The last time Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosted "Saturday Night Live," in 2009, he was just shedding the final vestiges of his child-star skin thanks to his winning performance in "500 Days of Summer" as a greeting-card copy-writer who falls head-over-heels for the adorkable Zooey Deschanel.
He returns to "SNL" this weekend as a bona-fide leading man (there were plenty of people who felt he deserved an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a young cancer patient in "50/50"), and even something of an action hero. Christopher Nolan gave him big roles in "Inception" (2010) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012), and he's the brooding, sprinting, shotgun-blasting center of Rian Johnson's upcoming sci-fi brain-twister, "Looper" (out next Friday).
Set in the year 2042, "Looper" imagines a world where time travel has been invented -- and outlawed. The only people who use it are organized criminals from 30 years in the future, who send those they want killed back in time. It falls to Levitt's character, Joe, and his fellow "loopers" to dispense with and dispose of these unfortunate souls, who arrive bound and gagged, with silver bars strapped to their bodies. According to their contracts, the loopers will eventually have to "close the loop" and kill their own future selves -- at which point they can retire and enjoy the remainder of their numbered days.
There's just one problem: Joe's future self is played by Bruce Willis, and he has no intention of being neutralized that easily.
"Looper" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and I spoke to Gordon-Levitt the next day about channeling John McClane, challenging audiences to question their thirst for violence and critiquing a society where the rich are criminals and the poor are out of luck.
Michael Hogan: This is a movie with no heroes, isn't it?
Yeah, I think that's one of the things that it does most deftly. And I think it's also one of the greatest strengths of Bruce playing the part that he plays, because he's so heroic, as just a presence, but then he's doing these terrible things. But at the same time you understand why he's doing them. And there you have it. That's the nature of violence in the world: no one does terrible things because they think they're doing a terrible thing. They think they're doing the right thing. So how do you get out of that cycle, where violence begets more violence begets more violence?
The best science-fiction movies critique the societies they emerge out of. What themes in the film do you think reflect the way we live now?
I think that's just it: Can you solve the problems of violence with more violence? Or is that just an endless loop? You're absolutely right. That is the beauty of science fiction, is it can dramatize problems like that. Or perhaps an even broader and more profound question: What would you do if you were across the table from your future self? What would you say? How would that conversation go? Obviously, in real life that can't happen, and there you have science fiction.
I also noticed that poverty plays a big part in "Looper" -- the gap between the haves and the have nots. Do you think that resonates with our times?
Absolutely. The 99%. And it's not the primary thing that "Looper" is about -- it doesn't shove it in your face -- but it's a really great and subtle backdrop to the movie. Here's this future where the rich have just continued to get richer and left the poor behind -- or just left everybody else behind. And it's not about poor people -- it's just everybody. Nobody has anything anymore, except this little clique of people with all the money.
And your character has become so callous -- maybe less callous than some of the others, but still callous.
He's absolutely callous. And lo and behold, people with all the money are criminals. And I would tend to say that's pretty true. Even though the crooks on Wall Street haven't been punished -- they're definitely criminals.
I know this part was written for you. Are there any quirks of your character that Rian worked in to the character?
Not really, to be honest. He knows that what I really love is to transform. I really like playing a character that's very different from myself. That's what gets me off. And the premise of "Looper" would afford an actor a unique opportunity to transform himself.
Let's talk a little bit about transforming yourself into a younger Bruce Willis. Was that done with CGI?
There was no CGI. At some point, digital solutions were suggested, and both Rian and I were immediately not interested. I don't think it looks real -- yet. Maybe one day, but not yet. So that left makeup. And I had worked with a brilliant makeup artist named Kazuhiro Suji, and he did my makeup on "G.I. Joe." He's a magician, Kazu. Ask any makeup artist in the business, they'll be like, "Oh, wow, Kazu," and for good reason. And he was reticent, because Bruce and I look so little alike. But we didn't think we had to make us look exactly alike. We just had to do something -- enough -- to let the audience know that this character and this character are supposed to be the same person. I also designed a character around [Bruce]. I studied him and I studied his movies. I would rip his voice off of his movies and listen to him on my iPod, and he even recorded himself doing some of my voiceover monologues and sent me that recording so I could hear what he would sound like saying it. But the most helpful thing was just getting to know him, hanging out with him, spending time, going to dinner, and letting it seep in.
Bruce Willis became one of the great action heroes of the movies, but I remember "Moonlighting," where you wouldn't have thought, "Oh, put this guy in 'Die Hard.'" Is he an inspiration to you? You've got a lot of action movies this year, but I think we think of you sometimes as a romantic comedy guy.
Uh, sure. [Laughs.] I think he's just a great actor. An action star is someone like Bruce Lee, you know what I mean? Bruce Lee specializes in kung fu, and that's it. Bruce is good at fighting -- he's a physical guy -- but he's an actor.
There's a scene where Bruce is blasting away at bad guys with two guns that's kind of like a "Die Hard" flashback.
It is, and that's very intentional. And I think that's a big reason why he plays that part better than any actor could have, because "Looper" is all about reflecting our own feelings toward that kind of violence. When we played "Looper" last night in front of 2,000 people -- the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival -- there was an audible cheer. Which is interesting. Because the violence in "Looper" is not gratuitous. It's not just for fun. It's a serious examination and meditation on that violence. But to hear people cheer -- I wouldn't blame them for it. This might be an obnoxious comparison, but it's like what Godard does with sex. Godard will put Bridget Bardot in front of your face and make you slobber over her, but then slap you in the face and you're like, "Look at what you're doing. Look at how you're objectifying this woman. Why are you looking at her this way? Why aren't you examining who she is and what she's saying?" I think "Looper" kind of does that with violence.
It's activating the passions and then showing you the consequences?
That's a much better way of putting it. [Laughs.]
If you were to travel through time anywhere, where would it be?
The future. I do my best to remain an optimist, and I think, as dire as things seem, if you look around there's also equally incredible positive things happening all around, and I can't wait to see where we go and how we figure it out and how we pull it all together and manage to survive.
"Looper" hits theaters on September 28.