Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Talks ’50/50,’ hitRECord and ‘Looper’

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen in 50/50
Photo: Summit Entertainment

On August 23, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in Seattle promoting his upcoming film 50/50 in which he plays Adam, a young man who learns he has cancer. The film follows Adam’s story upon learning the news and details his relationships with his friends, family and other cancer patients and it does so with a sense of humor as if to take the piss out of the situation. 50/50, however, is not just another Hollywood dramedy. Not only is it excellent, it’s also based on the true story of Will Reiser, who adapted the screenplay based on his life story.

If you ask me, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Whether he’ll get one or not is still yet to be determined, but as an actor he is showing serious growth and a continuous ability to tackle new material. And it’s that new material that Gordon-Levitt and I discussed most when I sat down with him as he wasn’t only in town to promote his new movie, but he also had one of his hitRECord performances that night at Seattle’s Neptune Theater.

HitRECord is Gordon-Levitt’s online production company that creates a forum for collaborative community art. I wasn’t able to attend his show that night due to a screening I had to attend, but I was told it was a fantastic night as he opened things up by telling the audience, “Okay, I want to make sure all of your recording devices are…. ON!” What exactly goes on at one of these events? Well, a quick search on YouTube for the Seattle event will turn up videos such as what you see to the right as Joe performs Nirvana’s “Lithium” for a standing room only crowd.

So with the coincidental timing I began my interview wondering, What came first… the chicken or the egg? Surprisingly… the egg… or is it the chicken? Whatever the answer, what follows is my interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as we discuss hitRECord, his new film and his upcoming films from The Dark Knight Rises to Looper. I hope you enjoy.

So are you in Seattle to promote 50/50 or are you promoting 50/50 because you’re here for hitRECord tonight?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt [JGL]: I’m here because we’re doing the hitRECord show.

How has hitRECord affected your career and your interaction with the fans?

JGL: What changes is the art that we make on hitRECord. I’ve been proud for a long time of the stuff that we’ve been making, but as more and more people are contributing, the art just keeps getting better. And that’s exciting to me because that’s kind of the point. Making good art.

What is your ambition with hitRECord? Are you thinking movies and perhaps moving toward a directorial career?

JGL: Yeah, ultimately I think we could do some feature films and do bigger and bigger shows and do all sorts of things. Maybe we’ll have a TV show. Who knows? Maybe we’ll have our own venue one day.

HitRECord is one step in taking the relationship between movies, art and the Internet to a whole new level. You’re involved with The Dark Knight Rises and so much of the Pittsburgh shoot was destroyed–

JGL: [Laughing] Oh it wasn’t destroyed–

Well, I think you know what I mean. A lot of it was out there–

JGL: Yeah, I know what you mean. But I don’t think that’s detrimental to the movie. It’s great. It’s lovely that people are talking about it. I think that’s exciting and it’s cool that people are so passionate about it, they love — I love the character, I loved the character of Batman since I was a tiny little kid and probably you have too. It’s part of our culture and so it’s only appropriate that people care a lot about it. [Christopher Nolan] cares a lot about it, and so I think that’s great.

As far as the way the Internet is changing things, I think the way storytelling has always gone, throughout the history of human beings telling stories to each other, it’s for the most part been a communal thing. People would gather around the fire and tell stories. Next week someone would tell a version of the story they heard last week. Same goes with songs or whatever. It’s only recently this notion of intellectual property has come into the fray.

Now we think of it in terms of “Who’s the author?” No one used to think of that, that’s very new. I think it’s sort of dissolving away now. Give it a few more generations where people expect “remix” and we’ll get back to the way things ought to be, which is stories being about people connecting and communicating and understanding each other, caring about each other as opposed to making money.

I’m all for show business, but I don’t know if you know this, and it’s funny coming from this name, but Disney has become such a business. Walt Disney was quoted as saying, “We don’t make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.” That’s how I feel about the business of show business and I think we’re kind of getting back there.

I don’t know about most people, but I was surprised to learn from that video you released (watch right) that Seth Rogen actually knew Will Reiser, did that help in finding a balance between comedy and drama with the material?

JGL: Absolutely, I felt fine about being funny regarding the subject matter because Will, who’d been through it, and this was a movie inspired by his life, was sitting right there while we were shooting. So it all felt fine and appropriate. It’s rare you get to have such a specific and authentic, so to speak, source of inspiration for your character. The guy that wrote a screenplay inspired by his own experiences and I’m playing that character; it was great that he was there. The screenwriter isn’t always there, but he was.

Have you lost someone to cancer?

JGL: I actually have, yeah, a friend of mine died when I was 18 who had cancer and it seems like most people that I talk to know somebody, a relative, a friend or a friend of a friend and I think it’s a really healthy thing to handle tragedies like that — obviously, not without reverence, but with some humor sometimes. A lot of people, sometimes, feel like they shouldn’t laugh about horrible things and obviously sometimes it’s inappropriate, but sometimes it is appropriate and that’s okay. I think it’s healthy to sometimes loosen up and find it funny.

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