Joseph Gordon-Levitt Interview, The Lookout

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Mysterious Skin”) recently to talk about his new film, "The Lookout,” which marks Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank’s ("Out of Sight”) directorial debut. The intelligent crime drama centers on Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), a once promising high school athlete whose life is turned upside down following a tragic car accident. The traumatic event leaves him with a faulty memory and an unreliable sense of self that makes even everyday situations challenging.

Frank’s captivating tale revolves not only around the crime but around the alternately heartbreaking and exhilarating re-emergence of Chris Pratt, who was once a Golden Boy athletic hero in his small Midwestern town. Chris had it all – a beautiful girlfriend, a well-heeled family and a shining future. But after a serious accident, Chris has found himself in a strange new world where the most basic things seem to fall through holes in his memory and nothing quite makes sense. Unable to make it on his own, he lives with his mentor in navigating this surreal life – the wisecracking, fiercely independent blind man, Lewis (Jeff Daniels, "The Squid and the Whale”). For a job, Chris sweeps the floor at the bank, waiting for his halted life to come unstuck.

Things suddenly shift when he meets Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, "Match Point”), an old school acquaintance and street philosopher who begins to revive Chris’s shattered confidence, even helping him find a girlfriend – albeit a stripper named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher, "Wedding Crashers”). But Gary has bigger plans, and when he recruits Chris into his grand scheme to rob the bank where he works, Chris appears to be in way over his damaged head.

As the bank heist unravels into chaos, both Chris’s uncertain future and even more importantly Lewis’s survival are on the line. Now it is up to this young outcast who can’t always think straight to figure out how to outwit and take down his manipulators…his own way.

Still in the early stages of recovery from a severe brain injury, Chris Pratt battles with the basic things the rest of us take for granted – what to say, who to remember, even how to make dinner. But as Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays him, he is also a man who harbors much more inside him than it appears, a man desperately in search of who he really might be in life. He might look like a patsy, like a nobody, like the guy that other people can use, but he proves that he’s much more than that.

Writer-director Scott Frank searched endlessly for an actor who could turn Chris into a real human being in a palpably tough predicament, who could make the role raw, moving and even funny at times, without a drop of sentiment or the maudlin. "I thought I’d seen just about everyone,” says Frank, "but then I saw a trailer for ‘Mysterious Skin’ with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I thought ‘I don’t think I’ve seen that guy.’ When he came into my office, there was just no longer a question. I knew instantly he was going to be in the movie. Most people I’d auditioned had a tendency to play to Chris’s disability, to really emphasize everything that’s wrong with him. But what Joe did that was so different and daring was to simply bring a profound stillness to the character. He was so quiet and still, that alone was haunting. You didn’t feel you were watching someone mimic a head injury – it was much more powerful and real.”

A former child actor, Gordon-Levitt is perhaps best known for his role as Tommy Solomon in the oft-acclaimed, long-running sitcom "3rd Rock From the Sun.” His films include "A River Runs Through It,” "The Juror,” "10 Things I Hate About You,” "Manic,” and "Mysterious Skin,” and most recently he took the lead role in the critically praised indie "Brick,” which drew a number of awards in 2006.

Right away, Gordon-Levitt knew "The Lookout” was going to be different. "It’s rare that I get a script I want to read all the way to the end,” he comments. "But this script was just so well written and every character was such a full human being, it made me excited to be an actor. With Chris Pratt, Scott Frank had created a hero who has so many layers to him, who is so complicated, there’s no one way to feel about him. The movie also blends two kinds of stories that don’t usually go together. On the one hand you have this kind of fun, exciting bank robbery and on the other you have these heartfelt, in-depth characters. I think it’s the humanity of the characters that makes the heist part so much more interesting.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a sensational young actor and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new movie and the unique challenges he faced playing the role of Chris Pratt:

MoviesOnline: How much research did you do into conditions like short term memory loss?

Joseph: Well, I did a fair amount of research. I did some reading. My favorite book I read was called ‘The Man With the Shattered World’ which was about a veteran coming back from World War II. The guy in that book suffered an injury far more severe than Chris Pratt’s. But, the more fruitful preparation I did was just hanging out with different people who had been through similar things to the character. They were all different. What I kind of figured out was they all were individuals and trying to put any of them in a box or a category was about as fruitless as trying to put anybody in any box or category based on any label that you can put anyone under. That led me to really want to make the character not just a stereotype. Not, ‘okay, here’s the disabled young man’ but to make him a person.

MoviesOnline: How much are you like this guy in real life?

Joseph: Plenty. I get lost all the time. My sense of direction sucks. I remember time real well. I think everybody’s mind works really differently. I remember time real well and remember space pretty poorly.

MoviesOnline: What did you like about the character? What appealed to you about him?

Joseph: What I like is that he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit. I think that’s kind of the most charming thing about him. Even though it’s really difficult for him to do a lot of the things that we just take for granted, like waking up in the morning, like following a conversation and driving to work; things that we can do without thinking about them, he has to focus on them real hard. And, by the end of the day he’s exhausted. He has to work really hard but he doesn’t quit. He continues to try and that’s really admirable.

MoviesOnline: When you talked to some of these people with brain damage, what kind of things did they tell you about this sort of trapped element?

Joseph: You know we didn’t really talk that much about it and I wasn’t really that interested in talking about it. We talked, here and there a little bit, but mostly we just hung out and talked about music or girls or anything else I would normally talk about with a buddy.

MoviesOnline: How did that inform your performance? What did you get from hanging out with these people that helped you play the character?

Joseph: It just sort of osmotically seeps in that way. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe because I don’t really know exactly how it works when I’m trying to come up with how to play a character but reading and speaking explicitly about specific character traits I think can often lead to being too self-conscious, whereas just hanging out with somebody, just getting a feel for them and then thinking of them, that’s kind of more what I did in this particular case.

MoviesOnline: Did you put yourself into a self-imposed isolation to get your head around this guy and did you have trouble getting out of that?

Joseph: Yeah, I was pretty depressed afterwards. I really was for a few months. It didn’t really stop until I took another job. It was a bit lonely. We were up in Winnipeg. I was with people all the time and I made really good friends with the people I was working with, but I didn’t speak much with other people I was close with. I’m not sure why.

MoviesOnline: Before the accident, this character had a lot of friends in high school….

Joseph: That’s what makes the character so interesting. I almost had to come up with two characters. There’s the guy before his accident and there’s a guy after his accident. You can see flashes of his old self come through now and then. Scott Frank, the director and I talked a lot about the balance between when to see the little flashes of his old self. I actually did a lot of work even though there’s only a few scenes in the movie where you get to see younger Chris before his accident. But I did a lot of work thinking about that other guy because that’s who the present guy is always thinking about.

MoviesOnline: What do you think about his friends deserting him after the accident?

Joseph: It’s common. If you lead a certain life and then, all of a sudden, wake up and you’re not that person anymore, I think it’s really difficult for the person going through it as well as the people around him. It happens a lot.

MoviesOnline: You’re saying he also didn’t want to see his friends?

Joseph: Yeah. I think he would have trouble facing them. He felt real guilty. It was his fault and two of his friends died. I could see he’d have trouble being able to face up to the people you used to know.

MoviesOnline: What about your physicality? I loved the way you walked.

Joseph: Oh thanks.

MoviesOnline: That was really good. Did you get that from talking to somebody?

Joseph: I got it from walking next to somebody. One of the guys in particular, I tried to snap his walk up directly. And, I did ask him about it actually. He said that that part of how he got hit affected the part of the brain that helps you balance, and so he doesn’t go up on his toes when he walks so much as his whole foot would hit the ground at once. It’s a little, subtle thing that you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for that sort of thing.

MoviesOnline: You seem to be drawn to unconventional teenage roles…

Joseph: Well, Chris isn’t a teenager.

MoviesOnline: Well, young roles.

Joseph: I just am drawn to good stuff. It’s not so much whether it’s conventional or not. The Lookout is quite conventional in a number of ways. It’s a classic heist. Does it break with convention? Sure, but I think that’s what makes a good work of art -- something that honors certain traditions and breaks with others.

MoviesOnline: Well it still breaks with conventions as Mysterious Skin did and Brick. You seem very comfortable in those milieus.

Joseph: Well, they broke with certain traditions and followed other traditions, both of those. There’s the oldest tale in the book, the hooker with the heart of gold and the same with the detective story, but then they deviate in ways. I think that’s part of what makes an interesting script -- what traditions it chooses to follow and what traditions it chooses to break with. If there’s a good piece of writing and a filmmaker that inspires me, then that’s the kind of part I want to try to get. I don’t so much think about ‘well, what are people going to think of this?’ Or ‘Is it going to obey the proper rules?’ I just try to concentrate on whether or not I think it’s good.

MoviesOnline: Have you ever had an incident in your life that spun you off in a totally different direction?

Joseph: I have those every day.

MoviesOnline: Do you ever find yourself just going all over the place and not knowing where you are going every day?

Joseph: [big smile] I try not to.

MoviesOnline: What was your initial reaction to Scott’s script and what drew you to him as a filmmaker?

Joseph: The script drew me to him as a filmmaker. My initial reaction was I was just damn excited. There’s very few good scripts. I read a lot of scripts and most of them suck and this one, I was immediately up and pacing around and thinking about things and feeling things and then I met him and we immediately started talking about it. He started telling me how he wanted to shoot it. He started telling me about how he wanted to put guitars in the score. We started talking about issues of responsibility and forgiveness, and I could tell that he was really excited with what he was doing and in love with this baby of his that he’d been working on for so long, and that’s the kind of thing I want to be involved with and, luckily, I was able to audition for him too and was lucky enough to get the part.

MoviesOnline: Did you have a different relationship with Jeff than you had with Matthew while you were shooting.

Joseph: That’s interesting, yes. I think I really bonded with Jeff in rehearsal. It was ‘hi, how are ya’ and that was all cool, but once we started going over the stuff, the scenes themselves, that’s when I really started to feel like I was getting to know him. Matthew, I think I got to know at the bar [laughs], inebriated.

MoviesOnline: Who was the better drinker, you or Matthew?

Joseph: Matthew.

MoviesOnline: What about working with Isla?

Joseph: The sweetest girl. The thing about the set was it was a pretty masculine thing -- a story about a guy who was a jock and his roommate’s a guy and it’s a bank robbery with a gang full of guys and there’s guns. It’s a pretty manly movie and so when Isla would come, it was such a gentle and lovely relief just to be able to have a female around. It meant so much and she, in particular [laughs], I think she did it on purpose, just for kicks but I would do my best throughout the day to try to not be too articulate, to try to not let my mind go into too intellectual a place. But she’s so sharp and I think just to mess with me, she would draw me out whether it be through a sarcastic remark or through an observant observation about somebody. She would draw me out and I would find myself talking how I didn’t mean to be talking, and then she’d call me on it and say, ‘Joseph, you’re not retarded enough.’

MoviesOnline: Did she go to the bar with you?

Joseph: No, she wasn’t around enough.

MoviesOnline: Did you bring something to this that wasn’t on the page and, if so, was Scott okay with that?

Joseph: I never really said anything that wasn’t on the page.

MoviesOnline: Did you take a scene in a different direction?

Joseph: I don’t think so. It was a really good script.

MoviesOnline: What about the scenes with Jeff Daniels, did you two ever ad-lib?

Joseph: No. We didn’t ad lib anything, especially me and Jeff. That’s where the least ad libs were because he comes from the theater and in theater there’s a real ethic of saying the script word for word and, sometimes that’s appropriate on a movie set and sometimes it’s not. When the writing is as good as Scott’s is, then it’s appropriate.

MoviesOnline: What was it like working with Jeff?

Joseph: He’s such a pro. He’s my favorite kind of actor. He’s someone who just loves and enjoys the creative process of working out a scene. He kind of reminded me of John Lithgow and I think they’ve worked together before. They both come from the theater. They’re both actor’s actors. They’ve both been in a million plays and they both just know how to make a scene work. It’s a pleasure to collaborate with them.

MoviesOnline: What did you think of Scott as the director for this?

Joseph: I think he did perfect. I think he was born to make movies. You talk with the guy about movies, he’s seen so many movies. He thinks in cinematic stories. That’s how his mind works. It’s a good thing that he’s started directing. I think his movies are going to keep getting better and better.

MoviesOnline: When you first read the script, were you glad that Chris made the decision he did? Were you hoping he would?

Joseph: Hmm. Usually when I watch heists or who done it’s or crime stuff, or read it, it takes me until the second time that I watch it to really follow the story because, usually, it’s the characters that interest me which is why so many of the heists nowadays that are kind of more about plot twists and car chases don’t interest me that much. I think they’re kind of boring whereas, The Lookout, the suspense comes from the people rather than the story. That’s what I remember about reading the script first and that’s what I always remember every time I see the movie, just each character intrigues me and attracts me and I’m curious who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

MoviesOnline: You said you bonded with Matthew at the bar. Did you guys hang out together when you weren’t shooting, like going to dinner or anything? Or did you stay in your own little world?

Joseph: There was a little of both.

MoviesOnline: What was it like shooting in Winnipeg? A journalist who was from Winnipeg said it was a strange place to live-- something about giant mosquitoes and worms falling from the sky onto your car.

Joseph: [Laughs] It was cool to me, I mean I was working all the time. I had a great time. There’s tons of hockey there which is perfect, because I was playing a hockey player, and I think they’re about as enthusiastic about hockey in Winnipeg as anywhere in the entire world. There are minor league rinks on every corner.

MoviesOnline: What do you have next?

Joseph: There’s another movie called Killshot; a ride in a blue Cadillac with Mickey Rourke. We shoot up 7-11 stores and then there’s another one called Stop Loss made by Kimberly Peirce of Boy’s Don’t Cry about soldiers coming home from Iraq.

MoviesOnline: Do you play one of the soldiers? That’s definitely different from what you’ve done, what was the feeling there?

Joseph: It’s hard to be a soldier.

MoviesOnline: Did you go to boot camp for it?

Joseph: Yeah, we did a simulated boot camp.

MoviesOnline: What was that like for you?

Joseph: It was really rewarding and enlightening and very hard.

MoviesOnline: Did you get yelled at?

Joseph: I little bit.

MoviesOnline: That film promises to be controversial.

Joseph: I think people will create controversy out of it and I think most of the people that do will probably not have seen the movie. The movie itself is actually not about a controversial subject. It’s about what it’s like to be a solider. It’s not about any politics or governments. I think everybody’s going to agree that the guys actually going over there having their lives threatened are simply brave guys that are going through a lot and that’s what the movie is about.

MoviesOnline: What was it like working with Mickey Rourke and what kind of Mickey were you working with?

Joseph: He was a really great guy, a mentor and a selfless actor, a pro and he’s really good in this movie. If you like Mickey Rourke, if you like Body Heat or Rumble Fish or Barfly or Sin City, then you’re going to really like this movie. It’s a character that fits in real life.

MoviesOnline: Is he bathing regularly these days?

Joseph: Are you? (we laugh)

MoviesOnline: How big a fan are you of hockey?

Joseph: I’ve become a fan. I never really used to watch it. It was funny. There’s only a little scene in the movie with hockey in it and I got really into it. I trained much more than anybody really asked me to and it wasn’t so much that I wanted to look good for those scenes although I did [laughter] but it was because, for whatever reason, it just got me in the mood and really became a key part of my preparation leading up to playing the character, how hard it is. It’s probably the most physically demanding sport I’ve ever played. You’re sweating your balls off after you’re done with it. It hurt and you have to keep going and that reminds me of Chris, for the same reason we’ve been talking about, that he never gives up. I think maybe he gets some of that instinct from his athletic trials.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about the transition you made from when you were working as a kid and a teenager and the track that you’ve taken and choices you’ve made since? Was it a conscious decision?

Joseph: Well, the conscious decision was that I wanted to be in good movies. That’s what I always wanted to do, but the difference is that when I was young, I was kind of a selfish person. When I was a teenager, I mostly just cared about my own pleasure and, as I grew up, moved out of my parents’ house and moved to New York, went to college and quit acting for a while, I started to feel a connection to the world around me in a way that I hadn’t as a teenager. When I started acting again, I wanted the acting to engage with that connection whereas, when I was younger, I was really unnerved when anybody would recognize me for something I’d done. Now, I’m delighted if someone says to me, ‘hey, Mysterious Skin, that movie meant a lot to me’ or Brick or even ‘Third Rock From the Sun’ makes me laugh. I love that now whereas, when I was younger, I couldn’t handle it. So it’s changed. The reason I do it has changed but I still also just do it because it’s fun and as far as different types of roles, as you say, I’m just trying to do stuff that I think is good and those are the jobs I could get that I thought were good.

MoviesOnline: In Stop Loss you were with Ryan. Are you comfortable thinking that a few years from now as you get more leads in movies, you might end up as similar paparazzi bait? Are you trying to avoid that and stick to the indie roles?

Joseph: I don’t know.

MoviesOnline: But you did say that you hated the recognition factor when you were a teenager.

Joseph: Yeah. When I was a teenager I was kind of selfish, like I said. I just liked doing the acting for the acting. I would just as soon they burn the film after we’d shoot it because I just enjoyed doing the work, but now I like it when people see the stuff I’ve done because I care about people other than myself.

MoviesOnline: Do you have a hard time watching yourself on screen?

Joseph: Yeah.

"The Lookout” opens in theaters on March 30th. I invite you to read my interviews with actress Isla Fisher and writer/director Scott Frank.

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