Dialogue: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Cancer Comedies, Christopher Nolan and Creating Short Films with 300 Other People

Dialogue: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Cancer Comedies, Christopher Nolan and Creating Short Films with 300 Other People

Sep 30, 2011

One of the most entertaining films of the fall season arrives in theaters today, and it stars one of the busiest actors working today: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His career in front of the camera has spanned over two decades, though you could make an argument that he's currently enjoying the most success he's ever had, landing roles in blockbusters like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, as well as an upcoming part as Abraham Lincoln's son in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. In between blockbusters, he's dancing in and out of smaller, more personal films (like Hesher and 500 Days of Summer), while gearing up to potentially become a new breed of action hero in Premium Rush.

But 50/50 will probably go down as Gordon-Levitt's most intimate role to date because it's one that's really forced him to get in touch with his own mortality while working alongside the person whose life he's portraying on the big screen. Movies.com caught up with Gordon-Levitt recently to talk about his role in the buzzed-about cancer comedy, as well as all the challenging transitions he's made throughout his career. Yes, we ask at least one Batman question, but we also talk a little about Gordon-Levitt's ambitious HitRecord project, which has him collaborating with hundreds of aspiring artists on short films that you can watch right now.

Movies.com: You came onto this film with very little prep time – like a matter of days, from what I understand. Was that a difficult challenge for you since the role requires so much from you as an actor?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt:  It was … different. Normally you’d have a long time … months to prepare for a role like this. But I think it definitely had its upsides as well because it meant that I couldn’t overthink it; I just had to jump in and go with the gut, so to speak, and I think it served me well.

Movies.com: Now did they shoot in sequence with this film? I know you actually shaved your head for this, so did they shoot everything before the head-shaving … well, before the head-shaving?

JGL: No, actually, that’s not what they did. They shot the head-shaving first, so most of the time when you see me with hair in the movie that’s because I was wearing a wig.

Movies.com: Was it scary at all to be on set next to the guy whose life you’re portraying in the movie?

JGL: No, it was really nothing but helpful, inspiring and liberating, in fact. I would’ve been much more scared if he hadn’t been there because then I would’ve sort of been afraid of offending faceless people who had been through it, whereas having Will [Reiser] there meant that I could take risks and push boundaries, and know that he would reign me in if I needed to be reigned in. It really provided me with a lot of assurance that Will was there.

Movies.com: Were there any cancer jokes or places you thought about going but decided to cut because maybe it pushed too far over the line that you were trying to walk?

JGL: We were never worried about a line of offending people. What we were concerned about was being honest. Will wrote a real honest story, and we just wanted to honestly interpret it. We never tried to be funny, or tried to be sentimental, we just wanted to be honest and trust that the laughs or those heartfelt moments would sort of happen on their own as long as we just remained sincere.

Movies.com: Your name is already being tossed around in Oscar circles because of this role. Is that sort of awards talk even something you pay attention to right now?

JGL: Well … it’s very flattering.

Movies.com: Alright then. You know, I love the transitions you make as an actor – from a cancer patient to a tough-as-nails bike messenger to a Batman character to a role as Abraham Lincoln’s son. Is there a particular transition that was harder than the rest, or do you take each as it comes?

JGL: I just like the diversity – that’s one of the things that inspires me most about acting is getting to play people quite other than myself. It sort of shows me that we as people can be whoever we want to be if we so decide.

Movies.com: Is there any one performance of yours that you’re most proud of? That you'd recommend first to someone who isn't familiar with your filmography?

JGL: I would recommend people go see Hesher. It came out earlier this year and it didn’t really have the budget to advertise as much. It had a smaller audience, but it just came out on DVD so more people are starting to see it. I’m really proud of that one.

Movies.com: Yeah that was a crazy role for you – probably the craziest I’ve ever seen you. That must have been a fun one …

JGL: Oh it was [laughs]

Movies.com: You know, your name keeps popping up on these casting wishlists, with the latest being a role in The Man from UNCLE. Are you aware of these wishlists? Should we pay any attention to these lists when they come out?

JGL: You know I’ve been doing this for a long time … you just gotta, ya know, when you’re rolling the cameras that’s when you’re doing the movie.

Movies.com: You’ve enjoyed an impressive career, no doubt, slowly transitioning from sitcom acting to big Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. Was there a moment you remember being crucial to your success – a chance you maybe took that made all the difference?

JGL: I don’t think there is one moment. I’ve been doing this now for 24 years and, you know, it’s had its twists and turns and ups and downs, and it’s been this very gradual progression. I’m delighted to be where I’ve ended up, but … yeah, in real life it’s never as simple as you make that one right decision and everything else flows from that. It actually mostly comes down to persistence. I love what I do, and I’ve worked hard at it for a really long time.

Movies.com: Cool. Okay here comes my obligatory Batman-ish question …

JGL: [laughs] All right …

Movies.com: What’s something that you’re learned about the filmmaking process from working with Christopher Nolan? What has he shown you that maybe you haven’t seen before?

JGL: You know man, that’s a good question! One thing I feel like I’ve learned from Chris is that he respects his audience. It’s unfortunately rare in Hollywood. You see it all time with people saying, ‘Ah, the public won’t get that’ or ‘They’re dumb’ or ‘You have to spell it out for them,’ etc…  But I’ve heard Chris say time and time again just the opposite. People are smart. Don’t underestimate them. He says things like that all the time, and I think his respect for his audience is a big part of why he has earned the respect of his audience.

Movies.com: So how long before we see a collaboratively made feature film arrive in theaters through HitRecord and will you direct it?

JGL: That’s a great question. I wouldn’t put a definite timeframe on it, but I would guess it’s in our future somehow … sometime in the next several years. Ya know, it’s a big project making a feature film, and I’m so proud of the anthology we just put out – our short films, I’m really proud of them. We’ll see when a feature film comes along. We have a lot of projects I want to do; I really want to go on a proper tour – I love doing our live shows, but I haven’t had the proper chance to do a whole tour of them because I’ve been working. There’s all sorts of stuff we can do.

Movies.com: Is there something on this anthology you’re most proud of?

JGL: The first thing I’d watch is our new intro video, so if you just go to HitRecord.org the first thing that pops up is our intro video, and that’s really good to watch as far as explaining what we do. As far as a sample of our work … we did two short films about this character Morgan M. Morgansen, and those are really great.

Movies.com: How many people would you say worked on one of those shorts?

JGL: On one of those short films I’d say about 300 people.

Movies.com: Wow, that’s awesome.

JGL: [laughs] Yeah man, it’s pretty cool.

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