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The Fierce Sensitivity of Joseph Gordon-Levitt


Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer.  

In 500 Days, he gets to play his first romantic lead. Gordon-Levitt is such a die-hard romantic you wonder why it took so long. Online, at, his scrappy website for fans and artists, his sign-off in blog posts and videos is “Again by heart.” As he explains it, “Cord is the ancient word for ‘heart,’ so record is just a translation: ‘Again by heart.’”

But it also implies repetition, one of the actor’s nagging obsessions. For a long time after Third Rock, Gordon-Levitt worried about getting stuck in a rut. Lately, though, he’s embraced the pluses of doing things over and over—“the way your heart beats,” he says. “That’s what life is: repetitive routines. It’s a matter of finding the balance between deviating from those patterns and knowing when to repeat them.”

“Joe isn’t interested in the same things that interest other young actors,” says Deschanel, something his website (a collection of writing, songs, video diaries, and recordings of users’ poems) supports. “That’s where he gets his joy,” Webb says, “not from parties.” (For a glimpse of Gordon-Levitt’s attitude about the Hollywood scene, Google the title of his short film about paparazzi, Pictures of Assholes.) More unexpectedly, he fell in love with the Russian clown extravaganza Slava’s Snowshow in 2004, watching dozens of shows, night after night, before signing on as a producer for its New York run and, later, studying clowning himself.

But Gordon-Levitt is fully cognizant of Hollywood Career 101: This summer, in addition to 500 Days, he’ll be starring as the evil Cobra Commander in his first studio tent pole, G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra—albeit with “so much makeup you can hardly tell it’s me.” (In other words, if it flops, it won’t hurt.) And he’s got a nice balance of indie and mainstream lined up again in 2010: The low-budget drama Hesher, co-starring Natalie Portman, and the thriller Inception, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight.

In the end, it turns out the repetition that obsesses Gordon-Levitt most is shooting a scene. “It’s a very ritualized practice: First they say ‘rolling’ and then they say ‘speed’ and then they say ‘marker,’ and they clap the marker, then the camera says ‘set,’ then the director says ‘action,’ ” recites the actor, as if intoning a poem. “I’ve heard that sequence of words ever since I was 6 years old. It’s powerful. I need that.”


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