BEVERLY HILLS, California — In a startling Hollywood turnaround, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a young actor known primarily for his work on the goofy sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” has transformed into a thespian to be reckoned with — grabbing raves from press and peers alike with chameleon-esque dramatic turns in “Mysterious Skin” and “Brick.”
Now 26, the hard-working star is taking it to the next level with “The Lookout,” a critically hailed crime flick revolving around his mentally disabled jock-turned-janitor character. We caught up with Gordon-Levitt recently to talk about acting techniques, Pearl Jam and why it’s a very good thing this former child star has turned to a life of crime — onscreen, anyway.
MTV: As part of your preparation, you refused to listen to any music other than Pearl Jam during the months you were filming “The Lookout.” Why was that important to you?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well, it wasn’t so much that the character only listens to Pearl Jam; it was me. Music is a big part of figuring out who the character is for me, and movie sets are these logistical nightmares where there is so much distracting stuff going on. I have to put in some music just to keep focused.
MTV: Why Pearl Jam?
Gordon-Levitt: I always design an arsenal of songs to go with every character I play, and I had never done it before with only picking one band. But for some reason, just because [the character’s] mind goes in circles, [it seemed appropriate]. Having one voice in my head the whole three months we were shooting worked, and that voice was Eddie Vedder.
MTV: If you win any acting awards for “The Lookout,” you’ll have to thank Eddie in your speech.
Gordon-Levitt: [He laughs.] I’d like to thank him for plenty of other reasons too.
MTV: You also deprived yourself of sleep while you were shooting this movie. What kind of effect did that have on you?
Gordon-Levitt: I heard from a lot of the people that I talked to, who had been through what my character has been through, that they are tired a lot. So I figured I would just not sleep enough.
MTV: It must really mess with your head when you do that.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, man. You know what it’s like to not get enough sleep? Well, if you consistently do that enough, it gets to you. I also got sick, which probably wasn’t such a good idea. But you know, the old antibiotics will take care of anything.
MTV: With “Brick,” you and director Rian Johnson took a classic movie genre — the noir film — and dusted it off and made it fresh for a new generation (see ” ’Brick’ Star Compares Slang-Slingin’ Film To Wu-Tang Clan” ). Now you and “Lookout” writer/director Scott Frank are similarly reinventing the heist picture, which we don’t see very much anymore. Are you just such a fan of old movies that you go out of your way to make them relevant again?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, really I just got this great script and it was such a good story that I wanted to be a part of it. A lot of movies don’t have such good stories anymore — they are based on marketing campaigns, and they are designed by corporate bosses [in] committee boardrooms and all that nonsense. But this movie was just made by people who love movies, who had a good time making it. And I think that’s why it’s good.
MTV: Everybody knows that the best part of a heist picture isn’t the robbery, but the anticipation. “The Lookout” seems to take great pleasure in focusing on that anticipation for an extra long time — is that what makes it work?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, I’d say the suspense comes from the people. It comes because you care about the people.
MTV: And by the time the robbery goes down, you care about who you’re watching.
Gordon-Levitt: Exactly. It’s like on reality TV — you care whether they can sing or whether they can dance only because you find out who they are as people. Well, in “The Lookout” there is this bank robbery, and you care about what happens in this bank robbery — not because of the flashy explosions or the special effects, but because you have learned who these people are and you have grown to care about them.
MTV: Do you have any favorite heist movies that you would recommend to people who enjoy “The Lookout”?
Gordon-Levitt: Go see “Dog Day Afternoon.” It’s Al Pacino, man. One of his best.
MTV: And you’ve got another crime thriller called “Killshot” — this one with you as a bad guy — coming up later this year. How is that one different from “The Lookout”?
Gordon-Levitt: That’s me, riding in a blue Cadillac with Mickey Rourke, shooting up 7-Eleven stores. It’s good fun.
MTV: While preparing for “The Lookout,” you met with real victims of memory loss and even got into heavy research about the various parts of the brain. So did this other movie have you and Mickey sticking up real 7-Elevens, just to get a feel for it?
Gordon-Levitt: [He laughs.] For “Killshot”? Well, I didn’t hang out with any sociopaths, but I did go to the gun range! My character is supposed to be from Texas, [so] I went to Arlington … where they have this underground wrestling league and all these huge badass wrestlers. I was just hanging out with them, lifting weights, figuring it out. I don’t know why, but somehow that led to my character, Richie Nix.
MTV: When you’re a leading man in a movie like “The Lookout,” you’ve got 120 pages of words to learn. What’s your trick to putting them all in your brain?
Gordon-Levitt: Well, the most important part of learning your lines is making sense of what you’re saying. You shouldn’t have to think about the words — you should just know what the story is. If you know what the story is, then you’ll know what your character should logically say at that point.
MTV:Do you consider yourself to be a Method actor?
Gordon-Levitt: Honestly, I don’t even know what that means. People use that word, “Method,” and I’ve heard it used to mean so many different things.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Lookout.”
Visit Movies on MTV.com for more from Hollywood, including news, reviews, interviews and more.
Want trailers? Visit the Trailer Park for the newest, scariest and funniest coming attractions anywhere.