When Joseph Gordon-Levitt's parents, Dennis and Jane, came to visit their son on the set of Looper, they were unsettled by what they saw. There was their boy with that shock of brown hair and that same voice they knew so well, but with a different nose, different mouth, different brows and lighter eyes.
"My mom was kind of freaked out because I was a lot like myself, but looked totally different," Gordon-Levitt recalls during a panel discussion at the WonderCon convention in Anaheim earlier this year. Another friend who came to watch Gordon-Levitt shoot couldn't even talk to his buddy because he was so unnerved that he sort of looked like himself, but sort of didn't.
"And, of course, that thrilled me because it means it's working, it means that I have transformed into someone else," says Gordon-Levitt, dressed sharp in a suit and tie for the occasion.
Looper — which has its world premiere at this month's Toronto International Film Festival before opening nationwide on September 28th — stars Gordon-Levitt as Joe. It also stars Bruce Willis as Joe. It's no coincidence that the characters share a name, they're the same character. Joe is a "looper" — a futuristic mob hit man who uses time travel to kill his mark and dispose of the body in the past. But when the mob decides to shut down the looper program they send the older Joe back in time so the younger Joe can kill him.
"I came up with the idea about 10 years ago at a point where I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick," says the film's writer-director Rian Johnson during a panel at this year's Comic-Con in San Diego. But Johnson admits writing a story about time travel can be a perilous exercise. "It's kind of like the 'Iron Chef' [secret] ingredient that trips everyone up, 'You must cook with sod!'"
From the time he penned the tricky script, Johnson knew he wanted Gordon-Levitt to play the younger Joe. In fact, that's why the character is named Joe. "This was the first time that's ever happened to me in my life, that a writer wrote a part for me to play; and it was a real honour," says Gordon-Levitt.
The two have been friends since they teamed up for the 2005 indie noir Brick, about a high school crime ring, and it was always Johnson's hope that this film would be their follow-up. But once Willis was cast as the older Joe, Johnson realized, "Uh oh, they kind of don't look anything alike."
Willis in a scene from Looper (Photo by Alan Markfield)
That's when prosthetic makeup designer Kazuhiro Tsuji was brought in. "We knew we weren't going to transform Joe to look like a young Bruce, but we figured if we can just do a little bit to the nose, a little bit with the lips, just to give enough of a hand hold so that you can go with it," says Johnson.
Even more than most actors, Gordon-Levitt is an artist — he plays guitar and drums, founded the website hitRECord.org to encourage writers, musicians, filmmakers and other creative types to collaborate on artistic projects, has already directed several short films, and is currently working on his first feature behind the camera, Don Jon's Addiction, starring himself, Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson.
And, from that artist's perspective, he loved every monotonous minute in the makeup chair with Tsuji.
"He's a mad genius, he's like an alchemist," says Gordon-Levitt. "He has this whole trailer and this huge shelf of various things, chemicals and brushes and it's all going on my face, which is fascinating because I get to watch an artist work and that's one of my favourite things, to just watch a great artist work, but then when your own face is the artist’s canvas it's kind of a unique vantage point."
Makeup was just part of the transformation. While it's not unusual for an actor to study a real-life figure they’re about to play in a film, it's a rare bonus to have the subject they're capturing right there during filming. Gordon-Levitt spent a lot of time with Willis on set and, of course, watched his movies, particularly Sin City, he says. "I would strip the audio out of the movies and put them on my iPod so I could listen to his voice over and over again and just find that character."
And the most striking thing Gordon-Levitt realized about Willis? How soft-spoken he is. The young actor leans into the microphone at the San Diego panel and, very softly, says, "He talks like this, this is how he has a conversation. You know why? Because he doesn't want other people listening to him, and also because he doesn't have to speak up. And I think it goes to show, you know, a lot of guys — big, macho guys that talk loud and like to have a big presence in a room — they're sort of scared that they don't have a presence in a room. And a guy like Bruce who's not scared of anything, I would imagine, he doesn't have to raise his voice, he doesn't have to make sure that people know he's there. [Quietly] He talks like this."
Now 31, Gordon-Levitt should feel pretty confident in any room, too. Raised in Sherman Oaks, California, by activist parents who met working at a radio station, he's been a professional actor since he was six, with early roles as the young Norman in A River Runs Through It (1992) and, perhaps most memorably, as an alien trapped in a teen boy's body on TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun" (1996 to 2001).
Critically acclaimed performances followed in the aforementioned Brick, (500) Days of Summer (2009) and Inception (2010). But his career has ratcheted up a few notches this year. Aside from Looper, in July he hit the screen as a young cop in the blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises, August saw him star as a bike courier in Premium Rush, and in November he'll play Robert Todd Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Few actors of his generation — perhaps Ryan Gosling, maybe James Franco — have done as good a job of avoiding bad scripts and waiting for the interesting ones as Gordon-Levitt. How has he done it?
"I made my money on a sitcom, so that's it," he says. "I'm lucky enough I don't have to support myself because I'm still cashing the 3rd Rock cheques."