One of the most popular actors working today in both big blockbusters and small indies is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who while promoting his latest indie Hesher spoke to us about creating this interesting, edgy, and if you ask me, f*cked up Jesus-like character for the film. Even though Levitt is extremely sought after right now, director Spencer Susser was not convinced that he was right for the role, so Levitt had to once again proved himself worthy of the role and win over his director in an audition. Find out the story from Levitt’s perspective below…
I’ve never seen you in a role like this before. Were you shocked to be asked?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: At first the director didn’t think I could do it probably for the same reasons you’re talking about. He said, ‘All due respect, he’s a great actor, but I don’t think he can do this character. He’s nothing like that.’ I convinced him to meet me, and so we went and had dinner. It was great meeting him, but he still said, ‘No, he’s nothing like his character. He can’t do it.’ I convinced him to let me audition for him and I changed his mind.
When Hesher first enters TJ’s life, it’s almost an abusive relationship. By the end of the film he ends up caring about what happens with TJ. What do you think happened within Hesher to make him change?
JGL: Oftentimes you have a movie with a big broad character at the center of it, but there’s nothing underneath it and it’s just kind of the same shtick over and over again. But Hesher does have a story, and he does change and he does grow. And, it’s like I was saying before, he mostly spends his time in the present tense and doesn’t attach himself to anything, whether it’s material things or even people. He doesn’t attach himself to people. But I think unintentionally he just ends up feeling a lot of sympathy and empathy for these three people in this family and does develop a connection to them, and does become attached to them and doesn’t necessarily know how to deal with those feelings, but he’s not one to run from his feeling either, so he plows right in.
Then why does he leave?
JGL: Well I think he realizes. You know, I’m not going to tell you why [laughs].
Were you happy there was no big exposition moment where you found out, ‘Oh here’s where Hesher came from and why he’s this way?’
JGL: Yeah, exactly. This movie sort of refuses to submit to any of those Hollywood conventions. I think that’s part of why this movie couldn’t have been made in a corporate Hollywood studio environment because it offends some people. It doesn’t do the, I’ve heard this term – they call it ‘Hero Protection.’ It’s a term that they use in corporate storytelling where the hero has to be protected and stay this pure hero. I think movies like that can be kind of boring.
Because of that, did you do an enormous backstory on your character?
JGL: Yeah, we worked out a lot of about who he maybe used to be, what he had been through, etc. But all of that information is very intentionally not in the story.
Are you doing anything to look physical to prepare? You look very strong.
JGL: Thanks. Yeah. It’s funny, I was actually in much better shape for Inception. I shot Inception right after Hesher, even though Hesher came out later. I got in super good shape to do Inception, but I’m in a suit the whole time. But he had to be in very good shape to do those fight scenes. I wasn’t in nearly as good shape to do Hesher and I was naked the whole time.
For such a dirty, unpredictable character, one of the first things we see him doing is his laundry…
JGL: That’s true, he does do his laundry. I think that he’s always undermining the expectations. I think that’s part of why he calls himself Hesher. I think he kind of gets his jollies surprising people. He calls himself by a stereotype because he’s so counter to any stereotype. I think a lot of people who would see him would assume that they have his number right away, ‘Oh, long hair, boots, dirty…I know who you are,’ but you don’t. I think Hesher is actually quite a thinker and quite a righteous individual in fact, despite his unruly appearance.
Was there ever any conversation about you looking like a fucked up Jesus?
JGL: Umm, eh, it wasn’t something that we were aiming for.
But your look represents it and your character is a kind of messed savior for them…
JGL: You said it. I won’t disagree with you. I think that’s a beautiful interpretation of it.
Why do you think he had such a special connection with the grandmother?
JGL: I think the grandma is really honest, and I think he likes that. Most people really put up a front and I think that Hester spends a lot of time fucking with people and their fronts. But the grandma really wears her heart on her sleeve, and I think he feels a real connection to that.
Any advice from her?
JGL: No, you know, it’s funny. I get asked that a lot about advice. I don’t know about you, but I don’t give anybody advice. And I don’t usually listen to advice when people give me advice. I’m not big on advice.
What part of Hesher resonates with you the most?
JGL: What I like about him is he’s really present. He’s detached himself from a lot of the things that I think we all carry around with us, like our material things, our cars, and our houses, and our clothes, and our this and that. He’s detached himself from the future. We all get wrapped up in like, ‘Oh, what’s going to happen if I do this?’ Or, ‘What’s tomorrow gonna be like? Or what’s five years gonna be like?’ He’s just sort of here and now. You can’t live only that way. Well you can, but you’ll be homeless in a van – and that’s a valid choice, I guess, and I admire him for making that choice. But I think even if you’re not going to live as extremely as Hesher does, to remember the merit in forgetting all those things and just paying attention to what’s going on right now and how you feel at the moment, I think that’s illuminating and I connected with that and I think everybody has some of that in them.
Did he affect the way you think about things?
JGL: Yeah, I mean to a degree. He and I have very different outlooks on life. I enjoy building things and putting things together, and watching them grow.
Like what specifically?
JGL: I run a company. I started a production company and I run it, for example, and that takes a lot of work and time and effort and connection and attachment. But I’m proud of that and I like it. He is different. He has a different view on it. He’s not really concerned with anything like that. He’s just trying to be present all the time.
What about in terms of physical belongings?
JGL: I’m not big on physical belongings. The nicest stuff I have is like, I have a nice room from which I run my production company called The Rec Room, where I’ve got a nice camera and I’ve got nice computers. But I don’t like having nice cars or anything.
As a filmmaker yourself, maybe you can comment on the importance about that final layer of cleaning up a film for an audience? At Sundance I saw the film, and there were a couple of sound issues and little things. It’s all been so cleaned up. I saw it again last week and it made the overall film so much more fun and interesting.
JGL: Filmmaking, on the one hand, needs the raw feeling and story but it’s also and enormous technical feed to have a movie that people can watch and listen to and disappear into without getting interrupted and reminded that they are watching a movie. Especially a movie like this where there aren’t a lot of funds to make that happen. It’s a real challenge and Spencer’s done a great job. Even though it was made on a budget, I think it’s a really well-crafted and technically-accomplished movie.
In recent years you really have built up your career with these incredible independent films but you have been taking on more mainstream, studio projects. Do you think you’ll always go back to independent cinema?
JGL: The important thing is where is the filmmaker coming from. What’s the script. And what are we doing here. It’s not so much about the size of the budget or what studio is behind it. I just hope to keep working with people who inspire me on material, material that inspires me regardless of what platform it’s on.
Check out Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Hesher starting today, May 13th!