Joseph Gordon-Levitt grew up before our eyes as deceptively young-looking alien Tommy Solomon on the hit NBC sitcom Third Rock from the Sun. The prolific actor's juvenile roles in A River Runs Through It, Roseanne, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, and 10 Things I Hate About You have yielded to richer fare like Manic, Latter Days, and Mysterious Skin. In the cheeky crime dramedy Brick, Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, the teenage investigator at the center of a film noir maelstrom. At San Francisco's Clift Hotel, I chatted with Levitt about his characters and his methodology.
Groucho: The poetry of the patter in Brick harkens back to an old-fashioned style of acting. Add to that your tendency to develop a regional dialect that's appropriate for the character, and that's a real hefty verbal challenge. So how did you and the director, Rian Johnson, approach the language that Brendan uses?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It was a huge part of the thing. That's interesting. You're the first person that brought up a regional accent. I don't know. Did you get any sort of regional thing from--?
G: Well, I don't consider myself an expert on regional dialects. But you did for this film as well as for the last one, or for Mysterious Skin, rather, right?
JG-L: Mysterious Skin was very specific. I went to Kansas and based my speech on one guy that I met there. But Brick—I never really tried to come up with any region. But, man, I just read the words a lot—over and over again—until it started falling into something. And I listened to a lot more musicians than actors—Tom Waits being the primary one, Serge Gainsbourg, but a lot of people—different poets—Wu-Tang Clan, I think, had a lot of similarities with Brick. And just doing it until we thought it sounded good. There was a lot of repetition. A lot of practice.
G: There's also, in this film, and Mysterious Skin, a distinct physicality to the performances. And I wonder how much forethought you give to that or how much of that is organic in the process of doing it before the camera?
JG-L: That's interesting. Well, they're really opposite roles, and my approach[s] to the two roles were very opposite. I didn't think at all about anything when it came to the role in Mysterious Skin. I read the novel a lot. And I read the script and I went to Kansas and hung out with Scott Heim, who wrote the novel. And that's really all the preparation I did. And I never—there was very little that was intentional about that role. Brickwas the opposite. Every single beat, every single moment, every single line was intentional and thought over and talked about with Rian Johnson, the writer-director, and very calculated—very precise. That's how that movie is. Every single shot, every single line, every single light, every single note in the soundtrack—because the score is very intricately linked with everything going on with the story and characters. It's all put there very precisely. And the physicality was no different. I was very aware of everything I was doing.with my body in Brick as opposed to Mysterious Skin where I wasn't at all. And I'm glad you noticed. And I'm glad they kind of turned out well, I think. They're really different, you know: Neil McCormick, from Mysterious Skin—everything's just kind of really relaxed. And Brendan—everything about him is all very tense—always very kind of concrete and hunched over where Neil McCormick would stand up. Well, yeah. And then especially like all the super-physical violence and stuff in Brick —very, very calculated out, whereas you know, the kind of physical or sexual scenes in Mysterious Skin—I had no idea what those looked like until I saw them. None. But in Brick, every step, every hit, and every sprint, everthing—very mapped out. That's why the violence works—because we didn't have the kind of resources to do big, grandiose fight scenes like in big-budget action movies. But I think the action's even better for that because filmmakers in big-budget movies—they tend to rely on "Well, we've got this skyscraper and we can throw our actor off it, and we can blow up this truck," or whatever. And they kind of rely on that, and their action scenes often tend to lose rhythm. They tend to not have any music or any crescendos or any build-ups.
JG-L: Whereas the fight scenes that Rian mapped out—because he mapped them all out—he had them all mapped out already when we started to do them—he said, "It's gonna go like this, the camera is going to be here, and you're going to do this—then for the next hit, the camera's going to be here, and you're going to do that, and it's gonna be like that." And he had the whole thing ready. And that's why it works so well. That's why people—every audience I've been in where I've watched this movie—all the hits land. People go like "Ooohh!" Like "Aaahhhhh!" And it's because it's timed just right—it pulls you in and then hits you.
G: So much of it, too, is in the imagination of the audience, in his choice of editing.
G: Had you done fight scenes ever before this film?
JG-L: Yeah. I've done a bunch of them. The first fight scene I think I ever did was in A River Runs Through It. I did a fight scene in that movie—took a few hits, threw a few punches, got in a fistfight, like this [holds fists up]. And Third Rock from the Sun had a lot of physical comedy to it. And French Stewart—I thought a lot about French Stewart all throughout making Brick for the physicality of it—because he really knew how to take a hit and take a fall and make it funny and make it surprising. He's the one that turned me on to Buster Keaton. He turned me on to so many things. So I really, I think, drew from Third Rock from the Sun for that...
G: About Brick. It occurred to me while watching the film that maybe one of the toughest parts of shooting it might have been keeping a straight face, especially maybe when you're eating milk and cookies with Lukas Haas and that sort of thing. Was that ever a problem?
JG-L: Well, um, I'm trying to think if there were any—I was pretty thick into it. And the thing about Brick is even though the dialogue and a lot of the camera-work and costumes and everything are kind of over-the-top or beyond reality, the emotions never are. The emotions are all very genuine. And the whole point of doing as much practice as I did to get the words as down as I did was so that when we actually doing the scenes when it actually came time to do them, I didn't have to think about doing the words at all. I could just feel what I needed to be feeling. And Brendan is not feeling good. Pretty much there aren't almost any moments in the movie where he's not either in pain or just barely keeping pain at bay.
JG-L: You know, that's why he's hard broiled—hard-broiled. That's why it's hard boiled, excuse me.
G: I wanted to ask you about that too—about the nature of the character—your take on the character. The film implies that he's so withdrawn partly because of busted relationships, but also about maybe something intrinsic to his personality—perhaps even his intelligence— isolates him—
G: So I'm curious what you thought about—
JG-L: Yeah, I think that's very perceptive. I identified with that. When I was in high school, I had a bit of a superiority complex. And you know, read Catcher in the Rye when I was fourteen, and got a big kick out of calling everybody phonies. And I think Brendan has a lot of that in him. He thinks—he looks around at the world and sees it as a corrupt, petty, no-good affair. And then when he loses his one love—his one thing in the world that he does connect to—Emily—when he loses her to that, it really, really sends him to the back of the school and to just hunch over and harden up. And then when she turns up dead, my God, it's all he can do to keep from falling apart. The only thing he can do to keep from just breaking down is to set this goal for himself and pursue it ceaselessly. That's what he does—even though it doesn't make any sense, and he's hurting himself and he's hurting other people by doing it, that's all he can do. And I think it speaks a lot—I think it says a lot about that kind of superior attitude. And that's where you end up if you keep that sort of "Oh, I'm smarter than everyone" attitude. You end up alone. And you probably end up hurting yourself—and are more than likely to end up hurting other people too.
G: The obsessive nature of love that's at the heart of all those hard-boiled detective stories.
G: I want to take you back. Before landing Third Rock, you guest-starred on a lot of TV shows as a child actor. When you look back at those years, who do you think taught you the most about your craft? Does anything stick with you that you can still use today?
JG-L: Wow—sure. That's an interesting question. Hmmm. That's the problem with novel questions is they take awhile for me to think about. (Laughter.) [On Third Rock,] all of those people [were] like family. I still have dreams about that set all the time. I mean, it was from age thirteen to nineteen, everyday. It's every teen-age year. And I learned so much from that—from John and from Jane, Christian, French, Simbi, Wayne, Elmarie—all of them. And especially—I think, actually, Brick, though—it came back to fruition more than any of the other stuff I've done since. Because Third Rock is also faster than life. That was our mantra, actually, on Third Rock—was bigger, faster, funnier. And it was about precision and timing. And that's what Brick was about. It wasn't about being real. And, you know, John—he comes from theatre—he's like done every Shakespeare play in the Folio as well as who knows what else? So he knows a thing or two about dealing with poetic language. And the writers on Third Rock used to write really witty words. And watching him handle all those—because he used to have ten times more words than any of us put together, and he was always a marvel to watch him handle it and watch him get through it as fast as he did but still be clear and still carve out the thoughts. I'll always, I'm sure—whether I'm thinking about it or not—he'll always be the foundation of what I do. As far as pre-that, I'm still trying to think of something. Something good I remember, well, when I worked with Robert Redford in A River Runs Through It. I remember I had to walk up to this desk and hit a mark. And I remember him saying, "Oh, it's okay, I never hit my marks." And, from being ten years old, where, mostly, when you're that age, people are telling you exactly what to do. They're not really expecting you to kind of live in the world of the story. They're kind of more expecting you to be a dumb little kid and, like, say your line. And I remember just when he said, "Oh that's okay, I never hit my marks," what was important to him was not that I hit the mark, what was important to him was that I care about what my character needed to be caring about in that scene, which was my Dad grading this paper that I was writing—and, um, him really treating me like an actor. I remember that picture.
G: I know your next film that's gonna come out is Kill Shot, and you're paired with Mickey Rourke for most of the film.
G: I'm curious what kind of feedback you have from that partnership. What did you get out of that, or what can we expect to see?
JG-L: Oh man. That was so much fun. Mickey is such a good guy. Such a mentor. Mickey's a really big guy. Mickey's a man. And the guy I was playing kind of wants to be. But I was doing push-ups and stuff for the movie and, like, when you're trying to look as big as you can, look as much like a man as you can, you do push-ups in between takes because it gets the blood flowing and I just learned this, but he knew. And I'd be doing push-ups in between takes and you do as many as you can until you can't do them anymore. So I can't do them anymore and he's like "Joe. Five more." That's Mickey. That's exactly Mickey. It's like "Try to do five more. Last three on your knuckles, Joe. Come on. You can do it. Come on." Just that simple. He's not like [shouting] "Come on, do it, do it!" Just the fact that he's like watching me, and he's gonna make me do something that I can't do. But I'm gonna fucking have to do it because he's asking me to. That was Mickey. And I'm so excited about that movie. I'm so proud to be a killer next to Mickey Rourke.
G: Alright, well, thanks a lot—
JG-L: Thanks—Appreciate it—good to meet you.
[For Groucho's review of Brick, click here.]