He found fame as a teen alien on NBC’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is no stranger to dramatic roles — such as a gay hustler in Mysterious Skin, a Mormon homophobe in Latter Days, and a boy with AIDS in Sweet Jane. Golden Globe–nominated for (500) Days of Summer, the 29-year-old hipster hero now plays a dream-hacker in Inception, a sci-fi thriller written and directed by The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan. While training to play a bike messenger in his next project, Premium Rush, Gordon-Levitt relives his landmark gay kiss on That ’70s Show and reasons with rumors about his own sexual orientation.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: Arthur, your character in Inception, looks like a total badass in the trailers. What’s his deal?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Leo [DiCaprio’s] character is the artist, the chief of this band of thieves, but Arthur’s the point man who has it all under control. He’s the guy who’s got it organized and basically takes care of everything to make sure it goes right.
In one trailer, Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, tells Arthur, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” before shooting off a huge gun. Is Eames gay or just a flirty Brit?
[Laughs] I don’t think it’s specified, but he is British.
After G.I. Joe and the mainstream success of (500) Days of Summer, is Inception the final nail in the coffin of your iconic indie status?
No, dude. Indie is a funny word that’s kind of vague because, like, what exactly does it mean? To me, it’s a lot less about the budget and a lot more about the intent and the love that goes into something. Christopher Nolan is probably the best example today of somebody who, even though he’s doing the biggest movies around, brings the love and care of a truly dedicated artist. His movies make money because they’re awesome, but he’s not doing it to make money. He’s one of the great storytellers of our generation.
This column is reserved for celebrities with notable gay followings. Are you aware of that fan base?
I’m honored and flattered, but I don’t really pay much attention to any particular group. Yeah, I guess I do see that, but I don’t think about the support from any community, to be honest.
Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin certainly resonated with gay audiences.
For sure it did, but that movie really transcends. Even though I played a guy that was turning tricks with dudes, I find it reassuring and encouraging about the days we live in that the people who respond to and recognize me from that movie are not disproportionately gay. That’s good, because people in past generations who weren’t gay might’ve been closed-minded to watching that movie and wanting to hear that story.
Did you spend any time with gay hustlers or young men who’d been molested to prepare for the role?
Yeah, there’s one guy in particular that I did talk to, but it’s probably the more honorable thing to not really get into it, if you know what I mean. But lots of people have gone through bad things when they were kids, so lots of people come up and tell me that movie meant a lot to them, and the reactions have been really meaningful, but, again, I wouldn’t say that it leans gay. You know who responds to that movie? Actors. More actors bring up that movie than anything else. That movie was a huge, huge deal for me because it was really the first time people said, “We used to think of him as the funny kid on the sitcom, but oh, wow, this guy can act.”
It was also the first time you dealt with on-screen nudity and sex scenes, which happened to be with other men. Was that a challenge?
No, because I don’t really think of those scenes as sex scenes. Obviously there’s sexual activity, but a sex scene to me is a scene that’s about sex, and none of those scenes in Mysterious Skin are about that. Those scenes are about the story moving forward, so each one has its point, as opposed to movies with gratuitous sex scenes where everyone in the audience just wants to see the actors get naked. But it was definitely the first time I’d been cast in the sort of sexualized, sex object role. I didn’t really think of myself like that before.
Well, the long hair you had before wasn’t really working for you.
[Laughs] Hey, I could head-bang with that hair, so it was awesome.
Now you get all gussied up in snazzy outfits for sexy photo shoots. Are you comfortable with that whole scene?
When it comes to getting my picture taken for magazines, I like to dress up. I’ve never liked the whole, Oh, I’m just being casual, so I’m not paying attention to how I look. Bullshit, of course you are — there’s a stylist there. So I prefer to dress up for magazines because it seems more honest to me. And I look my best when I dress up.
When you appeared as Eric’s gay buddy on a 1998 episode of That ’70s Show, you and Topher Grace shared the first gay kiss on North American prime-time TV. Did that feel like a big deal, or was it just another gig?
Oh, I was totally proud of that, and I still am. It was a great bit, and it got a great reaction. More than anything else, though, I remember that it was written very well, because the emphasis wasn’t on it being gay but on making sure the scene worked and was funny. It was great that it showed people it was just a normal thing.
More importantly, was Topher a good kisser?
[Laughs] Probably one the worst kissers I’ve ever kissed. You know, he’s a dude, and girls are awesome to kiss, I gotta say.
Though you originally auditioned for conflicted gay Mormon Elder Aaron in Latter Days, you played Elder Paul, the straight Mormon bully. What drew you to that project?
What I liked about that movie is that C. Jay Cox wrote this really unique dialect because he’s from that culture in Utah. The character I got to play said all these things you never really hear people say, like, flippin’ instead of fuckin’. I get a kick out of extraordinary speech patterns, so that was my favorite thing about playing that guy.
You also got to say things like “God hates homos.”
Yeah, that’s what I love about my job: You can get inside the head of people you would normally dismiss as terrible. That’s not to say you don’t still think they’re terrible, but people who do terrible things or harbor terrible beliefs are still human beings, so it’s complicated, and that’s interesting to explore.
That guy was almost a bigger prick than the kid you played on Family Ties who bullied a deaf classmate.
I felt so bad about that, man! That was one of my first jobs, so when we were done shooting, I really wanted to apologize to that actor, who was actually deaf. I had to organize it because someone had to interpret for me in sign language. He had been acting for a while, so he was like, “Dude, whatever, it was just a scene.” That was an early lesson in what acting is.
Before he directed Precious, Lee Daniels directed you in Shadowboxer as Mo’Nique’s boyfriend. What was that experience like?
That was a fun one. I adore Lee and Mo’Nique, and I’m so happy to see them getting the recognition they deserve. There’s a lot of cool shit to see at Sundance, but I saw Precious there twice — Mo’Nique was like De Niro in Raging Bull. Lee is a mad genius of sorts, so hopefully I’ll get to work with him again. I stay in touch with him, and he’s such a sweetheart.
You made your professional stage debut in 2001 when you replaced Gale Harold in Uncle Bob off-Broadway as the sexually confused nephew of a gay man with AIDS. Because you’ve tackled so many gay roles and gay-themed projects, were you ever concerned about people assuming that you’re gay in real life?
No. Public perception is something you can’t worry about because it’s a loser’s game. There’s nothing positive that can come from paying attention to that kind of thing — not just wondering whether or not someone thinks you’re gay but also worrying what people will think of who you’re dating or what you drive. I just do my best to ignore all that shit. I love acting, but the funny thing that’s happened recently — like, within the last 100 years — is that actors have become famous figures. The people whose personal lives were out in public used to be royalty. Especially in the 20th century, since the United States doesn’t have royalty, those two concepts got blended: Hollywood became the castle and actors became royalty. I’ve never identified with that. I’ve always identified more with the vagabond bards and storytellers who were anonymous. It wasn’t about them; it was about characters they played and the stories they told. As for my personal life, I care very dearly about the people in my life, but people who I don’t know don’t know me.
Have any of your representatives ever expressed concern about that public perception?
No. I was on a TV show, I quit for a while, and when I started acting again I was determined to just do projects that really inspire me, for whatever reason. Whether it was Mysterious Skin because it was a profound psychological challenge or G.I. Joe because it was a fun technical challenge to put on a mask and play an archetypal villain, I only do stuff because I really want to do it. When I made it clear that’s what I wanted to do, a lot of representatives weren’t interested in working with me. But Warren Zavala, the agent I’ve been with since I started acting again, got it and supported me. I try to do good shit that I care about, and he understands and respects that that’s in his interest as well. There’s an upside to building a long career of good work.
You once turned your camera on paparazzi in a video you posted online called “Pictures of Assholes,” in which a gay paparazzo claims he was photographing you because he thought you were with a boyfriend. It was pretty cool that you didn’t get defensive about it.
Thank you for saying that, and I’m glad you saw that video. Yeah, why dignify that guy by responding to him? It just goes to show how those rumors start — because some bitter guy says something like that?
Earlier this year, your production company, HitRECord.org, produced a video about California’s Prop. 8 trial called “They Can’t Turn the Lights Off.”
Yeah, it was a Schoolhouse Rock-style short about civil rights and transparency in the media when the trial was being kept from being public. The song’s chorus basically says that corruption thrives on secrecy. Someone in the HitRECord community — she goes by the name Teafaerie — wrote that song, a bunch of people got together to record it into an audio record, then lots of other people worked on the animation, and it was all put together within the span of Sundance. That was one of my favorite triumphs of that Sundance experience, and the fact that it won [the Human Rights Campaign E-Hero Award] was a real honor. That’s the first thing we’ve made that’s won an award like that.
But you’ve used your celebrity to make political statements before. You participated in NBC’s “The More You Know” campaign, including a PSA on hate crimes, and you made “Politics is BULLSH1T,” an endorsement video for Barack Obama’s election.
I appreciate you supporting the notion that I like to do things that have something to say, but any good story has something to say. I’m not an expert in politics, but I am an observant human being who likes to tell stories. There’s a recent trend of thinking of storytelling — movies, music, whatever — as strictly a business where the only goal is to get people to buy your stuff, but that’s not what storytelling is really about.
During filming of (500) Days of Summer, director Marc Webb shot a short video for Mean magazine’s Cinemash series starring Zooey Deschanel as Sid Vicious and you as Nancy Spungen. Was that your drag debut?
No, I’ve done drag a few times, but that was one of my favorite days on set. We did drag stuff on3rd Rock, and I’ve definitely done some Halloween costumes. There was also a drag number onSNL, but it got cut.
You showed off your musical comedy skills in the (500) Days of Summer dance sequence and in your SNL opening monologue. Any desire to do a Broadway musical?
I’d absolutely love to do more song-and-dance numbers, so thanks for saying that. I don’t want to spoil it, but there is something in the works, man, and I can’t wait.
You’re turning the big 3-0 in February. How does it feel?
I’m so grateful for what I’m getting to do with my life, so I couldn’t possibly complain. I can’t imagine what else I’d want to be happening at 30, so I just say “thank you” a lot.
The Advocate, October 2010; extended online version.