Film director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt are neighbors in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. They’re also pretty close, since Gordon-Levitt says they hang out at each other’s house and he also praises Johnson’s cooking.
” ‘Looper’ is the first time anyone has written a part for me,” he tells The Japan Times about the film that is written and directed by Johnson. “When Rian handed me a draft of the script, we were at Du-par’s (restaurant) eating steak and eggs. I waited until I got home to read it. When I did, I thought, ‘This is brilliant.’ ”
Roles catering to the actor are just another step on Gordon-Levitt’s rise to the top. The 31-year-old has been on a roll for the past few years when it comes to films. He’s had big parts in the blockbusters “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” as well as a part in last year’s critcally acclaimed “Lincoln.” In fact, he has been in 20 features since appearing in 2005’s “Brick,” which was a writing/directing breakthrough for Johnson.
” ‘Brick’ impressed me, and (so did) ‘The Brothers Bloom,’ ” says Gordon-Levitt about the 2008 film that featured Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi. But he adds that he was blown away by “Looper.”
“Rian’s an auteur, but uncomplicated and honest about it,” Gordon-Levitt says. “He loves movies. I love movies. We talk movies a lot, and he admits he’s borrowed from umpteen movies — like everyone has … if they’re up front about it.
“Borrowing in a movie isn’t just a form of praise. It’s a way of passing the torch and keeping it lit, shining and remembered.”
It’s hard to imagine borrowing for a film like “Looper,” though. The film is set in a crime-infested 2044. However, 30 years later time travel will have been invented and subsequently outlawed — but criminal bosses are able to obtain the technology. Gordon-Levitt plays a “looper” named Joe. Loopers are hit men who kill people sent back in time by gangsters in 2074. The twist comes when one of his jobs turns out to be Joe’s future self — 30 years older and played by Bruce Willis.
Willis, who’s 57, found the idea of confronting his own character’s younger self intriguing.
“When will I get to do this again?” he tells The Japan Times with a chuckle, before admitting that time travel is an increasingly popular theme in film. “Sometimes I think it’s being done to death, but if it has a fresh twist … I thought real highly of ‘The Time Machine,’ from the 1960s. It seemed so modern, so cool. But now that I’m older, I like the idea of looking youth in the face and confronting it — without nostalgia — with detachment and an appreciation of what I’ve survived to become.
“Rian’s a cool young director and writer. He’s imaginative to the max and reverential to the old, classic films. Talking with him, you learn a lot about the Golden Age of Hollywood.”
Gordon-Levitt knows a little about the Golden Age (the 1920s through the early 1960s) as well. His grandfather, Michael Gordon, directed “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950), “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Boys’ Night Out” (1962). His father, Dennis Levitt, was a radio news director; and his mother, Jane Gordon, ran for Congress in the 1970s via the Peace and Freedom Party. Joseph began performing early, in commercials, and is a native of Los Angeles.
“Third-generation,” he notes proudly. “My grandpa grew up in South-Central,” a now rough part of Los Angeles, “which when he was young was a Jewish neighborhood. I love the few remaining parts of old Los Angeles, and in movies I look for what’s now gone, like in Chaplin’s ‘City Lights.’ If I get asked about hobbies or what I do when I’m not acting or involved in movies, I say watching movies and eating — not necessarily at the same time.”
Gordon-Levitt is credited as a producer on “Looper,” and has directed a few acclaimed shorts. His next project, “Don Jon’s Addiction,” sees him in the roles of star, director and writer.
Regarding what seems like a meteoric rise, Gordon-Levitt says: “That’s the perception from outside. But when I look back, I see this long parade of roles in film and TV, and it’s really been a gradual accumulation.
“I try to do good work and sometimes wonder if it gets noticed. With enough time and enough good projects, it does get noticed … eventually. And now, my time of being noticed has accelerated, but I try not to think about it. I don’t have a ‘plan’ — I do get asked about that — but in this business you can’t have a plan. Things just happen, and when and if you go from supporting actor to lead, that’s not in your hands.”
Gordon-Levitt says that what is in his hands is his own approach to his craft. He credits his grandfather, who started working at the age of 12, for teaching him a strong work ethic.
“It’s funny, because you grow up (in the United States) hearing about the Protestant work ethic, but it’s certainly not the only one. There’s a very strong Jewish work ethic and a Japanese work ethic, a Chinese work ethic.”
Willis admits he was impressed by Gordon-Levitt when he met him.
“Praising a young actor generally does him no good,” he says, “and I throw this out now, rather than tell it to young Joseph. But I see him, in a few years or less, as a major star. He’s got the talent, he’s distinctive rather than a clone, and he’s got humor. You gotta have humor to be a star and to last as a star — look at me!”
British actress Emily Blunt plays the leading lady in “Looper.” Her character, Sara, is the mother of a tantrum-prone child who may or may not grow up to be the man responsible for Joe’s death sentence. The film addresses the issue of whether or not the so-called rules of time travel should be violated and the child be killed — a classic time-travel conundrum.
Willis hints that the second half of “Looper” is more complex than the first.
“I’ve done enough shooting to know that some filmmakers bite off more than they can chew,” he says. “But I think Rian carries the suspense and the issues through right to the end. Sure, (there’s) action, but there’s substance. It kind of provokes you to wonder why and how childhood shapes the future individual.”
The character of Joe has had a troubled childhood with a drug-addicted mother. He fell in with bad company and wound up becoming a hit man. Early in the picture, Joe says that “The job doesn’t tend to attract the most forward-thinking people.” Nor does it seem to pay very well — his one-room apartment on the wrong side of town isn’t really anything to brag about, though he is sartorially minded.
“There’s also the indirect question in some moviegoers’ minds about the relationship between one’s, say, 30-year-old self and near-60-year-old self,” Gordon-Levitt adds. “To what degree are they the same person? How different are they, and how much has time and the profession one chooses, especially a lethal profession, changed the individual’s core into maybe someone else’s?”
Willis initially had concerns about the story’s complexity. “I’ve done a lot of films with simpler plots than this,” he deadpans. “But ‘Looper’ takes its time when it should, and the various elements get made clear. I think it’s an advantage when the director is also the writer — he’s totally clear about what he wants to say and show. He’s not trying to reinterpret or muddy up someone else’s script.”
Willis recently starred in another critically acclaimed movie, “Moonrise Kingdom” — which is set for a Feb. 8 release in Japan. It’s a romantic comedy directed and co-written by Wes Anderson that’s set in New England and features an ensemble cast including Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton.
“I like kind of shuttling back and forth between something sort of offbeat like that and then something like ‘Looper,’ which is more like what’s expected of me,” Willis says.
Unlike Willis’ “Die Hard” persona, Gordon-Levitt isn’t likely to be pigeonholed as an action star after “Looper.” He has a wide range and versatile image, despite his modesty.
“I don’t mind a challenge,” he says. “I look at Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, and I’m in awe. I think, maybe someday I’ll get to do something like that. I like drama — I like a good story, and that can be drama or action or comedy or any combination thereof. It just all depends on the script.
“They don’t seem to see me much in comedy, although I love to sit and laugh at a good comedy. But I don’t believe in bemoaning your fate. I think it’s smarter to be proactive and generate stuff for yourself … by being a director, maybe writing, commissioning somebody to write a particular script. My only rule or plan, besides working hard, is trying to work with the best people.
“Differing generations is a part of the theme in ‘Looper.’ I would hope that 30 years from now I’d have played a diverse range of characters that right now I can’t imagine, and that I’d have pleased audiences and critics, also my peers and —last but not least — myself.”
“Looper” opens in cinemas nationwide on Jan. 12. For more information, visit www.loopermovie.com.