Resembling a steely-eyed Larry Clark pinup, 24-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt prepares to mount his first New York trick in Gregg Araki's incredibly moving and daring new film Mysterious Skin, in which the actor plays a prostitute. It is this surreal, hypersexualized image that proves Gordon-Levitt, most famous for his role as little Tommy Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Sun, is officially grown-up.
Given how youthful Gordon-Levitt appears, it's easy to forget that he's been performing professionally for 20 years. Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, he got his start singing at malls and schools with the Los Angeles Children's Chorus. "The really cool woman, Miss Karen, who taught my choir, also taught musical theatre. So I started doing that," he recalls. "A couple of the kids that were in my musical theatre class went on auditions and stuff. So I started going on auditions and very slowly getting parts. I went on an audition or two every day for years. By 9, I was working a lot."
Gordon-Levitt became a bona fide child star, steadily working on shows such as Family Ties and Roseanne, and even winning a Young Artist Award for Best Actor Under 10 for his work in the 1992 film A River Runs Through It. His career was launched after landing the role of one of four aliens in disguise on 3rd Rock, and he collected two YoungStar Awards during his years as Information Officer on the hilarious NBC hit.
Supporting roles in films such as The Juror, Halloween H20, and 10 Things I Hate About You came and went before his first meaningful and starring role: opposite Don Cheadle in IFC's teen drama Manic, set in a mental hospital. As Lyle, a kid with anger-management issues, Gordon-Levitt displayed a grittier side that he hadn't shown before. In Mysterious Skin, he matures full force into an adult actor, playing Neil McCormick, a teenage gay hustler coming to grips with latent issues from child abuse. On the surface, the difference between the two roles is three years. Gordon-Levitt now calls those years a self-imposed break from acting (minus his 2001 Off-Broadway debut in Uncle Bob), during which he studied French history and poetry at Columbia University.
"My freshman year in college was the longest break I had from acting ever since I was 6," he says. "I think when I was young I would've preferred to have just done [3rd Rock] and not had anybody seen it, because I just liked doing it. I didn't know how to react when people recognized me. I was pretty phobic and neurotic about it. But then, when I moved to New York, I think I just became a much broader, less selfish person, and [I] grew to care about what the world would think of stuff that I do. Since I've started acting again, it's a whole different thing. I still love to do it, obviously, but I also feel another element, like I should do it, or it's good that I do it."
A key person who inspired him to continue acting is also the one person the actor invited to the L.A. premiere of Skin: his old acting teacher, Kevin McDermott, who teaches at The Actors Circle. "He's taught me so much more than acting," Gordon-Levitt says. "He's taught me how to care about what you're doing and not only to commit to a character but to commit to what you're doing."
The role he plays in Skin is of so few words that most of the brilliance in Gordon-Levitt's subtle, nuanced performance is in those quiet moments in which he is alone with his "johns"—scenes that required much nudity and even a vicious rape scene for the actor. "Joe [as Gordon-Levitt's friends call him] took a huge risk on Mysterious Skin, and it could've turned out terribly," Araki admits with a laugh. "Every now and then you'll see these movies with these sorts of darker, controversial parts, and there's a sense that the actor is not really going there or they're afraid or uncomfortable, and it always ruins those movies to see that. But Joe was so exactly the opposite. He was ready to go there and really excited for the creative challenge of it. Unlike a lot of young actors, Joe really has the chops. He's a pro."
The word "pro" is dropped again when Gordon-Levitt talks about the most valuable lesson he learned from his 3rd Rock days. "I learned so much from John [Lithgow] and Jane [Curtin] and French [Stewart] and Kristen [Johnston] and everybody, but one of the things I really took with me was what 'a pro' is," he says. "There are a lot of people that get really bitchy on sets. It's, like, 'Man, we're getting to act. That's awesome,' Yes, it is hard work, but do the hard work and don't whine and complain. Don't make it about yourself. John was such a captain. He cared so much about the show as a whole and always put the show before himself, and so did everybody else. Mysterious Skin was the same way. Gregg was totally [in] that captain role, although he did it in a really different way. I admire that, and I think that's something I learned doing television."
To prepare for his role in Skin, Gordon-Levitt flew to Kansas alongside Skin novelist Scott Heim, so that the actor could see "how people walked and talked" and view it through Heim's eyes. (The book is semiautobiographical.) "I hung out with [Heim's] mom and his sister, and we went to all the different places that are in the book and movie," recalls the actor. "I took video of them and brought a tape back for Gregg, and I brought a CD of accents back for all the actors. Most importantly, just having Scott rub off on me and spending time with him where the story had been born gave me the desire to do justice to what he had made."
This isn't Gordon-Levitt's first gay role. In December 1998, the actor, who says he is straight, shared a groundbreaking smooch with Topher Grace on That '70s Show, which became the first male homosexual kiss on primetime TV (Will & Grace's kiss came five years later). Gordon-Levitt admits he wasn't sure how audiences would react to the kiss, but the moment ended up being so funny that it didn't matter. He shrugs off any awkwardness he may have felt performing the scene. Once again, that Gordon-Levitt's intrepid breakout performance in Skin is as a gay character has less impact on him than on those around him. "I never thought about it too much," he says. "Some people get caught up over that sort of stuff. I'm, like, 'Man, The Rock just played gay [in Be Cool].' I even hesitate to call [Neil McCormick] gay, because to me, gay is a healthy person who likes the same sex, whereas this character is not healthy at all. He has a very damaged sexuality based on abuse in his past, so it's complicated that way."
"Joe has had a phenomenal year. He was sort of the Parker Posey of this year's Sundance," says Araki. "We were just there in January, and Joe had this film and Brick [a high school noir film], which is coming out next year. It's really cute, because Joe says he's never played the sexy character before, like he's always been the nice boy-next-door or something. So, for the first time, it's transformed the way that Joe sees himself, in a way. If he sees himself differently, I think the world will see him differently." Having the world see you differently is not only crucial for a child actor making the all-important transformation into adult actor; it is also essential for a sitcom actor making the critical transition from TV to film. Director Jordan Melamed was reportedly skeptical about Gordon-Levitt auditioning for Lyle in Manic because of his sunny sitcom past.
"Well, sure, there are a lot of stereotypes from TV, and in some cases justifiably so," Gordon-Levitt admits. "Network television is designed to sell advertising, and Mysterious Skin is [centered] only on one thing: Gregg [Araki]—what Gregg believed in and loved and cared about. That's really different from doing TV or doing a movie where you're working for such a big company that you're kind of answering to all these higher-ups. I really would like to just continue to work with people who care about what they're doing, which sounds simple, but it's actually very rare."
On that note, Gordon-Levitt offers his advice on where actors should be putting their money and attention: "Don't try to chase after someone else to hire you to do it. Do it. It's so doable now. If you bought Final Cut Pro, a personal Macintosh computer, and a digital video camera for the amount of money you'd spend sending headshots around, you could have all this equipment and make your own movies. You can make good-looking, great stuff, and if the genuine emotion and feeling is there, that'll transcend any of your limited resources. I really believe that." He makes a comment about his camera being in his backpack, prompting us to ask if he has filmmaking aspirations. He responds with a knowing smile, "Oh, I don't know. I get superstitious talking about the future."
It sounds like he is keen on taking his own advice, but what else would you expect from a pro?