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Joseph Gordon-Levitt   ('Manic') Joseph Gordon-Levitt ('Manic')
’The Joseph Gordon-Levitt Story: Getting To The Point’

A Southern California native, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's professional career began at age six when he was discovered singing in a children's choir. After appearing in a peanut butter commercial, he landed his first dramatic TV role in ‘Stranger On My Land’ (1988) opposite Tommy Lee Jones. His first regular TV series role was in ‘Dark Shadows’ (1991), playing David Collins/Daniel Collins. Following that he had roles in ‘The Powers That Be’ (1992), and from 1993 to 1995 he had a recurring role as George on ‘Roseanne.’

Then in 1996 he won the role of Information Officer Tommy Solomon opposite John Lithgow's High Commander Dick Solomon on ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’, earning laughs and critical acclaim playing the oldest and wisest of a group of alien researchers inexplicably inhabiting the body of a teenage boy.

Gordon-Levitt's movie debut came in 1992 in Robert Redford's ‘A River Runs Through It’ and was followed by roles in ‘Holy Matrimony,’ ‘The Road Killers’ and ‘Angels in the Outfield’ (all 1994). In the last half of the 1990s he had roles in ‘The Juror,’ ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Halloween H2O,’ not forgetting 1999's the Taming of the Shrew re-adaptation, ‘10 Things I Hate About You.’

Now out promoting his latest role in the upcoming independent theatrical release, ‘Manic’, in which he stars opposite Don Cheadle and Zooey Deschanel, everything was set for us to chat away at random with the man himself ….. but he’s running late! In fact, he’s not even answering his phone! The proposed time for this interview has over-run close to an hour, but with a little behind-the-scenes magic, suddenly the man himself is calling our offices. ”I am so sorry about that,” he profusely apologizes. ”I got caught up in some family business and just forget about the time. Sorry.”

After some reassurances from myself that all was okay, we proceeded onwards and upwards and for the next hour discussed all things Joseph: ‘ Manic’ was shot in 2000, but finished late in 2001, so how hard is it to promote a movie that’s nearly three years old? ”No, because it was one of the most vivid times in my life. Possibly THE most fulfilling time in my whole life and the memories of it are all still pretty vivid.”

How easy is it to promote a small, independent movie like 'Manic'? ”’Manic’ doesn’t have a gimmick, it doesn’t have any explosions or car chases, it’s just very character orientated and so when you present that to a Sales Executive all he looks back to is another movie that looks like this one that made a lot of money in the past. And ‘Manic’ doesn’t really have anything like that. It’s hard to find something to compare it to. That’s why it took so long to come out because it doesn’t speak to Commercial Executives … and that’s not who we made it for!”

Who DID you make it for? ”We made it for people who want to have a cinematic experience that goes beyond just turning off their heads for an hour and a half. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m the first one to enjoy a good turn-off-your-head movie, but that’s not what ‘Manic’ is. To me, movies, CDs and books are important to me and if I’m hurting over something or if I am struggling over something, something I’ve always turned to my entire life since I was very, very young is a movie, or TV, or a book, or something! And I think ‘Manic’ is more along those lines.”

Did you feel comfortable with your hair having been cut so short for this role? ”Yes, certainly. The whole creating of that character and embodying that character was hard, and painful often times, but also was incredible because it’s exactly what I want to do with my life as an actor. It really forces you to grow and shed and it was a real transformitory time for me and brought out a lot in me that had never really been brought out. Not that I go around beating people up with bats nowadays,” he laughs, ”but I’m a different person for having played that character.”

Do you feel this ‘darker’ role was your way of finally escaping the pigeon-holed TV sitcom apron strings? ”I don’t know! People keep asking me whether I wanted to do this role to try and get away from being typecast as the ‘3rd Rock’ kid, but … no! I wanted to do this role because I read a script where I saw some heartfelt emotion and some complicated, realistic human characters and a story that had something to say. And I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of ‘3rd Rock’ at all.”

Describe what is going on in Lyle’s head ”He, like anybody else, can’t figure out where he fits in to the world around him and he sees a bunch of people faking it and pretending to be happy, and cheery and shiny and that presentation of reality just makes him angry. So angry that he can’t control himself.”

Does this movie carry a message? ”Yeah, oh I think this movie has a more poignant message than most movies made in this country. The philosophy behind it has been pretty tightly focused on Sisyphus. Which is the old Greek legend of the man who was condemned by the Gods to push an enormous boulder up a mountain, and every time he reached the top the boulder was always damned to roll back down again. And then Camus wrote the essay (‘The Myth of Sisyphus’) about whether that was damnation or whether that was just how life is! And that’s kind of a good representation of absurdity of what life is and are you gonna find your meaning in that or just give up? And I think that that theme runs really tightly all throughout the movie and I think it’s more poignant than ever.”

Tell me about your stint Off Broadway with the play, ‘Uncle Bob’ ”Oh man, it was fantastic. The story goes that ‘Manic’ was the last thing I did before I kinda quit for a while. I got the opportunity to go away to college, I moved away from LA where I was born, and I left ‘3rd Rock’ a year early! I absolutely loved doing ‘Manic,’ but I’d grown very cynical about acting in the business and was sure that ‘Manic’ could be a good final note to end on. I didn’t know. I was pretty ensure. My freshman year at college was by far the longest break I’d ever taken from acting since I started when I was six and by the end of that freshman year I wanted to act some more. Being away from things for that amount of time, I’d become an exhibitionist! Playing with my own camera all the time, it just came out of me that this wasn’t now what I wanted to do! So, what I did was this Off-Broadway play called ‘Uncle Bob’ and it was a fantastic challenge. Just two characters. The other person had been in several productions of this play and knew all of his lines word for word, which for me was a real big challenge because I had to get ready in about two weeks! Sitcoms train you real well for crunching words, but ‘3rd Rock’ never had the emotional variance as ‘Uncle Bob’ did. And by the time I was done with that I was really pretty clear that acting was what I wanted to do. Or at least, something that I wanted to keep doing. But, I did still want to keep going to school and so went back to school.”

Tell me more about this new project, ‘Latter Days’ ”Well, it wasn’t until recently that that script turned up. It was a secondary role and I would have the opportunity to go do it and stay in school. I was only taking two classes at the time, but I really did want to did it because this guy wrote this part that was so, so much fun. I play this Mormon Missionary from Nowheresville in Utah and C.J. Cox – who wrote the movie – is from there; a little Nowheresville town on the border of Nevada and Utah – and so he knew this dialect perfectly and he wrote it word for word. And it’s a dialect that I’d never heard before, and I don’t think many people have! It’s not Southern, it’s not Mid-Western, it’s this kinda of strange Utah-Mormon thing and I’ve never heard or seen anything like it! So I really wanted to give it a try. I went, intending to be there for two weeks and go back to school, but once I got onto the set – which was the first movie set I’d been on since ‘Manic’ - it became very clear, very quickly that this is what I wanted to do. And what I’d been doing since I was six years old. It was what’s in my blood and I’m not gonna be able to concentrate on anything else besides doing this at the moment. So, since then, which was a few months ago, I took a break from school and have kinda re-established like calling up my agent again, and just recently been promoting ‘Manic’ unlike anything I’ve ever promoted before.”

Having been working from such a young age and then starring in a hit TV sitcom, did you ever feel confused towards the end once the realization had hit you that you had never been in control of your own acting destiny?! ”I don’t feel confused at the moment, but you’re right it’s like you said, when I was 19 I’d been working steadily since I was six! And my freshman year in college was my longest break I’d ever taken – and nine months is not that long! And you’re right, I did say to myself ‘This is a path that I got started on so long ago, I almost don’t feel like I decided this for myself.’ I was doing this, but I was becoming jealous of my friends who were graduating High School, and some of them even college at the time, and they all had these choices open to them - which most of them dreaded, of course - of having the opportunity to do anything at all with their lives. And I was envious of that. I wanted to be able to do anything. Shit, I was only 19 years old! I still could be a Physicist couldn’t I? I just wanted to see, and during those nine months I went away from everything, made all new friends, I did all new things, I didn’t associate with any actors at all,” he laughs, ” and it only took nine months for it to become really clear to me that this was what I wanted to do. And now, I never stop thinking about it.”

What did you always used to hate about promoting your projects? ”I’ve never promoted anything before actively, as I always hated publicity. I hated, hated, hated it with a passion! The first time I ever did a publicity junket I was 12 years old and I did it for ‘Angels In The Outfield.’ I loved acting back then also, but I almost quit because I so hated these people taking my pictures and asking me these questions. I hated the entire thing. I hated the concept of celebrity and I hated the fact that being an actor meant that. I still continue to think that’s it’s a really perverted, fascist phenomenon! However, only just recently with ‘Manic’ have I been excited to tell people that I’m an actor, that I’m in this movie and that I want you to see it. That it’s important to me and that I feel that I’m doing my part as a human being by making this movie and by trying to get you to see it. When I was doing ‘3rd Rock From The Sun’ and I saw the publicist walking my way, I’d walk briskly in the other direction,” he laughs. ”I just didn’t want to be involved. But with ‘Manic’ it’s me calling them! It even ended up with me taking on a bunch of my own stuff, because they didn’t have the money and /or resources to promote it to my satisfaction! My friends and I put up stickers and flyers that I’d designed around New York City and I organized a party for opening night in New York and L.A. I took this proactive role in it and it was prone to mistakes as I didn’t really know what I was doing! But next time I do it, it will be looked over better!”

Was your time spent on ‘3rd Rock’ a blur? ”Oh, are you kidding?! I have nothing but fond memories! It’s like my High School years and those people are my extended family, without a doubt. And I credit an enormous part of what I like most about myself - personally and professionally and creatively – to those people and that environment.”

You made primetime TV history by performing the 1st homosexual male kiss on ‘That ‘70s Show,’ but how did they approach you on the matter and did you have to mull it over at all?! ”Yes, indeed,” he laughs. ”Well, ‘That ‘70s Show’ is created by the same people who made ‘3rd Rock’ and they were in their first season and Bonnie Turner ('3rd Rock' Creator/Producer/Writer) just came up to and said, ‘I want you to do a role for the new show.’ And I was like, ‘Great.’ And she was like, ‘You’re gonna be gay!’ And I was like, ‘Ha,Ha, Ha’ and that was about that. It was fun!”

In 1999 you were chosen by ‘Teen People Magazine’ as one of their ‘21 Hottest Young Actors Under 21’ ! Did this affect or change your life at the time, and has it had a residual effect all these years later?! ”Er, no and no,” he laughs loudly. ”In fact, I probably wouldn’t have remembered that if you hadn’t have brought it up today. I’m telling you man, back in those days I cared so little about publicity!”

In 1996 you were the envy of a nation of pubescent young males when you starred alongside Demi Moore in ‘The Juror’ … fun times?! ”Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I remember there was this one time where I had to walk in and get surprised or something, and Demi and Anne Heche were there and both flashed me! That took me by surprise!”

Was voicing over on ‘Treasure Planet’ something that you’d always wanted to do … or just simply a paycheck?! ”You know, it wasn’t that big a paycheck,” he laughs. ”The first movie that I ever loved was ‘Dumbo’, and so to be part of the Disney animation ‘cannon’ was an honor, indeed.”

Did it take long to do? ”It’s like you go intermittently. You go in for a session and then you don’t hear from them for four months and then you go in for another session and this went on from the time I was 17 to 21! Those movies take a long time to make. And you get the paycheck intermittently by the session, but I wasn’t doing it for the money. But, it’s a lot of money in the real world,” he laughs. ”But not a lot of money when you compare it to being a regular on a TV sitcom.”

Do you think you’ll ever do another TV sitcom? ”Erm, to answer off the top of my head, absolutely not! It would be like going back to High School, but it’s complicated, television. On the one hand I have no desire to do television because when you’re doing television you are working for; and in the middle of this enormous corporate machine. And people that are making the big decisions - like what you can and cannot say – well, these are people that are Business Executives and sellers of advertising. And as far as they’re concerned the goal of your show is to pacify the audience into a state of mind where they’re primed to watch the commercials! And that just doesn’t interest me. However, millions of people see it and that’s real, so there are shows that walk a line and get across a message that expresses themselves perfectly. And I think ‘3rd Rock’ was one of them and I’m really proud to have been a part of it, but I don’t foresee myself on television anytime all that soon.”

Are there any words of wisdom that you carry around with you? ”Yeah, it goes, ‘By the way, the distance between the land of point and the pointless forest, is directly proportional to the amount of time it takes to sing a song’.”

Who said/sang that? ”Harry Nilson from ‘The Point’ (1971).That album is real special to me. It’s something that my mom played for me and my brothers since we were really young. But it’s also one of the most timeless stories that I’ve ever head. It’s gorgeous.”

Any final comments or thoughts? ”Go see ‘Manic’,” he laughs.

Interviewed By Russell A. Trunk

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