It’s Wednesday morning, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is asking strangers for help. He needs puppets.
The actor stands in the middle of an office that looks more like a workshop. Assorted cameras and lighting rigs are propped up like sentries, but only the one facing him is turned on. There are banks of computers along the walls, where people toil away editing videos. A nearby alcove is draped in bright green and stacked with crates, which a clever visual-effects artist could turn into anything at all.
But not puppets. Those have to be built by someone. For real.
”Come work on a TV show!” Gordon-Levitt tells the camera in a jokey accent, though he’s completely serious. ”We are doing it. You can do it too! We can do it together!” The video is one of his regular calls to action for hitRECord.org, the quixotic, crowdsourced storytelling operation that consumes much of the 32-year-old actor’s life.
With Gordon-Levitt as their ringleader and benefactor, the hitRECord staff and their far-flung network of contributors are hard at work crafting an offbeat, heartfelt, old-school, new-media TV variety show that will air on the Pivot network Jan. 18. If you are a writer, illustrator, musician, or photographer — or have any other creative impulses, like being the next Jim Henson — there are lots of ways for you to get involved. Yes, you. He means it.
Once upon a time, Gordon-Levitt was a child star who had to prove he was more than that kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun. Then he was a young man, making his name in indie favorites like Brick, The Lookout, and (500) Days of Summer, not to mention crowd-pleaser blockbusters such as Inception, Looper, and The Dark Knight Rises. And in the past few years, Gordon-Levitt has evolved even further: He is Hollywood’s DIY filmmaker, using his newfound clout to get his passion projects off the ground. HitRECord is one of them. The other is his feature writing-directing debut, the sexual satire Don Jon (rated R, out Sept. 27).
Don Jon is a film about porn — which is usually all a studio would need to hear before saying ”No thanks.” Gordon-Levitt stars as a New Jersey tough guy whose love life is falling apart because he can’t find a woman who excites him as much as the vixens in his favorite triple-X videos. Scarlett Johansson costars as the frustrated gum-snapping girlfriend who wants their new relationship to measure up to her own screen fantasies — the sickly sweet Hollywood rom-coms she idolizes. ”I wanted to talk about how media influenced people’s expectations,” Gordon-Levitt says. ”Pornography is a huge, huge part of our media culture. The message Don Jon is trying to bring to light — and make fun of — is reducing people, especially women, to nothing but sex objects. It happens in music videos, TV shows, movies, and magazines, and so many commercials. Whether it’s rated X or approved by the FCC to sell Doritos, the message is the same.”
As provocative as the premise of Don Jon is, the film was still a hard sell to studios looking for PG-13 fare. Gordon-Levitt’s name alone made it a hot commodity. Ryan Kavanaugh, CEO of Relativity Media, says he snapped up the film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year in part just to get into business with Gordon-Levitt: ”I hope we work with him on many, many movies as both an actor and a director.”
Gordon-Levitt knows that Hollywood’s interest in him has as much to do with his box office appeal as it does with his talent — and that this particular film would never have gotten made if it weren’t starring a Dark Knight actor and Black Widow from The Avengers. ”Because of where Scarlett and I were business-wise, we were able to raise a modest budget and maintain creative control, and that would not have been possible a year or two prior,” he says. He’s proud of the films he has acted in, but they were also, he now realizes, crucial propulsion to do the things that are most personal to him. ”It feels like this is what I’ve been working toward all this time,” he says.
Joe The Wonder Boy
As a kid, Gordon-Levitt appeared in dozens of commercials and bit TV roles before his breakthrough at age 15 on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun. His first job was a commercial for Sunny Jim peanut butter when he was about 6 years old. ”The children were dressed in 1920s clothes, sitting on this log under a tree, and it was raining,” his mother, Jane Gordon, recalls. ”When he opened this jar of peanut butter, the sun came out. Sunny Jim — get it?”
It was a miserable experience from the get-go. The director hassled her to cut the boy’s hair to look like Alfalfa’s from Little Rascals, which she refused to do because her son had already booked a second job for the following week. Then the commercial shoot dragged on over schedule, skipping the legally mandated meal breaks as the crew repeatedly doused Gordon-Levitt with fake rainwater. By the time they finished, nighttime had descended. Gordon was sure this first job would be her son’s last. ”I really did expect him to say, ‘Never mind. I don’t want to do it anymore,”’ she says. ”Instead it was the exact opposite: ‘That was great!”’
Joe The Builder
”I love making things. I always have,” Gordon-Levitt says now. ”When I was a kid, all I really cared about was that creative process. I didn’t care if anybody liked the work I was doing or if it meant anything to anybody. I was frankly doing it out of my own selfish enjoyment.”
He loved working on 3rd Rock, costarring with John Lithgow, French Stewart, and Kristen Johnston as Tommy Solomon — the eldest of a group of earthbound aliens (even though his human disguise made him look like a kid). But he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. ”On a TV show like that, you hear a lot of people telling you what you need to do to build a career,” he says. ”What everybody said I should do was another TV show. But I told myself there was no point doing it if I’m not going to love it. I said I was only going to do jobs that truly inspire me. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to stick to it.”
The first thing he wanted to do? Nothing. He quit acting after the sitcom went off the air, and moved to New York to attend Columbia University. At the time, he wasn’t creating entertainment, but he was consuming it in great quantities. ”I realized that the books I read — and the shows and movies that I watched, and songs that I heard — inspired me and helped me get through my life,” he says. ”It’s an enormous privilege to participate in that cultural conversation.”
He left Columbia in 2004, at the beginning of his third year. He returned to acting, taking on riskier, more challenging roles, such as a teen prostitute in Mysterious Skin and a mental-ward patient in Manic (his first film with future (500) Days costar Zooey Deschanel). He also played a brain-damaged patsy in The Lookout — the low-budget heist drama that caught the attention of Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan. It was no longer enough to just make stuff. ”I realized,” Gordon-Levitt says, ”that it’s meaningful to me when something I’ve done is meaningful to someone else.”
In person Gordon-Levitt has a mellow, laid-back vibe, but there’s a restless energy thrumming beneath that charm. He’s almost always wearing either a T-shirt or a pin with hitRECord’s logo on it: a red dot, symbolizing both the power button on a recording device and something more. ”That stands for my own philosophy about being creative, and pushing the button, and getting started,” he says.
Last month, hitRECord-on-TV taped its variety show in a marathon live session in front of 1,800 people at downtown L.A.’s Orpheum Theatre. Gordon-Levitt worked into the early-morning hours shooting intro segments for the upcoming episodes. He also performed an exhaustive tap routine with Tony Danza, who appears in Don Jon as his brusque father and has known Gordon-Levitt since they acted together in 1994’s Angels in the Outfield.
Their song-and-dance bit at the Orpheum involved bringing scores of audience members on stage at the end — all of whom had memorized the choreography thanks to one of those call-to-action videos posted on the hitRECord website. After two complete go-rounds, Gordon-Levitt was launching into a third when the director came over the PA system to urge him to move on to the next segment. They had hours left to go, and many more scenes to shoot. As filming went on past midnight, Gordon-Levitt’s energy never seemed to flag. It was like the Sunny Jim commercial all over again. He looked like he wanted to do that tap routine one more time.
A gung ho spirit shapes almost everything Gordon-Levitt does. Even before every cell phone had a built-in camera, he always carried a video recorder with him. He loved the concept of quick-draw filmmaking. To remind himself to live in the moment, he wears ornamental snail shells around his neck — inspiration taken from a poem by Jacques Prévert. ”It’s about two snails on their way to the funeral of a fallen leaf in autumn, but they’re so slow that by the time they get there it’s spring, and the leaves have all come back to life,” he says, flashing a poet-heartthrob smile. He crosses his legs, revealing two wildly mismatched socks: One is in the blue-red-white grid style of painter Piet Mondrian, the other is cartoon giraffes. He’s a stylish dude, but he’s also a goof.
Joe The Crusader
month after the live show at the Orpheum, Gordon-Levitt arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Don Jon will have a gala screening the next evening. His suitcases are stacked, still packed, by the hotel-room door, and dusk has turned Lake Ontario into a purple haze outside his window. For once, Gordon-Levitt looks a little tired. But just a little.
Mostly, he’s feeling lucky. For all the work he put in over the years — for all the commercials, films, and TV shows that added up to get him where he is — he knows a big part of that success is good fortune. He also knows another big part of his life is missing.
There’s a deeper reason hitRECord matters so much to Gordon-Levitt, something even more personal than philosophy. When the website started, it was a two-man operation: Joe and his brother, Dan, who was seven years older but looked a lot like his younger sibling with dreadlocks. In those early years, Dan was the guy on the site rallying the troops.
But in 2010, Dan died unexpectedly at the age of 36, and the site became more than just a cool new tech toy to his little brother. ”I think about Dan all day long,” Gordon-Levitt says. ”HitRECord stands for the battle cry ‘You can do it.’ And that was Dan’s story. He was a very introverted person for most of his life, into his early to mid-20s. Around that time, he decided he didn’t want to be that way anymore. He wanted to bring himself, what he felt on the inside, out and share it.”
While Gordon-Levitt was making his name as an actor, Dan had been establishing himself as a performance artist. ”He and I were out at night once, and these two fire spinners were performing in the street, and Dan was like, ‘That’s cool, but I’m not the kind of person who can do that.’ Then he realized: ‘Why not? Why couldn’t I?”’
Dan eventually started performing at places like Burning Man under the larger-than-life persona of Burning Dan. ”He got to the point where he became one of the greats in the fire-spinning community. He changed so much. And during that evolution, we made hitRECord together.”
Gordon-Levitt is smiling as he speaks, but his eyes are glassy: ”It always makes me really happy when someone comes on the site. And even if their contribution isn’t used in the TV show, the fact that they came and did it, that always means a lot to me. And that always reminds me of Dan.”
The mismatched-socks thing? That was something his brother always did.
Joe The Man
Gordon-Levitt isn’t sure what will come next for him. He doesn’t have a new acting project lined up, though no doubt he will shortly. Right now he’s focused on getting the word out about Don Jon and continuing his proselytizing for hitRECord, on his way to becoming an indie new-media mogul. Anything seems possible, but when Gordon-Levitt talks about the future, he frames it in terms of stories, even if it’s just living his own.
”The ability to balance a thorough plan with spontaneity is right at the crux of being a good director,” he says. ”If you’re too married to your plan, your movie will end up stilted. If you don’t have a thorough enough plan, and are only going on whim, your movie might end up without a strong, singular voice. And that applies to how you approach a whole life.”
From Actor To Director
With Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt joins an impressive list of stars who have thrived behind the camera
Play Misty for Me (1971)
Eastwood’s late-career renaissance is one of cinema’s most impressive.
Ordinary People (1980)
The rugged star took home the Best Director Oscar for his debut.
Little Man Tate (1991)
Foster’s three films indicate a keen eye for her characters’ humanity.
The Man Without a Face (1993)
The Passion of the Christ was a controversial (and massive) success.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Good Night, and Good Luck got him two Oscar noms.
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Affleck had fully reinvented himself by the time he made 2012’s Argo.
In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011)
The star is about to adapt the bestseller Unbroken.
Star Without Sequel
Gordon-Levitt has never played the same movie character twice, opting for roles and films that unsettle or suprise
Mysterious Skin (2005)
Gordon-Levitt stars as a teen prostitute haunted by childhood abuse in the acclaimed indie.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Zooey Deschanel costars with Gordon-Levitt in a charming sleeper hit about unrequited love.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Gordon-Levitt plays a cop with a strong moral compass in the $1 billion global blockbuster.
In this dark mystery, Gordon-Levitt plays an outsider trying to unravel his ex-girlfriend’s murder.
The actor defies gravity in this brainy first collaboration with Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan.
In a time-tweaky thriller, Gordon-Levitt is a hired gun assigned to kill his future self (Bruce Willis).