Special Feature: The rise of Joseph Gordon-Levitt

From long-haired alien teenager Tommy in the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun to this summer’s smash-hit blockbuster Inception (2010), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, at the age of 29, has become one of the darlings of Hollywood independent cinema. And for me, he is one of the best American actors of his generation.

Although Gordon-Levitt appeared in a number of well-known projects during the 1990s, including the cult teen-comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) alongside Heath Ledger, it was not until his appearance in 2001’s Manic that he really began stretch his wings as a dramatic actor. Directed by Jordan Melamed, Manic detailed the everyday life of a group of teenagers at a juvenile psychiatric hospital. As Lyle, the film’s seething anti-hero, who finds his fellow patients (including Tracy, played by Zooey Deschanel, with whom Gordon-Levitt would later work in (500) Days of Summer [2009]) fascinating and ridiculous, and his own place among them baffling, Gordon-Levitt makes the transition from child-star to serious actor in one step. The tenseness of Lyle, and the exhilaration of release in moments of violence that Gordon-Levitt brings to the role makes his performance edgy and genuinely scary at times, almost a latter-day Antoine Doinel, with all the rage of the late 20th Century made flesh in the protagonist abandoned by society.

More roles followed in the Disney animation Treasure Planet (2002) and the Mormon drama, Latter Days (2003). The next milestone performance from Gordon-Levitt came in the award-winning Mysterious Skin (2004), in which he played Neil McCormick, a hedonistic teenage gay prostitute who, along with Brian Lackey (Brady Corbett), was sexually abused by his baseball coach at the age of 8. Arguably Gordon-Levitt’s finest accomplishment to date, Mysterious Skin is a harrowing and difficult watch, but is made all the more compelling by the lithe intensity of the young actor’s physical presence. There’s anger, though not the same kind as there was in Lyle; the swaggering assurance and unbearably destructive self-interest of Neil is delivered in a perfect contrast to the withdrawn Brian, who does not remember the abuse the two suffered together.

While Mysterious Skin was still being put together in post-production, first-time filmmaker Rian Johnson cast Gordon-Levitt in his high-school/noir mash-up, Brick (2005). Still relatively unrecognised as a film actor until Brick, the Sundance-smash (the film won the Grand Jury prize for Originality of Vision) helped introduce “Joe”, as Johnson affectionately calls him in interviews, to the art-house scene worldwide. It also gave him his first real signature role as Brendan Frye, the high-school student who infiltrates the underground world of drug-dealing in order to uncover the fate of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Brendan is not the same kind of powerhouse, tour de force performance from Gordon-Levitt as Lyle or Neil, but instead a much more subtle, understated kind of acting. A modern-day counterpart to the classic noir detectives played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart in such films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) – both films with a palpable influence on Johnson’s film – Brendan is an unclear figure with uncertain motives, and a youthful appearance that belies his internal bitterness.

After Brick, offers came for more projects, and Gordon-Levitt appeared in supporting roles for a few films (Shadowboxer and Havoc, both in 2005) and the lead in The Lookout (2007), another critically acclaimed movie and performance from Gordon-Levitt. He remained largely unknown to mainstream audiences until last year, when (500) Days of Summer, the first full-length effort from music video-director Marc Webb (currently working on the Spider-Man franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man [2012]) received huge praise at the 2009 Sundance festival, and became a box-office hit on both sides of the Atlantic, taking around $60m worldwide from a budget of only $7.5m.

(500) Days of Summer gave Gordon-Levitt the chance to show off his comedy style again, after years in serious drama, as Tom Hansen, a failed architect-turned-greetings-card-writer who falls for Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel, his co-star in Manic). His turn as the lovelorn Tom earned Gordon-Levitt his first big award nomination: Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes. At the same time as Summer was winning audiences’ hearts at the cinema, the actor took the chance to play around a little in the action-adventure toy-based franchise G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, in which he played the titular villain, and evidently had a whale of a time, trying out a gravelly voice and face-distorting prosthetics.

Even as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s profile in big, money-making hits has risen, his work in the American independent scene has become even more prolific. This year’s Sundance earned him yet more rave-review for playing the title character of Hesher (2010), an anarchist who works his way into the life of a grieving family (also starring Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson). Later this year he will also be seen starring as cancer-striken Adam Schwartz alongside Anna Kendrick and Seth Rogen in the comedy Live With It (2010).

Undoubtedly his biggest role to date arrived on cinema screens across the globe this summer, when he played Leonardo di Caprio’s right-hand man, Arthur, in Christopher Nolan’s near-universally praised action-thriller, Inception. Although Arthur won’t be remembered as one of Gordon-Levitt’s most challenging roles, his interactions with Eames (Tom Hardy) in particular give him another chance to stretch his comedic muscles, and furthermore gets to prove that he is more than comfortable as an action-hero, a side of him I hope to see again when he co-stars with Bruce Willis in Rian Johnson’s upcoming third film. Looper (2010), described by Johnson as a “very dark, very violent” time-travel film, is set to start shooting at the beginning of 2011, with Willis and Gordon-Levitt thought to be playing the same character at different ages.

With his career beginning to take off in all-sorts of directions, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to be set to become one of Hollywood’s go-to actors for credibility and talent; one could worry that such options may distract a potentially great actor from the credits that will continue to earn him the respect of audiences and critics alike, but the news of his continued collaboration with visionary auteur directors like Rian Johnson, rumours linking him with the role of The Riddler in Nolan’s third Batman film, and his open collaborative artist community, hitRECord.org, suggest that Gordon-Levitt is capable of doing whatever he wants. This unassuming “RegularJoe” (as he calls himself on hitRECord) may well be remembered in years to come as one of the most talented and brave stars Hollywood has seen for some time.

David Sugarman