There are two Joseph Gordon-Levitts, and they coexist in the same beatific-faced, wiry-framed vessel. The first, a sensitive actor known to his traditional media fans as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, eats things like raw kale salad, which is exactly what he orders from the patio of Little Dom’s, a neighborhood hashery in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, on a calm evening in August. This Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a sweet-tempered movie star who could make—who has made—pixie princess Zooey Deschanel look like an ice queen by comparison. He’s quick with a quip, and, no matter who or what he plays onscreen, the audience roots for him.
He says things like, “There’s a difference between a girl who’s sexy, like, ‘I’m a slave,’ and an assuredly sexy girl like Beyoncé,” because he’s a gentleman. The second Joe is RegularJoe, as he’s known to the members of his online collaborative production site, hitRECord. Gordon-Levitt is sometimes overpowered by Joe, who’ll add things like, “But I have to admit, man, I fall for the slave thing, too.” Joe follows up Gordon-Levitt’s bed of leafy greens with an unwieldy tower of hot fudge–and whipped cream–topped gelato sundae.
That there are two sides to the well-rounded artist—the thinking woman’s heartthrob and the unassuming dude—makes him the perfect choice to star in 50/50, a seemingly oxymoronic cancer comedy. The Jonathan Levine–directed film (The Wackness, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) stars Gordon-Levitt as Adam, an otherwise healthy young man whose cancer diagnosis upends his regular existence. Metastasis and malignancy preoccupy his thoughts, but not exclusively. While enduring a ward’s worth of chemotherapy-induced agonies, Adam is also caught up in the skirt-chasing exploits of his enterprising best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who’s optimistic that his buddy’s life-threatening disease might get them both laid; a messy split from his two-timing girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard); and a neuroses-ravaged, possibly romantic relationship with his doctoral student counselor Katie (Anna Kendrick). 50/50, which refers to its protagonist’s odds of survival, was adapted from the experiences of its writer, Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with a rare strain of the disease six years ago and has since recovered. Terms of Endearment for the Apatow set, the film injects a heavy dose of the best medicine into an otherwise quietly calamitous bildungsroman.
“It’s not like Seth and Evan [Goldberg, Rogen’s childhood friend and the film’s co-producer] sat down and said, ‘How can we make something quirky? I know! Let’s do a comedy about cancer,’” he says. Reiser came to set “all day, every day,” according to the 30-year-old actor, who insists that it was “great to have the guy I was playing there next to me.” But it was challenging, too, especially when shooting the film’s more unguarded scenes—like, for example, one that called for Adam to shave his head with Kyle’s clippers, which, we find out, have been regularly employed to mow and prune his pubic hair. “That happened at the end of our first day of shooting,” says Levine, who uses the word “integrity” at least a dozen times to describe his star. “We decided that a wig made from his real hair would be better than a bald cap, and we were really determined to avoid the movie looking like a Saturday Night Live skit. I remember saying to him, You need to do this in one take, without hesitation—you have to be in the moment. And he was. Everyone in the room stared at the monitor, like, ‘Holy. Shit.’” It’s easy to see why. Whereas most actors would have milked that scene for every bit of its awards-baiting pathos—many, from Demi Moore to Natalie Portman, already have—Gordon-Levitt approached the task like, well, a regular Joe doing what needs to be done.
Although the film’s depiction of cancer’s side effects is sobering (that is, with the exception of a doe-eyed, pot macaroon–induced stoner sequence), Levine insists, “We had a very upbeat, positive, collaborative set. It was never depressing to come to work.” Still, for Gordon-Levitt, wallowing in his own mortality in Vancouver, where he spent two months shooting the film, was hard to shake. “That entire time, I never stopped thinking about what it would be like if I was about to die, and that’s rough. After we finished shooting the movie, I went through this phase where I had to say to myself, I don’t have cancer. I do not have cancer. It was like I needed convincing.” It’s only lightly difficult to take him seriously with a small bead of melted gelato rolling down his chin.
Gordon-Levitt, whose film choices—Rian Johnson’s neo-noir Brick, Marc Webb’s anti-love story (500) Days of Summer, and Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending thriller Inception, among them—are evidence of an actor with impeccable taste, is trying to come up with one of his guiltier pleasures. His apparent disgust when I mention The Human Centipede suggests that the deranged Dutch horror film is not one of them. (“Isn’t that the one where someone’s face is sewn onto someone else’s ass? That’s so fucking gross!”) “I actually don’t enjoy watching something that I know is terrible,” he says. “Right now, it’s trendy for people to laugh at The Room, which is this really horrible romantic drama. I’ll get into it for 10 minutes, maybe, but that’s about it.”
The kind of Chucks- and black jeans–wearing hipster endemic to Echo Park walks onto the patio from inside Little Dom’s, where the likes of Jena Malone and Christina Ricci are seated in the restaurant’s many leather booths, to introduce himself to Gordon-Levitt. “I never do this, really, but I just had to tell you that Hesher is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while,” he says of the 2010 film in which Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, a misanthropic, Metallica-loving, porn-occupied red-eye Jedi. “It came at a really important time in my life,” says the man, who happens to oversee Adult Swim’s original online content. And then: “When you have a moment, if there’s anything you want to do for the site, we’d love to work with you. It can be the stupidest idea possible, and we’ll pull together $25,000 to $50,000, whatever it takes to make, like, a one-minute remake of the opening credits to a bad TV show.” Gordon-Levitt interrupts the pitch. “You know,” he says, “we make one-minute videos for no money all the time.”
He’s referring to the 51,000 (and growing) members of hitRECord, the online production company he founded in 2010. Capitalizing on his cachet as a Hollywood actor, Gordon-Levitt, who first encountered fame as an ancient alien trapped in the body of a teenage boy on NBC’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, invites users to “remix” other members’ contributions. (The site gets about 1,000 new contributions daily.) For example, someone might write and upload a short story, which someone else might illustrate, and someone else might animate, and Gordon-Levitt might (and sometimes does) provide the voice for one of the characters, and then someone else might create a soundtrack to match the narrative. When a set of collaborations meets Gordon-Levitt’s standards, he’ll release it via traditional media, such as this month’s RECollection, a hardcover book containing the work—art, writing, original songs, and short films—of 471 contributors. There are also live performances that find Gordon-Levitt touring the country to promote his new endeavor, of which he says, “HitRECord isn’t a democracy; it’s a benevolent dictatorship. Anyone can work on it with me, but the idea isn’t to create pure chaos. Even though it’s totally collaborative, I’m directing it. Ultimately, it’s a movie actor’s job to help a director make their movie. This is really the first time that I’ve made something that really feels like my own.”
The idea for an online community that razes the hierarchy between artists from Hollywood and, say, Hoboken came to the Golden Globe nominee when he started using Final Cut editing software to make his own short movies, something he began dabbling in shortly after his sixth and final season on 3rd Rock. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to be an actor anymore because the only jobs anybody wanted to give me were more TV parts,” he says. “It’s not that I was averse to TV; it’s just that the work didn’t inspire me. Saying ‘hit record’ was, for me, an imperative sentence. I no longer wanted anyone to tell me how I was allowed to express myself.” He wears the mantra on his sleeve—and, today, on his T-shirt, which is emblazoned with a bright red “O,” the company’s logo. (Also available for purchase on his site: a pair of gray boxers adorned with an illustration of a partially peeled, tuxedo-wearing banana with a fountain of liquid spraying from its anthropomorphic head. “Lovesplode,” it is called.)
It’s a passion project for Gordon-Levitt, who conceived of the first iteration of hitRECord with his older brother, Dan, a fire-spinning performer who died of an alleged drug overdose last October at the age of 36. (We don’t discuss specifics, but Gordon-Levitt was extremely close to his brother, and in honor of his life, he asked to be excused from production on his latest film project to attend Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Dan was known to his friends as Burning Dan.) The company, for which Gordon-Levitt is the sole investor, is run “out of my house or whatever hotel room I happen to be staying in.” He currently employs four people, including producer Jared Geller, creative director Marke Johnson, editor Gregory Abraham, and CFO Dennis Levitt, Gordon-Levitt’s father. “It’s not often you get to be the boss in a scenario that involves your dad,” he says. “But he’s very cool about it.”
Seldom, if ever, does a marquee name like Gordon-Levitt give much credence to the creative input of non-marquee names. This value system didn’t come from the ether, but rather from his mother, Jane Gordon, who ran for Congress in the ’70s as part of the Peace and Freedom Party, a feminist and socialist political group who, according to their mission statement, “represent the working class, those without capital in a capitalist society.” Gordon-Levitt, who was born in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, was brought up with these ideals. “I think that what I’m doing with hitRECord is influenced enormously by the fact that my parents were social peace activists in the ’60s and ’70s,” he says. “It’s not so much about ownership but about what we can accomplish as a community.”
Gordon-Levitt, who is the grandson of the late filmmaker Michael Gordon (best known for directing Pillow Talk, a romantic comedy from 1959 starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day), began acting on stage and in commercials, hawking everything from Pop-Tarts to Cocoa Puffs, from the age of 6. “My parents have VHS tapes of pretty much everything I’ve ever done, even an old episode of Murder, She Wrote,” he says.
In 2000, Gordon-Levitt moved to New York to study French history and literature at Columbia University, but dropped out just short of his third year. Nowadays, he says that if he were able to spend as much time poring over books as he does the tower of scripts he’s sent, he’d be “very, very well-read.” Of the novels he does make time to read, he says, “I usually don’t finish them. I get into them until I have my ‘eureka’ moment, and then it’s done.”
Thankfully, he’s far more committed to the varied roles he tackles. From his portrayal of a sexually compulsive gay prostitute in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin to his turn as the villainous Cobra Commander in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Gordon-Levitt grounds his characters with an understated honesty that normally gets eschewed in Hollywood for bovine-like scenery chewing. “What turns me on about acting is being somebody else,” says Gordon-Levitt, who’ll begin shooting Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, before the end of the year. “My favorite actors are those who really disappear into their characters.” Gary Oldman is, for Gordon-Levitt, one of those actors. “He’s one of my idols,” says Gordon-Levitt of his costar in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Batman saga, The Dark Knight Rises, in which he plays a beat cop under the command of Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon.
He’ll also appear this January in Premium Rush, which he describes as “a really fun popcorn movie with these super-perfect bad guys,” specifically Michael Shannon, who plays a crooked police officer chasing Gordon-Levitt’s bike messenger all over Manhattan. But it’s the science fiction thriller Looper, which reunites the actor with his Brick director Rian Johnson, that most excites him at the moment. In that film, which wrapped this past April, he plays a younger version of Bruce Willis’ character (named, oddly, Joe), a mob killer who recognizes his future self as his next victim. “That movie is really special to me,” he says. “Although it’s definitely the grandest thing Rian has done, it’s not a total departure in that it’s still a unique and clever take on a classic genre. It wasn’t as physically demanding an experience as Inception was, but it was so hard for me to sit still while they applied prosthetic makeup to my face for two-and-a-half hours each day.” Although his character isn’t meant to be a carbon-copy impersonation of Willis (“I’m not a particularly good impersonator anyway”), Gordon-Levitt listened to audio tapes of the Die Hard actor reciting his lines so that their speech patterns would match. “I studied his voice and how he walks by hanging out with him and by watching his movies,” he says.
He’s just now watching many of his own movies, too. “When I was younger, I couldn’t watch anything I was in,” he says. “Then I started making and editing my own little videos for fun, and that’s when I started watching myself, although seeing myself act in a Hollywood-scale production is different from watching something I shot on my video camera.” Setting aside the work of his esteemed predecessors Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, making those “little videos,” DIY-style, is far from what’s typically expected of an A-lister. But then, Gordon-Levitt has proved he’s an atypical star who has little patience for the business of celebrity. “When I go to the grocery store, I’ll look at the covers of tabloid magazines—they fascinate me—but I don’t bring that shit into my house because I think it’s evil and poisonous. It’s easy to dismiss it as harmless entertainment, but I don’t think it is. We’re very influenced by the stories we choose to fill our days with.”
Gordon-Levitt has instead chosen to fill his days—and RECollection—with whimsical, hopeful, and magical stories, some tiny (“Having never fit into the social circles of society, the boy formed a social square”), some wordy (“The passionpair lovestrolled through the animalium, pawtangled”), some angry (Sick Again), some interplanetary (Nebulullaby). Many of them are his own creations, such as the rhyming poem A New Hevn, which “RegularJoe” cowrote with hitRECord members “wirrow” and “Metaphorest.” In it, we’re told about “two stories, one of hevn, one of urth, who awake to find they’re hugging with no knowledge of their birth.” Eventually, “the two stories have come one,” not unlike their creator, a Hollywood demigod and earthly everyman.
JOE LIKES Little Dom’s
Photography by Yu Tsai. Styling by Jenny Ricker.