Some people argue that Hollywood has stopped making “movie stars,” and while that may be increasingly true, something else that is in short supply in Hollywood right now are genuine, thoughtful people. Joseph Gordon-Levitt may not generate the kind of box-office performances that others of his generation — Seth Rogen, James Franco, or JGL’s best friend, Channing Tatum — can, but by my count, JGL is killing it in the thoughtful department.
A child-star of the 90s, Joseph Gordon-Levitt broke free from his cleaner, earlier image not by going the Lohan and Miley route with big public displays of sexual outlandishness and drug use, but by going to college and afterward reinventing himself by taking only “good roles,” beginning with the astounding, but little-seen Mysterious Skin, which demonstrated that JGL wasn’t just a kid from a cute 90’s sitcom, but a formidable lead actor.
It was the clip below of Joseph Gordon-Levitt turning his video camera on the paparazzi eight or ten years ago, however, that prompted me to see JGL in a different light: He’s more than a great actor; he’s a fascinating and thoughtful mind. In the clip, he has a respectful conversation with two members of the paparazzi who had been aggressively taking his — and other young celebrities’ pictures — about why they do what they do, and why it is they can’t just ask. One photographer implies that he was aggressive because the photos carried a suggestion that JGL was gay, a suggestion that JGL doesn’t bother dismissing. He just lets it linger, because the answer doesn’t matter.
JGL has taken an interesting, dynamic career path since, choosing intimate, versatile, and challenging roles in movies like 50/50, Looper, Inception and (500) Days of Summer. He’ll do the occasional blockbuster, too, like The Dark Knight Rises or G.I. Joe, a popcorn movie he doesn’t shy away from (“I got to play the fucking Cobra Commander! How cool is that?” he recently said at a Reddit AMA).
He’s also interesting in specific ways in which others in Hollywood are not. He’s a private person — he has a girlfriend, but he won’t reveal who she is — but he’s also one of the most accessible actors around. You can often find him on Reddit, he’s approachable on Twitter, and with his production company, HitRecordJoe, he fosters collaborative art with anyone with a great idea and returns all the proceeds back to the collaborators.
Last week, Don Jon — which was written, directed and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt — opened in theaters. It’s an impressive piece of work, not just because it’s well acted, well directed, and well written, but because of the thoughtfulness beneath the surface. He uses porn as a hook to draw viewers in, but in the end, Don Jon ends up being an indictment of it, not because it’s bad, but because it’s not real.
The seed of Don Jon is rooted in the very question he began exploring in turning the camera on the paparazzi: The difference between what is real, and the artificial allusion of reality that magazine covers, movies, and porn attempt to convey as real. He interested in getting beneath the surface of sex and celebrity, in making emotional connections between him and his audience, and in removing the filter between celebrity and consumer. He’s encouraging us to stop buying into images and brands, and instead, consume the thoughts and ideas, and more importantly, create our own, alone, or in collaboration. There’s no one else in Hollywood like him: An actor, a writer, a director, and Internet entrepreneur, a collaborator, and a celebrity who not only eschews the trappings of it, but is working to erase it all and expose the beautiful wart of reality beneath the artificial layer of bullsh*t.