Gordon-Levitt riding fast to fame
Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Handout)
In big block letters, the posters for Premium Rush boldly proclaim: RIDE LIKE HELL. That sounds exactly what is happening to the new movie's star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Regardless of his reluctance to become a Hollywood superstar, Gordon-Levitt is on a personal hellride to fame and even bigger fortune.
"The whole concept of celebrity pisses me off," Gordon-Levitt once said. It's too late, Joseph.
But the 31-year-old Gordon-Levitt is an unlikely candidate for superstardom. He is known more for his dimpled boyish charm than being handsome or a heartthrob. By his own account, he has rarely scored roles as the object of desire: "I've played the smart kid, the funny one, the nice sweet one, even the angry one, but never the sexy one," he said in 2005 during the release of Mysterious Skin.
Meanwhile, as the grandson of a filmmaker (Michael Gordon) who was unjustly blacklisted by American fascists during the McCarthy era, and as the son of political activists who helped found the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Gordon-Levitt is outspoken on social issues. That is not always a ticket for the hellride. Unless you are as powerful as George Clooney or Sean Penn, Hollywood prefers stars who talk movies more than politics.
Gordon-Levitt is also a child star with a bona fide adult career. Few make it through that transition and fewer still become superstars. When the child star can no longer rely on being cute or plucky, something else is required. When Gordon-Levitt was playing both Daniel and David Collins in the cult comedy TV show Dark Shadows, he was dreadful. Out of his league, he was surrounded by veterans who knew over-acting was appropriate for the revival series. Gordon-Levitt, with his shrill young voice, and doomed to look goofy in his shaggy bowl haircut and baggy 1991 sweaters, showed no discernible talent. Later, from 1996 to 2001, he starred in another silly (if fun) TV series, 3rd Rock from the Sun. Again, no reason to think that playing Tommy Solomon -- an alien masquerading as a Jewish child -- would propel him to later prominence.
On the flip side, Gordon-Levitt also had no stand-out, break-out role to live up to when he hit his 20s. That was an advantage that child star such as Henry Thomas, the boy in E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial, never had.
Flash forward to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. Like veteran Michael Caine, Gordon-Levitt is the author of some of the most heart-wrenching human sequences in the film. His Gotham City policeman -- the grown-up orphan John Blake -- idolizes Batman and upbraids Bruce Wayne for mothballing the Caped Crusader. Oddly, when it came time for a Dark Knight Rises press conference, Gordon-Levitt fell near-silent, leaving the platform to Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway and Nolan. He looked shy in the spotlight.
On screen, Gordon-Levitt's minimalist acting is not just well-crafted, it is superbly orchestrated by a skilled technician. Gordon-Levitt can thank Nolan for pushing him into the big time by casting him in a major role in Inception, after James Franco dropped out. That led directly to other major roles and, of course, The Dark Knight Rises. It will be intriguing to see if Gordon-Levitt is part of any future Batman spin-off movies, especially if Nolan oversees Warner Bros.' comic book franchises.
Not coincidentally, Nolan can thank Gordon-Levitt for his maturation. When you troll through his young adult roles, you see a pattern of bold choices, none designed for personal stardom: Mysterious Skin, Brick, Shadowboxer, The Lookout, Stop-Loss, Miracle at St. Anna, Killshot, (500) Days of Summer, Uncertainty and Hersher. We can forgive him for appearing in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It was not as stupid as it sounds. Gordon-Levitt went right back to boldness with 50/50, a role that had some thinking he should have been nominated for an Oscar.
The point is that Gordon-Levitt has put the work in. He is not a "type" or a Hollywood heartthrob or fresh meat. He is a working actor who has spent a decade honing his talents. Now it is paying off. In an era when just being famous for being famous is enough to score a movie role, Gordon-Levitt is the exception -- and sometimes exceptional.
After Premium Rush, Gordon-Levitt co-stars as Bruce Willis' younger self in Rian Johnson's time-travelling, sci-fi thriller Looper. It is due in September. Appearing opposite his idol Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, he plays Abraham Lincoln's son in Steven Spielberg's heavyweight biopic, Lincoln. This guaranteed Oscar contender is due in November. In his own parallel universe, Gordon-Levitt is also in post-production on his own directorial debut, Don Jon's Addiction. This is a drama he wrote for himself, with Scarlett Johansson as his co-star. Expect it sometime in 2013.
Action, drama, morality play, acting, writing, directing -- it all equals big-time stardom. More than 20 years after surviving Dark Shadows, Gordon-Levitt sees the light.
10 successful child-to-adult stars
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not the first child star to make it as an adult actor, nor will he be the last. But few make the transition, and fewer still find themselves on the brink of superstardom. Here are 10 successful child-to-adult stars:
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: Earned fame together as teens, although varying degrees of success as adults.
Kurt Russell: Kicked Elvis Presley in the shins as a kid actor, then became a significant leading man. Now fading.
Jason Bateman: Grew up in a Little House on the Prairie and survived past his teens in the public eye! Amazing.
Neil Patrick Harris: Unlike Gordon-Levitt, Harris was attached to defining role as Doogie Howser, M.D. But his sense of humour is a great asset now.
Christian Bale: Survived himself after fame crushed his spirit following Empire of the Sun. Now a complicated but great actor.
Leonardo DiCaprio: His own Growing Pains led to Oscar noms as an adult. One of Hollywood's enduring stars.
Shia LaBeouf: Overacted on the Disney Channel. Today he over-reacts to Transformers. Yet there is still potential here.
Ryan Gosling: Our home-grown Canadian lad made it from The Mickey Mouse Club. He has an Oscar nom.
Daniel Radcliffe: Jury is still out on how big his adult career will be. At least he has now outgrown Harry Potter.