You may not know his name. You may not even know his face. But look out Jake Gyllenhaal – indie prince Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fast becoming one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. Wonderland finds out where he’s going with that gun in his hand…
What was a key lesson you learned from being a child actor?
That whatever you do, you do it all the way. So with acting, you decide how you’re going to be play the character, you work out how they behave and you commit 100% to that. If you don’t, it’ll fall flat, it’ll come across as self-conscious and the audience won’t feel it.
Why did you give up acting and go to college?
I’d forgotten why I loved it. I’d been doing one show for so long and I’d been working since I was six so I kind of lost track. I just wanted to not do it anymore; to not know what my future was.
Do you owe your current film career to taking that break?
I’ve been doing this for twenty years now so it’s been a gradual progression. The new film stuff all happened after a film I did called Manic, which I made in 2001. I played a mentally ill kid. If there was one hurdle then it might have been Manic. Rian Johnson saw it and cast me in Brick. Gregg Araki also saw it and cast me in Mysterious Skin, which was the first time that anyone had asked me to be sexy.
What was it like taking Brick and Mysterious Skin to Sundance in the same year?
It’s a cliché to say it, but that was a dream come true. To go to Sundance had been a promise I’d made to myself since I was a kid working on TV. So ten years later when I was able to go there with two movies that I was really proud of, it meant the world to me.
Which character has been most like you?
It depends from day to day. I do know that Tommy Burgess, the soldier I play in Stop Loss, couldn’t be more different from me.
I was brought up to believe that fighting isn’t the answer and it’s better to use words. Everything in my upbringing went against me ever becoming a soldier. I wasn’t even allowed to play with toys to do with the military.
So although you’re playing Cobra Commander in the G.I. Joe movie for Paramount, you were never allowed to play with G.I. Joe dolls as a kid?
That’s right. No toys that had guns. But I got to know a lot of soldiers through Stop Loss and I learnt what it means to be one. No matter what you feel about America’s occupation of Iraq, it’s important to distinguish that, in a way, what those soldiers do is the bravest thing a human being can do: they put their lives on the line for each other. I’ve never risked my life for anything.
Do you have any vices?
Well, I drank a lot when we were shooting Stop Loss. A lot of beer, a lot of hard liquor. If we weren’t on set we’d go work out like a bunch of meatheads. Then we’d eat a lot of meat. And then we’d go drink at the nearest place we could find tequila, Coors, whatever. And just get really drunk. By the time I was done, my tolerance for alcohol was nuts! I could shoot liquor all night long and be alright, which now, not even close. I’ve never been much of a drinker, it’s not really my drug of choice.
What is your drug of choice?
I guess marijuana. I’ve had a select set of really beautiful, powerful, psychedelic experiences on certain drugs but I never got into just doing it at a party: ‘Oh let’s get fucked up and drop acid’. That’s so retarded and disrespectful to your body and the drug itself. Mushrooms, acid and ecstasy can offer you a new perspective. They can also offer you nothing.
Do you lose yourself in your characters?
The simple answer is no. Some actors stay in character on set. I think that’s impressive but I’ve never done it. But when I went home at night on Stop Loss I was still very much in the mood of that character. It’s a strange thing to say about yourself, but I change a lot with different roles. I’m a volatile person.
Are you a character actor or a leading man?
[Laughs] A ‘character actor’, what does that mean? I don’t appreciate the dichotomy, because a good actor is going to play a character. Johnny Depp is a very good looking, leading man dude but he plays characters because he’s a good actor. Daniel Day Lewis, same story.
Who would you like to work with?
Tim Burton, especially after doing Stop Loss and The Lookout. I’d love to do a Tim Burton movie where reality doesn’t have much to do with it.
Do you think you’re attractive?
[Laughs] That’s not a fair question. How can you answer that without sounding like a tool?
Have you ever been star-struck?
When I saw David Bowie in concert I froze the fuck up. I was there with my then-girlfriend and hardly looked at her for two hours – and she was good to look at. Usually when I see a band I watch what the drummer is doing, what the bass player is doing but I only had eyes for David.
What were your favourite films growing up?
Well, Dumbo still hits me harder than just about any other. Dumbo or Bambi couldn’t happen nowadays. In this business where accountants and lawyers are now in charge of how stories get told, the movies are sucking.
Words: Matt Mueller
Interview: Lee Wallick
Photography: Chad Pitman
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #13, April/May 2008