kid, I grew to care about how what I was doing connected with other people.” In its six years of existence, hitRECord has grown from a single Web page to a bustling community of 50,000 members. On a vibes level—a very important one for the semi-social-network set—it fits right in with crowd-sourced creative enterprises such as Etsy and Threadless. The whole production just happens to be run by a guy whose every move this summer has been tracked by the comic-book paparazzi. “When I put something out there and somebody remixes it in a way that I didn’t expect,” Gordon-Levitt says with the earnest bearing of a do-it-yourselfer, “that, just the physical sensation of it, is so much more intense to me than any applause or award or any of that. That’s real feedback.”
RegularJOE, a relentlessly positive online version of Gordon-Levitt, rules the hitRECord sandbox. He pops up in videos all over the site to cheer on the public workshop and make in-jokes about copyright law. If he sees something he likes, he promotes it through the remix process, often playing along as it goes. Last year he starred in, directed and narrated the site’s most realized work to date, Morgan and Destiny’s Eleventeenth Date. The ultratwee seven-minute short made use of a screenplay written by a member in Ireland and visual components from users in Scotland and Tampa, Fla. About 50 members contributed music for the soundtrack. The finished product played at Sundance.
“It’s really just a way for me to do projects and work with people besides the insular Hollywood industry,” Gordon-Levitt explains, sounding as sure of the creative force of the hive as he is of the studios. Of course, he is in a position to do all this precisely because he’s the product of the insular Hollywood industry. By his teens, Gordon-Levitt was a regular on NBC’s 3rd Rock From the Sun. He briefly attended Columbia before a mid-2000s return to acting when he made a name for himself as a real-deal adult talent with well-received roles in indies such as Brick and Mysterious Skin. He had as close as he’s had to a breakout moment so far as the ultraromantic protagonist of 2009’s (500) Days of Summer. His squinty-eyed, sensitive and slightly inscrutable smart-guy appeal has earned him a cult following among Web-savvy groupies. There are not one, but three “F–k Yeah Joseph Gordon Levitt” blogs on Tumblr, none of which should be confused with the “JGL FTW” Tumblr or the “JGLGIF” Tumblr.
Opening Sept. 30, 50/50 sees Gordon-Levitt marry his sitcom past to some of his more recent dramatic work. Based loosely on the real-life experience of screenwriter and Rogen pal Will Reiser, the dramedy follows an anxious public-radio reporter who sees standard quarter-life crisis fare topped off with a cancer diagnosis.
“Joe has to kind of cover every color in the emotional prism,” says 50/50 director Jonathan Levine, who previously plumbed the depths of white-boy isolation in The Wackness. “I think [he] is a rare talent in that he can do that. He’s this remarkable balance of a serious dude but also a very kind of funny, easygoing guy,” Levine adds.
Rogen, who plays the wisecracking best friend, recalls enticing Gordon-Levitt into the film as a last-minute replacement (James McAvoy left the production due to a family emergency) by flying him to Vancouver and getting him “super stoned.”
“I mean that character’s very uptight and regimented and kind of anal and quiet and doesn’t speak his mind, and the real Joe is not like that at all,” Rogen says with his familiar laugh. “He really speaks his mind. He’s very laid-back and experimental, one may say, and open to new forms of thought and ideology.”
In recalling his own excitement to work with Rogen, Gordon-Levitt sheds light on possible early inspirations for hitRECord. “When I saw Pineapple Express, I was just like, ‘This is me and my buddies. This is like what we do,’ ” he says with a grin. “Ever since we were in high school, me and my buddies would get together, get high and make fun little videos together.
“That’s what we do. Often about weed….It’s the same thing, but they did it professionally!” Should all go according to plan, Gordon-Levitt sees himself as a sort of field leveler between his bedroom auteurs and the entertainment industry. It’s starting to work. HarperCollins will publish a collection of illustrated short fiction from the site, The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, in December. Shortly before 50/50 hits theaters, the site is shipping its first anthology, RECollection: Volume 1. The CD-DVD combo contains contributions from 471 collaborators, a number Gordon-Levitt takes particular pride in. “That’s about the size of an average hit Hollywood movie,” he points out.
And then, Gordon-Levitt—who has been acting in other people’s work for almost a quarter century—gets a little reflective.
“Literally over a thousand contributions went into this, the work of 471 different artists that I curated and directed,” he says. “I feel like in all my life, as much as I—and I really do love acting…but there’s a real difference. Movies are the directors’ medium, traditional movies anyway. My job is to help Chris make his movie or [Brick director] Rian [Johnson] make his movie or help Levine make his movie. RECollection feels like the first thing I’ve put out in the world that’s my authorial… that’s what I have to say.”
Well, what he and 471 of his closest friends have to say.