America’s Most Serious Twentysomething Actor

One of today's most serious twentysomething actors started out on a silly sitcom about aliens: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who played the teenage earthling Tommy Sullivan on "3rd Rock From the Sun," has transitioned—very nicely, thank you—into edgy independent-film roles. He followed his supporting turn as a homophobic Mormon in 2003's "Latter Days" with a starring role as a gay hustler in last year's "Mysterious Skin." Gordon-Levitt's latest film, "Brick," is set in a California high school. But this is so not your typical teen movie. It's more like film noir meets "Sin City." Gordon-Levitt plays the lead, a thoughtful, lanky student named Brendan Frye, who's searching for his missing girlfriend. With the movie just opening in limited release, he spoke to NEWSWEEK's Ramin Setoodeh. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Wow. You're wearing a suit. At most interviews, celebrities dress down.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Celebrity? I hate that word.

But aren't you a celebrity?

No, sir. I'm an actor. Actors didn't use to be celebrities. A hundred years ago, they put the theaters next to the brothels. Actors were poor. Celebrities used to be kings and queens. Then the United States abolished monarchy, and now there's this coming together of show business and celebrity. I don't think it's healthy. I don't want to sound self-important, but all these celebrity shows and magazines—it comes from us, from Hollywood, from our country. We're the ones creating it. And I think it works in close step with a lot of other bad things that are happening in the world. It promotes greed, it promotes being selfish and it promotes this ladder, where you're a better person if you have more money. It's not at all about the work itself. Don't get me wrong. I love movies. But this myth of celebrity has nothing to do with movies.

So you've gone formal today because ... ?

It makes me feel more presentable. Two years ago, I went on this audition. They were doing production of "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams. I hadn't been on many theater auditions. But I was told about the play. I was excited. I wanted to do it. That play is stupendous, really. I worked hard on it and went in, and the director was wearing a suit. I'd never been to an audition where the director was wearing a suit—it really struck me. It wasn't about clothes. Back in the '40s, everybody used to wear suits on a movie set. There's a certainly nobility—not nobility, that's the wrong word. There's a certain class to what we're doing. I got that from him. We're professionals here.

How did you get into acting?

I was just watching baby videos of me and I was obviously an exhibitionist. At 2, my mom was making these sand castles and I'd wait for her to make them. Then I'd destroy them really violently and ask her to do it again. It was like some scene we were playing out. So since I was born and raised in Sherman Oaks [Calif.], I went to a lot of auditions.

In "Latter Days" and "Mysterious Skin," and now in "Brick," you seem to be doing really risky work. Is that hard for an actor in his 20s?

Not just in your 20s. Most scripts are bad. I read a lot of them. "Brick" was a good script just to read. It was like, “Oh my God, these words feel so good in my mouth.” A lot of movies try to set up a world with cool sets, costumes, camera work. In "Brick," the world is born from the words.

Did you read A. O. Scott's review of "Mysterious Skin" in The New York Times, where he raved and raved about your performance?

I did. I was really honored to be in The New York Times that way. Playing a role like the character in "Skin," you just have to jump and trust. You can't pay too much attention to what you're doing.

The character is so raw, it's almost hard to watch. It must have been even harder to play . Especially in the graphic nude scenes.

To me, a sex scene in a movie generally means a gratuitous scene that doesn't serve the story but gives a kind of excuse—we've got these two actors, we want to see them naked, so let's bring in the music and the soft light. In "Mysterious Skin," none of the sex scenes are like that. They all are about the process that this character is going through—and he grows from each of those scenes. You couldn't have told the story any other way. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. I would be embarrassed if I was like, "S—-, everybody wants to look at my a—."