Years after appearing as Tommy on the sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt has grown into one of the go-to actors for strong indie films like Manic, Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, Rian Johnson’s debut Brick and the recent Sundance fave (500) Days of Summer. This past summer he’s made the jump into bigger studio movies playing the villain in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and next summer he’ll be seen in Christopher Nolan’s enigmatic Inception.
His latest lower budget movie is Uncertainty, an improvisational and experimental New York film made up of two parts as it follows Gordon-Levitt with Lynn Collins as a couple spending the 4th of July together in two very different settings and stories: an action-thriller in Manhattan and a quieter family drama in Brooklyn.
We spoke with the filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee last week about the process of making the movie and given the opportunity to talk to Joseph Gordon Levitt on the phone this week, we wanted to find out what it was like for one of their actors to make a film this way.
ComingSoon.net: Having spoken with David and Scott last week, it would seem that for an actor to make a film like this with no scripted dialogue, they’d have to have a lot of confidence and faith in the directors and themselves. So what drove you to do this?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well, I did have a lot of confidence and faith in Scott and David and the process that they invited Lynn and me into. It’s really different than my usual movie. They had written a script so the story was all very well thought through but the actual specifics of how everything was going to play out was sort of left up to the moment. The moments were left up to the moment. It allowed for just a whole new kind of creativity for me which, that’s what I’m in this for. I had a great time.
CS: I know you had did a lot of rehearsal, which wasn’t necessarily rehearsing the scenes, so did you work out at all what you might do in the actual scripted scenes?
Gordon-Levitt: We had a lot of ideas. Yeah, it’s an important distinction to make that “Uncertainty” is a film with lots of improvisation, but it’s different than I think a normal improvised movie in that the story and the structure, the scenes and the characters and the high concept were all very meticulously thought through and put together by Scott and David. I think a normal improvised movie is kind of slice of life-ish or something. You kind of spend some time with the characters and you feel like you’re really there in the room with those real people. We wanted that honesty and immediacy and authenticity, but it doesn’t just place you in kind of a simple room with some people and take you on a slice of life. Again, it’s really finely and precisely put together story. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds in that way.
CS: There’s obviously two sides to the movie, “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn.” Was there one part in which this process worked better, the action-thriller or the family relationship stuff?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, it’s the two of them together that’s really whatever it’s that. One or the other of them by themselves wouldn’t work. The juxtaposition, the movie goes back and forth between these two worlds all the time and that’s not something that they figured out later. They didn’t shoot it all and then just mix it all up in the editing room. They very intentionally and this is all in the script knew what moments in the “yellow” world were gonna go right up against what moments in the “green” world and vice versa. A lot of the richest moments in the movie come from that juxtaposition.
CS: Absolutely. As an actor using this process and having spent this time rehearsing with Lynn, which section felt like when you were shooting it, felt like it was more natural this approach worked for it?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, I wouldn’t pick one or the other.
CS: Did you have a preference shooting one part or the other in Manhattan or Brooklyn or is that also something you couldn’t really single out?
Gordon-Levitt: It was all such a part of one big process that I never really thought of them as separate. The movie’s a lot about kinda complimentary elements. First of all, it’s a love story, it’s about a man and a woman. Obviously, the human race wouldn’t work with only men or only women and New York City wouldn’t work with only Manhattan or only the boroughs.
CS: That’s true, absolutely. Yeah, it seems like the movie probably is a lot less guerilla than it looks, but it’s probably a lot more guerilla than some of the other movies you’ve done. What was that like as far as shooting in Manhattan? I know they had some places where they mapped out and kind of shot where they could? What was it like to do a movie like that?
Gordon-Levitt: New York City’s got a certain energy. I love that about New York and this certainly was the first time I ever had a chance to work in New York City, I never got a chance to shoot there before but it’s just a great place to shoot because it just kick-starts any creative process. There’s so much human life and energy just coursing through the streets of New York that you can feed off that working it into the making of “Uncertainty.”
CS: I’ve always thought of you as kind of indie guy ’cause I remember you doing “Manic” and “Brick.” You always leaned that way, towards more daring indie movies. Since you’ve been making bigger studio movies, has your attitude to doing movies like this changed?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, first of all thanks. I take that as a big compliment for you to say that that you thought of me as an indie guy just because it took a long time to get anybody to think of me that way ’cause I was on a TV show for so long. (Laughs) But yeah, I mean, to me, I don’t really make such a distinction based on indie or studio or any of that. What’s important to me is the work itself, the script, the other people I’m collaborating, and I think that kind of could happen to me in the big studio world and it could happen in the indie world. I got just done working for Chris Nolan which was a real honor. He brings as much artistic integrity to what he’s doing as anybody and he’s making these enormous, enormous studio movies. Then there’s “Uncertainty” where they bring the same artistic integrity to it. There’s the other way on both sides. There’s plenty of low budget indie movies that are kinda doing it for the wrong reasons just like there’s some great, huge studio movies.
CS: I definitely get the vibe from your choices that you kind of do have a reason for doing movies, that they need to have a certain honesty or creativity to be worth your time. Do you find that’s true?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, sure, well thank you. Yeah, I just feel really lucky to get to do what I do and I love it. I love acting, I love making movies and that’s why I do it. (Laughs) This is a job which I try to get involved with as much as I can. The movies I watch are being made by film lovers. That’s the thing about “Uncertainty.” All that “Uncertainty” has going for it is the film itself. We don’t have an advertisement budget or something; it’s really just made by people who love movies for people who love movies. So it’s coming out this weekend and I’m happy to get to talk to someone like you who obviously really loves movies for the movies themselves because some of the other ways that tend to putting audiences into a movie have less to do with an actual movie and more to do with all sort of other marketing. I’m just really excited to see who comes out to the movie theater this weekend ’cause I’m gonna be there in New York City at the evening shows of the cinema it’s playing at. I’m really excited to see it with an audience.
CS: It’ll be interesting to see if the Manhattan or Brooklyn people react more to one side of the movie or the other. I wanted to ask you about that Brooklyn Bridge scene because I talked to David and Scott and they told me they had an hour to shoot those. What was that like shooting that sort of scene where you knew you only had a little bit of time?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, if you ever want to try something really exhilarating go to the Brooklyn Bridge and just sprint all the way across it. I highly, highly recommend the experience.
CS: How did that work since they were shooting it from a helicopter? Did someone just say “Run” and you did that for a couple takes and that was it?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, there’s someone on a walkie talkie points at me and I start running.
CS: Interesting. I liked those bridge shots a lot, they’re pretty cool. Doing the “G.I. Joe” movie must have been a very different experience. I’m sure you get asked a lot why you wanted to do that, but it seemed like such a different choice for you.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, “G.I. Joe” was really fun ’cause I got to do this whole makeup and costume character application that is really different than what I normally get to do as an actor that is normally playing real a real life human being. That’s fun and I love realism, but there is other kinds of acting too that has less to do with being realistic and more to do with just like, playing and archetype and that’s what I got to do in “G.I. Joe.” I played an arch villain and you can’t really see my face ’cause it’s such an elaborate application that they constructed. So to get to do that and to work with that kind of tool as an actor is something totally different for me and that’s what I’m always looking for is just a new creative experience.
CS: I liked how they put a flashback with you and Chan where we see your character’s back story. Has Stephen talked to you about any kind of sequel, if they’re preparing or developing one and when they might want to shoot it?
Gordon-Levitt: I don’t know. Well, it’s just kind of a wait and see thing or something.
(And unfortunately, we were cut off before we could follow-up or find out more about Nolan’s Inception, so I guess that will remain a mystery for a little while longer.)