Date of Birth: February 17 1981
First Film: Beethoven (1991)
Latest Film: Hesher (2010)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been working as an actor for most of his life, beginning in commercials as young child before first really coming to notice (certainly it was the first place I saw him) in long-running, if not very funny, sitcom (well, sit, at least) Third Rock From the Sun, which saw him as the youngest member of a family of aliens who have come to earth to learn about humans. Hilarity usually failed to ensue. The first time I saw the show I thought Gordon-Levitt, with his shoulder length hair and unbroken voice, was a girl and even when I’d realised that I was mistaken about that, I never thought he was an especially good or promising actor. I was wrong about that too.
The first film I noticed Joseph Gordon-Levitt in was highly entertaining teen comedy Ten Things I Hate About You, which seemed to position all four of its young stars for good things, Sadly Julia Stiles and Larisa Oleynik seem to have fallen off the radar, and we all know what happened to Heath Legder. It didn’t seem likely that, of the four of them, Gordon-Levitt would be the one to carve out the most distinctive and interesting career but, eleven years on, he’s going from strength to strength and restlessly refusing to do the same thing twice (perhaps the closest he’s come is in (500) Days of Summer, in which his rather naïve Tom could easily have been Ten Things Cameron, ten years down the line). Ten Things is getting a special edition DVD release soon, and about time, because it’s a film that, while unoriginal, still oozes charm and wit.
After leaving Third Rock From the Sun Gordon-Levitt left acting behind for a few years, not expecting to return, and went to Columbia University, where he studied history, literature and French poetry. However, he dropped out of college in 2004, and turned his concentration back to acting, saying that he wanted “to be in good movies”. It’s a philosophy that has served him well, and seen him become perhaps the most interesting American actor of his generation. His first film after returning to acting was Greg Aaraki’s disturbing, and intermittently brilliant, Mysterious Skin, in which he played a child abuse victim who becomes a rent boy. Along similarly challenging lines he apparently submitted an extremely explicit audition tape for John Cameron Mitchell’s hardcore comedy-drama Shortbus, but he didn’t get a role.
Instead Levitt followed Mysterious Skin with a pair of offbeat neo-noirs, both from debuting directors. In Rian Johnson’s Brick he channelled Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe, transplanted to a Californian high school setting and in scenes such as the one where he confronts Richard Roundtree’s principal, who is attempting to discipline him, showed a sly wit to go along with his undoubted dramatic skills and flair for language (a key thing for Brick, which glories in near-impenetrable slang). In Out of Sight writer Scott Frank’s The Lookout Gordon-Levitt gave a moving performance as a young man with a serious brain injury who gets caught up in a heist. Here, again, he demonstrates a real dedication to detail. He did a great deal of research for the role, resulting in a performance that feels absolutely real in the way it depicts the character’s affliction, but never lets him be victimised by it.
More recently he’s given distinctive performances in Kimberly Pierce’s underappreciated Iraq drama Stop Loss, Marc Webb’s charming and very funny (500) Days of Summer and, in a completely unexpected change of pace, a hilarious turn in Stephen Sommers’ incredibly guilty pleasure GI JOE: The Rise of COBRA, in which he played COBRA Commander in the manner of a panto villain. Outside of cinemas he’s always doing interesting, quirky, things, be it starring in music videos or re-created scenes from Sid and Nancy with Zooey Deschanel (she played Sid, he Nancy) to promote (500) Days of Summer or uploading short films to his user generated short film site hitRecord.
All in all, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with his burgeoning star status (soon, surely, to be confirmed by his role in Christopher Nolan’s Inception) and his dedication to fiercely truthful performances and to distinctive, high quality work is exactly the kind of movie star we need right now.
Must See: Brick