“Joe!” he says, glancing up and smiling. He puts away the phone.
His was the name you always noticed in the credits of 3rd Rock, a smart comedy about aliens who lived on Earth. A six-syllable mouthful, and that “Gordon” never quite confirming itself as a middle or last name. When he disappeared for a time, emerging several years later as a credible indie-flick actor, I already felt inclined to root for him: a young man who’d somehow managed that rare transition from cheesy primetime to real actors’ acting. In the decade since, Gordon-Levitt has built up a genuinely varied CV, strong on festival-circuit thinkers, smart action movies, edgy comedies. This autumn, he enters biopic territory, the customary stalking ground of Academy voters.
In The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis, he plays Philippe Petit, the guy who walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 (you’ll know him as the subject of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire). And in Snowden, Oliver Stone’s much anticipated movie about the NSA whistleblower, he will play the title role. To prepare for The Walk, Gordon-Levitt learned a bunch of circus skills and magic tricks; and ahead of Snowden, he flew to Russia for a secret meeting with the exiled whistleblower himself. The two experiences have combined to make him an expert at hiding in plain sight. In the restaurant, I tell him I could have gone another couple of laps without noticing him.
“What were you expecting?” he asks, interested. “Something like this?” And with a deft, thespy shift, he transforms himself into That Guy: the eyebrows cocked, his mouth pursed, arms winged out on seat backs either side, the legs spread belligerently wide. I like him immediately.
We settle in, Gordon-Levitt inspecting the menu and ordering their one thing with avocado (“always avocado”). When the food comes, he spreads a napkin on his lap and eats with neat little movements of his knife and fork. “He was in good spirits,” he says of his meeting with Snowden. “Certainly there was that note, that he very much would like to come home. He doesn’t want to live in Russia at all.”
Gordon-Levitt comes from a long line of Californian liberals: his grandfather was a director who was once blacklisted by Hollywood; his parents are Jewish intellectuals who met while working on a leftwing radio station. He once made a self-funded documentary about the Occupy movement, and has spoken in support of internet freedoms. When he met Snowden, he was in research rather than support mode, “wanting to understand this person that I was going to play, observing both his strengths and his weaknesses”. Even so, he was dying to keep a record of their four-hour conversation, but was advised not to. For a long while afterwards, Snowden’s lawyers did not even want Gordon-Levitt to admit the meeting had taken place. This is the first time he has spoken publicly about it.
“I left knowing without a doubt that what [Snowden] did, he did because he believed it was the right thing to do, that he believed it would help the country he loves. Now, as he would say, it’s not for him to say whether it was right or wrong. That’s really for people to decide on their own, and I would encourage anybody to decide that on their own. I don’t want to be the actor guy who’s like, ‘You should listen to me! What he did was right!’ I don’t think that’s my place. Even though that is what I believe – that what he did was right.”
He says Snowden reminded him a lot of Petit, the wire-walker. “What I found was someone warm, kind, thoughtful: a lot like Philippe. Both of them are incredibly driven towards something they believe in.” In preparation for The Walk, he all but moved in with Petit, spending a week in a disused warehouse with the Frenchman, learning to juggle, perform tricks and, above all, how to walk on a wire.
For insurance reasons, Gordon-Levitt was supposed to wear a safety harness whenever he was up on a wire, but Petit is no great follower of rules. Long ago, the Frenchman illegally wire-walked between the spires of Notre Dame; his subsequent stunt at the World Trade Center became world famous, not only as an act of bravery, but also as a symbol of civil disobedience. So, as early as day two in their training, Petit came up with a ruse to get around the insurance business: he invited the actor up on to a wire that was 6ft above the ground, and then winkingly recommended he try wearing a “special, technologically advanced, Russian-made safety harness that looks invisible”. Six feet might not sound that high, Gordon-Levitt tells me, but try being up there with only a make-believe safety harness.
He came to agree with Petit’s world view – that wire-walking was not only a physical skill, but “a metaphor for life itself”. And if you know a little about Gordon-Levitt’s background, it’s easy to see why he might think this way. He recently got married, to a business director in the tech industry called Tasha McCauley. (His wife works for a software company that makes explorable virtual maps of cities. At the time of our lunch, she was weeks away from giving birth to their first child.) He doesn’t like to discuss their relationship, and all he wants to say is, “I feel content. I feel lucky.”
At the same time, he knows what it’s like to be unsteadied by professional disappointment – and, worse, to be toppled, outright, by personal tragedy. In 2010, he lost his older brother Dan (“my best friend”) in what he has previously described as a “drug-related accident”. Gordon-Levitt’s grief is still real and knotted up with all sorts of contradictory impulses, as he goes on to explain. For now, he alludes to his brother in passing, telling me that “wire-walking is a metaphor for just waking up in the morning and being alive. Which sometimes feels impossible. Which sometimes feels meaningless. In which it can sometimes be really hard to provide yourself with a good answer to, ‘Why should I wake up and get out of bed? Why should I care? Does this mean anything at all?’”
As a boy, Gordon-Levitt would blow out the candles on his birthday cake and wish for employment. Not for a 10-speed bike or a Nintendo – a gig. “I just loved being on set so much. I always wanted to be working.” He grew up in LA with his parents, Jane (the Gordon) and Dennis (the Levitt), and brother Dan. The family lived a few roads away from a Hollywood casting agency, so it was not all that unusual for the youngest to be tapped up by an agent after playing the scarecrow in a school production of The Wizard Of Oz at the age of six.
He went on to make guest appearances in Quantum Leap, Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, LA Law and Murder, She Wrote. In the early 1990s, he won an industry award for being the best actor under 10, after a brief appearance in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. He remembers wanting a job as a recurring character in a sitcom more than anything: “Then you’d get to work all the time.” When 3rd Rock From The Sun started in 1996, Gordon-Levitt was one of four leads and, at 15, the youngest. “To be involved! As a kid! To play as important a role as all these adults!”
These days, he still looks much younger than his years: sub-6ft, slight, blemishless skin. A founding conceit of 3rd Rock was that the aliens hadn’t managed to choose human bodies that matched their extraterrestrial identities. Gordon-Levitt played Tommy, an elderly alien who’d wound up a human teenager. It was a bit of casting that Gordon-Levitt’s co-star in the show, John Lithgow, found very appropriate. “He was a very mature boy,” Lithgow once recalled. “I remember him carrying on about the ecological damage that is done when people build new golf courses. What teenager worries about that?”
I ask Gordon-Levitt if his youthful looks factored in him taking outsize satisfaction in gaining adult employment as a boy. “When I was a teenager, I was insecure about looking so young,” he says. “I had long hair. People thought I was a girl. I remember the dude at the shoe store once being, like, ‘Can I help you, miss?’”
High school was a tricky time for him; he was never consistently present because of filming. “Whether it was playing sports or, as I got older, meeting girls, I very much wanted to have those experiences. But it was challenging, sometimes, to have them be normal while also working.” He loved being a child actor, but he had some unwelcome responsibilities even then, among them “a very special kind of hell” that was his obligation to attend an annual teen celebrity conference.
“I found it stomach-turning and uncomfortable. But they used to do these yearly super-conventions of teen magazine press, and that was my compromise when it came to promoting 3rd Rock – that I would go to these and I wouldn’t do the other shit.” At one conference, when he was about 14, a journalist noticed he didn’t look comfortable and asked why. “I think this is all pornography,” Gordon-Levitt replied. The answer didn’t cause offence, he remembers; the interview just carried on.
We talk about a difficult time in his life after 3rd Rock ended. Gordon-Levitt fell into a slump, part of him keen to stay in the business, part of him desperately wanting out. “I was 19. I wanted to know what it was like to have a different future.” He enrolled to study French at Columbia University in New York, but only completed what he later termed “about half a bachelor’s degree”. He couldn’t quite shake the acting bug, and drifted back towards an industry that didn’t fully seem to want him. Before his hiatus, he’d been a bit-player in a couple of mainstream movies, playing a first-act murder victim in a Halloween reboot, a supporting nerd in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. His agents suggested he might try to get more work such as this. Perhaps he could try for another sitcom?
“I really didn’t want to,” Gordon-Levitt says. “I was lucky to have made money when I was young, so I didn’t have to take jobs that everyone said I should take.” When asked what sort of acting he did want to do, he would reply: I want to be in a movie that might play at Sundance. Or something by Quentin Tarantino.
There was “a good year, if not more” of being turned away by casting directors. “There were moments, days even, of listlessness. You know, wallowing in self-rejection and loathing and despair. I also had pretty strong moments of intense optimism.” With Dan, then working as a computer programmer, he had founded a small online collective called hitrecord.org. It was a gathering place for filmmakers, artists, writers, musicians and techies that started as a messageboard and grew to become a giltzy hub from which people could launch creative collaborations. “My resolution was, ‘I might never get another acting job again. But I’m not cool with never getting to make any more of these things that I love making, so I’m going to do it myself.’”
Through hitrecord.org, he starting making his own short films, including an adaptation of a Jacques Prévert poem about snails. Maybe the industry sensed his new industriousness: Gordon-Levitt’s losing streak came to an end, and he started getting cast in the sort of low-budget, juicily scripted, commercially unpromising films he’d longed for. In Mysterious Skin (2004) he played a troubled teenage drug hustler. In Brick (2005), which won a jury prize at Sundance, he was a troubled teenage private eye. In 2009, he fronted a quiet little romcom, (500) Days Of Summer, that became a surprise smash.
Around then, he was called in to meet with Christopher Nolan. “I didn’t even know what the script was – you couldn’t read it.” Nolan was preparing to make Inception, his ambitious sci-fi movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio would lead a team of stick-up artists through a string of robberies that took place inside people’s dreams. Nolan was looking for a last member of the gang, Arthur, who’d spearhead a wacky, zero-gravity sequence. The scene wound up being the movie’s most memorable, with Gordon-Levitt taking part in a balletic feat of floaty wire work as he fought and subdued a gang of hoodlums. In the pantheon of insanely cool Hollywood heists, it’s up there with the Italian Job subway chase, or the Mission: Impossible ceiling-drop. Nolan used Gordon-Levitt again two years later, casting him as one of Batman’s sidekicks in The Dark Knight Rises. That summer, he played the lead in Looper, a big‑budget action film made by the director of Brick, Rian Johnson.
When he was approached to be in the Tarantino movie Django Unchained – the dream! – Gordon-Levitt surprised people by saying no: his heart was set on directing a small movie he’d written himself. “There were people asking me, ‘Are you sure?’” he recalls.
Don Jon, written while he was making Batman, was a film about an internet-porn addict. The kernel of the idea had lodged in his mind years earlier, at that hateful teen magazine convention. “It was that idea of objectifying people, what happens when people treat each other like things. In Don Jon, that took shape in a guy watching porn, but it also took shape in how he treated the women he met at bars, how he treated his friends, his parents, his church, his car… Everything was a thing, an object, in his mind.”
Odd and original, Don Jon captures, in a Nora Ephron-ish or Woody Allen-like way, a very specific cultural moment as 21st-century society began its struggle with the availability of 24-hour porn. Critical reaction was mixed – “How does a nice Jewish boy like him come up with an idea like this?” one interviewer asked – and the film did not make money. “There were people who warned of the downsides,” Gordon-Levitt says, “and there were downsides that came to pass. If I’d wanted to, I could have made a standard romantic comedy that made more money. But why should I?” He says this was something he learned from his brother, not automatically to take the path of least resistance.
Dan, who was seven years older, was clearly a big influence on his younger brother. “He was my idol,” Gordon-Levitt says. “Then, as we got older, we became more like peers. Confidants.” Dan died just as hitrecord.org was beginning to flourish; when news of his death hit the site, tributes were uploaded – videos of a raggedly handsome man with a beard and dreadlocks and a fantastically bizarre dress sense, camouflage matched with sequins. Gordon-Levitt uploaded a message to say he’d be taking a short break to grieve, but he added: “[Dan] would absolutely positively insist that we not let this bad news deter us on our collective mission.”
That word, “mission”, was selected with care, he tells me now. “It was one of Dan’s favourite words. He would say it all the time, sometimes with profundity, sometimes with perfect triviality. Like, ‘We’re going on an orange juice mission!’ That’s exactly how my brother was.”
Gordon-Levitt’s demeanour when he talks about his brother is one of halting animation. He leans forward on his elbows and speaks in excited blasts, only to cut himself off and pause, looking off to the left or right.
Not so long ago, he gave an interview to GQ in which the writer said Dan had died “of an alleged drug overdose”. Gordon-Levitt posted a message denying this overdose on Tumblr, describing it as “an irresponsible claim”. (GQ stood by its story.) “I’ve had negative experiences in the past talking to journalists about my brother,” he says, “and, I don’t know, I’m hoping that you’re going to be considerate. Especially to my parents, who are going to read this, because they’ve really been hurt in the past. But I do want to talk about this, because, I guess, I trust you, and also because, as I was grieving, I found it helpful to… I mean, just reading different people talk about their grieving processes, it helped.”
He says that not so long ago, while he was training with Petit, he felt a potent reconnection with his brother. It was during one of those sessions in which the actor was up on a 6ft-high wire in his invisible harness. He was inching along, utterly terrified, “and halfway across, I guess Philippe noticed that I was getting scared. He said one word: ‘Breathe’.” “Breathe” was another of his brother’s words. “Dan used to say it all the time. Just that one word. It was the most powerful moment, to be up there on the wire, and to have him say that very thing.”
Was it a happy sensation, or a sad one? He pauses for a long time, staring away. Finally, he says, “The grieving that I do for my brother, it’s evolved over five years. I feel lucky to report that the grief, now, is usually accompanied by some beauty. But the beauty, it’s accompanied by more grief. Things have sort of become more nuanced. That moment with Philippe, was there a sadness to it? Yes, it was deeply painful. But that pain was sort of simultaneous to – and inseparable from – a rare elation.”
It occurs to me, sitting there, that Gordon-Levitt had said he felt Snowden reminded him of Petit, and also that Petit reminded him of his brother. “Why not make a mission out of it?” is how Gordon-Levitt sums up the trio’s common attitude. “Whether it’s getting orange juice or walking on a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, why not make it a mission and really go for it? Why amble? You could go through life saying, ‘I have this vision of walking on a high wire between the World Trade Center towers. But that’s impossible, I’ll never do it.’ That’s the path of least resistance. I do that all the time, every day, we all do, we pick the path of least resistance sometimes. But isn’t life sort of made of those moments where you make the decision… to go on the mission instead?”
• The Walk is released on 2 October; Snowden in early 2016.
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