In Focus

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Has a Way With Words

Joseph Gordon-Levitt says it was hard work nailing down
Joseph Gordon-Levitt says it was hard work nailing down "Brick's" fast-paced dialogue. (By Steve Yedlin)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

A lot of people might still think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Solomon, the alien-intelligence-officer-in-the-body-of-a-human-teen he played from age 13 to 19 on "3rd Rock From the Sun." Since the cancellation of that TV series, the actor, now 25, went on to provide the voice of Jim Hawkins in the 2002 animated feature "Treasure Planet," but he has been busier making more of a name for himself with strong, edgy performances in such indie fare as "Manic" (2001), "Mysterious Skin" (2004) and the neo-noir gumshoe-in-high-school drama "Brick" (see review on Page 40).

Surprisingly, Gordon-Levitt says his years delivering zingers on "3rd Rock" were good preparation for "Brick," whose fast-paced script by first-time feature writer-director Rian Johnson is peppered with so much archaic 1940s-style slang and hardboiled patter that the film's press kit comes with a glossary.

"Our motto on '3rd Rock From the Sun,' our mantra -- for six years we said it -- was 'bigger, faster, funnier.' And 'Brick' has an element of that," says Gordon-Levitt, calling from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he's filming the bank-heist drama "The Lookout."

As a precaution against contaminating his leading man's performance, Johnson forbade the cast, especially Gordon-Levitt, from watching such films as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep" -- two of the director's biggest inspirations -- for fear of Humphrey Bogart overload. For research purposes, however, the filmmaker did let his actors watch such Cary Grant comedies as "His Girl Friday," an experience that left Gordon-Levitt impressed by how quickly the actors "smoked through so many words."

"Nowadays," he explains, "actors take so . . . many . . . pauses. Acting used to be about entertaining, performing for an audience, and nowadays it's about convincing your audience that you're living a real life. Brando ruined it for everyone," Gordon-Levitt jokes, adding that the screenplay for "Brick" is "not defined by reality. It was meant to be more entertaining than real."

Still, the actor was impressed almost immediately. "As soon as I started reading it, I was up, standing up, pacing around, saying the words aloud because they were just so much fun to say, out loud, in my mouth."

Fun, maybe, but far from easy. The rehearsal process, Gordon-Levitt says, was difficult. "It was a lot of hard, intentional work. Normally, that part of the acting process you kind of have to let happen naturally, but 'Brick' had to be meticulously developed," he says. "Rian and I spent a lot of time, even before we started rehearsing with any of the other actors, just trying to figure out how the dialogue was going to fit into the mouth of a human being."

Ultimately, the actor turned to an art form that had previously been an integral part of his work. "I've always incorporated music a lot into any acting I'm doing," he says, "but in a more inspirational way, to put me into the right emotional state, and to get me in the right mood for things, to hype me up, or whatever it is I need."

Johnson need not have worried that his star would look only to Bogie as his muse. "I started taking most of my inspiration from singers," Gordon-Levitt says. Tom Waits's guttural rumble was probably the biggest influence, followed by French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and the Wu-Tang Clan rap group.

How's that?

"There are a lot of similarities to 'Brick,' " Gordon-Levitt insists. "They also create their own language, their own world with words."

In an abortive attempt to pull a Natalie Portman a few years ago, the actor entered Columbia University but left without finishing. Fascinated by words, Gordon-Levitt says he'd like to study the tradition of the African griots , or oral storytellers, in Dakar, Senegal.

Such uncommon seriousness might be why Gordon-Levitt has so far managed to avoid getting stuck in the teen-fluff ghetto that has swallowed up so many of his Hollywood peers -- "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Halloween H20" notwithstanding. "I've had tons of fluff offered to me," he says with a laugh. "I still do."

Gordon-Levitt blames Hollywood ignorance, not popular taste, for the glut of brain-dead high school comedies that he hopes "Brick" will rise above. "They're these kind of fun, light movies," he says, "because usually the people that make them have no respect for people of high school age."

This he knows from firsthand experience, according to the kid whose list of favorite movies in high school included Lars von Trier's "Zentropa."

"I've been there and watched movie executives say things like, 'Kids are stupid.' I stood there and kept my mouth shut. On the inside, I'm going, 'Ha, ha, who's stupid? Who's really stupid here?' Because I know that when I was in high school, I was not stupid. And I didn't like stupid, fluffy movies."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company