Joseph Gordon-Levitt: ‘Playing a cop means something different now’

Joseph Gordon-Levitt could be the model of a modern movie star, to the extent the description does not really fit him at all. Acting is just one of the skills in his career portfolio, alongside writing, directing, producing, running an online creative community, hosting a podcast and, occasionally, rocking out – as the guitars, keyboards and drum kit behind him attest (he plays all of them pretty well, and sings). He is in his soundproofed studio in his Los Angeles home. “This is the indulgence of my 18-year-old self,” he admits over Zoom. His hair has grown during lockdown and hangs over his face in curly strands, but the boyish, full-faced grin is the same as ever.

Coronavirus struck as Gordon-Levitt was getting back into his stride after a two-year career break. In another sign of his modernity, he took time off to spend with his two young sons, a move practically unheard of among male actors in Hollywood. To be fair, by that stage Gordon-Levitt had already notched up 30 years in show business and he has not yet turned 40. From teen stardom in the hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, he graduated through choice indie roles and into mainstream fare such as Inception, Lincoln, (500) Days of Summer, Looper, Snowden and The Dark Knight Rises.

So, he had earned his break. “Of course, there were voices, and maybe the loudest voices of all were in my own head, saying: ‘What if you’re going to lose your momentum? Think of your career,’” he says. “Those are valid concerns and, the truth is, I don’t have the same professional opportunities as I did in 2016 when I first took time off … but everything in life is a trade-off, and I would gladly any day make that choice again.”

The opportunities have not tailed off that much. Since returning two years ago, he has made three movies and when lockdown hit he was three weeks into Mr Corman, a new show for Apple TV, in which he plays a schoolteacher. In a way, it is a return to his sitcom roots, except this time Gordon-Levitt is also writing, directing and producing. He has a healthy sense of perspective about the break: “It was frustrating to have to stop in the middle, but it’s really nothing to be upset about because a lot of people are going through a lot of genuine struggle and I just take this whole thing as a lesson in gratitude.”

In the meantime, the movies are now arriving on our screens. In June, there was 7500, a claustrophobic airline hijack thriller to make any lockdown confinement feel liberating. It was the kind of challenge he was looking for, he says. The film’s German director, Patrick Vollrath, likes to work in long, unbroken, improvised takes, and the movie is set almost entirely in the plane’s cockpit. Now comes Project Power, a novel spin on the superhero genre, revolving around a new, experimental drug that gives people superpowers for five minutes. The effects of the drug are unpredictable, though; you could become bulletproof or giant-sized, or you might just die. At various points Gordon-Levitt’s New Orleans cop survives being shot in the head at point-blank range, fights a contortionist henchman with extremely bendy limbs, and wrestles a naked thief with parkour skills and chameleon-like camouflage powers. “After [7500], I just wanted to do something fun because that was so intense. So this was kind of the opposite. It was so much fun.”

Project Power does have some serious points to make. There are nods to the US government’s neglect of New Orleans’ citizens post-Hurricane Katrina, especially the poor, black ones – who are now expendable test subjects for the experimental drug. Gordon-Levitt’s cop teams up with a black teen rapper (Dominique Fishback) and a mysterious ex-military type (Jamie Foxx) to crack the conspiracy. “It doesn’t hit you over the head with any message,” he says, “but it asks some pertinent questions: who has power in this world and who doesn’t? And why? And is that fair? There’s certainly a lot going on in our world right now that begs those questions.”

The action scenes were no great stretch for the man who shot the celebrated zero-gravity hotel-corridor fight scene in Inception – “I always have instant respect from any stunt team because of Inception,” he laughs, in a rare moment of immodesty – but it’s the politics that get Gordon-Levitt really animated. Project Power was mostly shot in 2018, before the killing of George Floyd and the mass Black Lives Matter protests in the US. He has clearly anticipated the issue: “It means something different to be playing a police officer now than it did in 2018. But, on the other hand, it’s nothing new at all. These same exact tragedies have been happening my entire life.”

He talks at length about the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 and the US’s long history of racial injustice. He voices his support for Black Lives Matter and the principle of defunding the police, but also his appreciation for the hard work that most police officers do. “There are these situations when individuals in the police force do awful, terrible, unspeakable things that they need to be held responsible for, but maybe cops are assigned to handle too wide a variety of things. Maybe in a lot of cases it would make more sense for a social worker to show up instead of a guy with a gun.”

At the end of his monologue there’s a pause. “Anyway … Sorry. I guess I’m going off on a tangent. But I feel somewhat responsible to make my opinion clear now that I’m playing a police officer in a big movie that’s coming out.”

Gordon-Levitt has clearly thought about how and where to apply his own power, I suggest. “I wouldn’t claim to be an altruist and not everything I make is optimally healthy,” he says flashing that familiar grin. He cites his role in Sin City 2, Robert Rodriguez’s stylised comic-book noir thriller, full of gratuitous sex and violence. “I try to eat pretty healthily in my life, but sometimes I like a cheeseburger and fries.”

His next movie looks to be a veritable quinoa salad in terms of resonance with the present moment. Written and directed byAaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), The Trial of the Chicago 7 revisits the bizarre, often farcical trial of a group of anti-Vietnam war protesters after the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Sacha Baron Cohen plays counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman, leader of the Youth International Party, or “Yippies”. Gordon-Levitt plays the (semi-fictionalised) conservative prosecutor of the case. The cast also includes Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who at one point the judge ordered be bound, gagged and chained to a chair in the courtroom.

“It’s like watching the news,” Gordon-Levitt says. “The modern version of the culture wars we’re experiencing today, in a way, were born in 1968.” Like the Black Lives Matters protesters, the Yippies and the counterculture contingent were seeking broader societal change, he explains, which created divisions within the movement. “There’s an argument that ended up playing into the hands of the right. And I think Donald Trump has leveraged that to his advantage in a way that’s obviously been effective for him, but is infuriating for a leftist like myself.” Needless to say, he is not a Trump fan. He describes him as a “clear despot”, and “completely in opposition to the liberties that my country was founded on”.

The subject is close to home: Gordon-Levitt’s parents were both prominent in progressive politics in California in the 1960s and 70s. His father, Dennis Levitt, was an investigative reporter and news editor for public radio; his mother, Jane Gordon, was a member the Peace and Freedom Party and once ran for Congress. His maternal grandfather, Michael Gordon, was a film director who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. “My parents were thrilled when I told them I was doing this movie,” he says. “I grew up knowing who Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies were. We have books on our shelves about Watergate. It’s sort of a mythological story in my lefty upbringing.” He also credits his parents for keeping him on the rails and avoiding the familiar pitfalls of teenage celebrity. “They never made it about money or fame or anything like that. They said: ‘If you’re having fun doing this, we’ll support you, and as soon as you’re not having fun, you should stop.’ And I was always having fun doing it.”

Clearly, he is still having fun, but having started in the pre-internet era, Gordon-Levitt now seems to be looking beyond the age of television and movies and into the online future. He is married to the tech entrepreneur Tasha McCauley. On his podcast, Creative Processing, alongside movie buddies such as Rian Johnson and Seth Rogen, he has hosted the likes of the writer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, the artist Shepard Fairey and Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online retailer Zappos. He is concerned over social media’s tendency to “optimise towards sensationalism” and how it is enabling authoritarianism, and expresses his disappointment that Congress’s recent questioning of the big four tech companies – Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook – skirted around those issues. “I’m not in favour of monopolistic behaviour, but I don’t feel like that’s what’s breaking our world.”

How does he square that with making content for those same companies? The film 7500 was an Amazon production, Project Power is for Netflix, Mr Corman for Apple and he has done content for YouTube, too.

“It’s a good question,” he says. And he has a detailed answer for it. He makes a distinction between the likes of Netflix and Apple, where consumers pay a fee for a service, and the likes of Google and Facebook, where it is more about data and advertising. Then again, he says: “I also think YouTube is brilliant and beautiful. There’s never been anything like it.” He marvels at how he can look up 100 different versions of somebody playing a Debussy piece or show his children a stop-motion film of a watermelon rotting. “So when people ask, is it a net positive or a net negative? I just think that’s too simplistic a question. I think the challenge of our generation is to figure out how can we have something as beautiful as YouTube and also make sure it’s not taking us down the road of extremism and authoritarianism.”

Where some entertainers use social media for hot political takes or self-promotion, Gordon-Levitt does the opposite. In 2005, he founded an online creative community, HitRecord, with his brother Dan (who died in 2010). The emphasis of HitRecord is collaboration. People propose projects and invite others to contribute: adding lyrics to a melody, for example, or a video clip, or a voiceover for a short film. Some of those collaborations go on to make money, which is then divided between the contributors. Gordon-Levitt (simply known as “Joe”) sets the tone as the affable, supportive community host. During the pandemic, especially, HitRecord has come into its own as a way of bringing people together. “Yeah … I don’t find it productive to try to debate complicated and important issues on social media,” he says. “I guess I try to engage with it in my own way by saying: ‘Hey, let’s all make art together!’ And let’s do it over here where we’re not subject to the attention economy in the same way.”

You can see Gordon-Levitt tiring of being a movie star. In fact, you could see him entering politics. He has all the credentials: popularity and charm, the political pedigree, intellectual curiosity, an ability to bring people together and, crucially, a sense of perspective. Has he considered following in his mother’s footsteps?

“I think probably when Donald Trump won the presidency, every entertainer in Hollywood was like: ‘Well, fuck, if he can do it, I’m at least as qualified as this guy!’” But no, he’s not tempted, he says. “I don’t really see that for myself. For my sanity and the mental health of my family, I like to keep a real boundary between my personal life and my professional life. I don’t know if you can really do that if you’re in politics. When they bring their wives on stage at their rallies; my wife would hate that! She doesn’t like that kind of attention. I just said more about my wife just now in that sentence than I would ever usually say in interviews.”

He seems to be perfectly happy where he is, and perhaps that is where we need him most. “I’m very interested in seeing, from my position as an entertainer, what impact I can have. I think that’s questionable because, ultimately, I think younger generations, especially, are less and less interested in what Hollywood has to say about anything other than entertainment. But that’s also what I like about doing HitRecord. I’m trying to participate in the zeitgeist in a way that’s different than Hollywood.”