17 Jul 2010: Scene-stealing role in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Inception is just the tip of the iceberg for Joseph Gordon-Levitt: next he wants to see your films

There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan‘s astonishing new sci-fi film Inception in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt dances mid-air like Fred Astaire. He is suspended in zero gravity in a hotel corridor and, after dispensing mercilessly with a psychotic henchman, he must gently tie up his floating colleagues with wire and guide them into a lift for safekeeping. The grace with which Gordon-Levitt executes this near-impossible act is utterly mesmerising. The scene is reminiscent of the exquisite – and until now unsurpassed – slow-motion scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  • Inception
  • Production year: 2010
  • Countries: Rest of the world, UK, USA
  • Cert (UK): 12A
  • Runtime: 148 mins
  • Directors: Christopher Nolan
  • Cast: Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Sir Michael Caine, Tom Hardy
  • More on this film

Yet, here in a London hotel room, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t look like an action hero. There’s not much of him; he takes up barely half the chair on which he perches, tilted forward. Immaculate in pointy black shoes, pinstripe trousers, waistcoat, shirt and tie, he looks as though he’s stepped out of a fashion shoot. Inception, a $160m sci-fi heist movie about a team of “extractors” who join in the dreams of others, boasts a cast of seven Oscar nominees and Leonardo DiCaprio at his intense best, but Gordon-Levitt more than holds his own. He’s even a match for DiCaprio when, as things start to fall apart, they have a brief but vicious row.

Honouring Nolan’s wish for viewers to know virtually nothing about Inception ahead of going to see it, we will say nothing more about the plot, apart from the fact that it’s a challenge to follow – but not in a bad way. You never quite know what is a dream and what is reality, partly because Nolan spent 10 years writing an intricately philosophical script but also because the visual pyrotechnics can be a breathtaking distraction.

But what we really want to know is: did Gordon-Levitt himself understand what Nolan was on about the first time he read the script? He quickly dismisses a frown and smiles benevolently: “Of course, yeah. People keep asking me that, but in terms of plot and character the script is so considered, which is really inspiring for me as an actor. Most summer blockbuster movies don’t make sense – start to pick them apart and they pretty soon fall to pieces – but Mr Nolan demands that everything makes sense.”

He tips even further forward on his chair, his eyes wide with excitement. “I think that’s what so appealing about his movies. The Dark Knight is the perfect example: it’s a huge Batman movie, but all the characters feel like human beings, with all their imperfections, flaws and complications. I know that’s why I responded to it so much and I think it’s why the rest of the world did, too. Mr Nolan doesn’t talk down to his audience. He respects them. And that’s grown rare, especially in Hollywood.”

‘It was a challenge after I left 3rd Rock. For a while I couldn’t get a job. I was only offered sitcoms and had no interest in doing another’

Nolan is the first blockbuster auteur – James Cameron may just edge him at the box office, but can’t claim to have written such flawless scripts – and he’s also something of a star-maker. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight and Gordon-Levitt could become just as huge. On his interactive film-making website hitRECord.org he calls himself Ordinary Joe, although in reality Gordon-Levitt is anything but.

Born 29 years ago to radical leftwing parents in Los Angeles, he has been acting since he was six; his first performance was as The Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz. From the ages of 15 to 20 he was a regular face on TV as floppy-haired alien Tommy in the sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun. But then he took an enforced break from acting, enrolling to study French at Columbia University. “It was a bit of challenge after I left 3rd Rock,” he concedes. “For a while there I couldn’t get a job. I was only offered sitcoms and I had no interest in doing another one. I think in our culture we pigeonhole too easily. We are versatile, diverse creatures.”

In the end, he got the lead in Manic, about a kid in a mental institution, and was then cast as a gay hustler in Gregg Araki‘s 2004 Mysterious Skin. Gordon-Levitt was said to be taking a risk, but Araki was also taking a risk on a child actor on the cusp of manhood. “Very much so,” he says. “I think that’s well said. It’s a beautiful story about real human beings. I just wanted to dig into something interesting and challenging.” Next he starred in Brick, Rian Johnson‘s high-school noir, which was ambitious enough to draw Gordon-Levitt to Nolan’s attention: “It’s certainly one of the movies of mine Mr Nolan had seen. I’m not sure if he watched (500) Days Of Summer, though …”

In (500) Days, as a charming indie geek in lovelorn pursuit of Zooey Deschanel, Gordon-Levitt was both low-key and appealing, unassuming yet scene-stealing, a goof and a pin-up. He’s a chameleon on the screen, shape-shifting from film to film, lighting up the screen with his smile. He likes to be pushed as an actor; he doesn’t just turn up on set; he paid for his own trip to Kansas to visit the places inhabited by the characters in Mysterious Skin.

‘They fitted me for a harness and strung me up on some wires. I told them: I can’t wait to do this. I’ll do anything you ask and I won’t complain’

In Christopher Nolan, he’s found his ideal match, and not just because Nolan has the power to turn Gordon-Levitt into a big-league movie actor. The first time the two met, they chatted about violence in movies, and A Clockwork Orange in particular: “Horribly disturbing and violent, but with something to say,” he enthuses. The second time, when Gordon-Levitt had been offered the role of Arthur, DiCaprio’s meticulous assistant, he met up with both Nolan and his stunt co-ordinator. “They fitted me for a harness and strung me up on some wires. I told them, ‘Hey, I really want to do this, I can’t wait to do this. I’ll do anything you ask and I won’t complain.'”

Did he keep his word? Gordon-Levitt laughs: “Yep! It’s incredibly motivating once you’ve made a commitment to a director that you really admire. I had to live up to my promise.” Inception is certainly a technical triumph, and it’s not one that hides behind 3D. Gordon-Levitt was battered during the zero-gravity scenes in the hotel, but didn’t care. “I look as though I’m floating effortlessly,” he says, “but I was the furthest from being relaxed. Every muscle in my body was engaged in order to make it look as though I was floating. But I like physical acting. Usually it’s all about the close-up – which I like as well of course; you can perform very well with just your eyes – but I loved the opportunity to tell a story with my whole body.”

Gordon-Levitt reminds the Guardian a little of Keanu Reeves, and not just because you can’t watch Inception without thinking back to The Matrix (in fact, Nolan has said The Matrix’s global success gave him the confidence to be philosophically indulgent in Inception). However, he would probably consider that another pigeonhole; it’s not as if he even sees himself as a movie star, something he regards as a 20th-century concept. He loves acting, but it’s far from the only thing he does.

He launched HitRECord to encourage people to upload short films, poems, songs – anything creative – and share their work with the rest of the world. This summer HitRECord will put on a series of underground live events in New York but Gordon-Levitt has no intention of taking another sabbatical from acting. He says talk of an appearance in Nolan’s next Batman film is “nothing but a rumour” and deftly changes the subject to shaving his hair off to play a cancer patient in Seth Rogen‘s new film. “It doesn’t have a title yet,” he says, “so it’s the Untitled Cancer Comedy, inspired by a friend Seth met when they were both writers on Da Ali G Show and who survived cancer. Seth got him to write the script and, of course, it’s hilarious.”

There is a also Hesher, a small film co-starring Natalie Portman that was picked up at Sundance: “Someone described my character as a Dionysian death metal sage!” He tips back on his chair and explodes with laughter, his fragile body shaking uncontrollably: “Now that’s something that even Mr Nolan wouldn’t have thought of!” And he urges me to go straight out and watch Inception again: “I’ve seen it twice and I can’t wait to see it again. For sure.”