Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Not Your Average Joe

The Inception star recalls Mysterious Skin, relives his landmark gay kiss on That ’70s Show and reasons with rumors about his own sexual orientation.



It was also the first time you dealt with on-screen nudity and sex scenes, which happened to be with other men. Was that a challenge?
No, because I don’t really think of those scenes as sex scenes. Obviously there’s sexual activity, but a sex scene to me is a scene that’s about sex, and none of those scenes in Mysterious Skin are about that. Those scenes are about the story moving forward, so each one has its point, as opposed to movies with gratuitous sex scenes where everyone in the audience just wants to see the actors get naked. But it was definitely the first time I’d been cast in the sort of sexualized, sex object role. I didn’t really think of myself like that before.

Well, the long hair you had before wasn’t really working for you.
[Laughs] Hey, I could head-bang with that hair, so it was awesome.

Now you get all gussied up in snazzy outfits for sexy photo shoots. Are you comfortable with that whole scene?
When it comes to getting my picture taken for magazines, I like to dress up. I’ve never liked the whole, Oh, I’m just being casual, so I’m not paying attention to how I look. Bullshit, of course you are — there’s a stylist there. So I prefer to dress up for magazines because it seems more honest to me. And I look my best when I dress up.

When you appeared as Eric’s gay buddy on a 1998 episode of That ’70s Show, you and Topher Grace shared the first gay kiss on North American prime-time TV. Did that feel like a big deal, or was it just another gig?
Oh, I was totally proud of that, and I still am. It was a great bit, and it got a great reaction. More than anything else, though, I remember that it was written very well, because the emphasis wasn’t on it being gay but on making sure the scene worked and was funny. It was great that it showed people it was just a normal thing.

More importantly, was Topher a good kisser?
[Laughs] Probably one the worst kissers I’ve ever kissed. You know, he’s a dude, and girls are awesome to kiss, I gotta say.

Though you originally auditioned for conflicted gay Mormon Elder Aaron in Latter Days, you played Elder Paul, the straight Mormon bully. What drew you to that project?
What I liked about that movie is that C. Jay Cox wrote this really unique dialect because he’s from that culture in Utah. The character I got to play said all these things you never really hear people say, like, flippin’ instead of fuckin’. I get a kick out of extraordinary speech patterns, so that was my favorite thing about playing that guy.

You also got to say things like “God hates homos.”
Yeah, that’s what I love about my job: You can get inside the head of people you would normally dismiss as terrible. That’s not to say you don’t still think they’re terrible, but people who do terrible things or harbor terrible beliefs are still human beings, so it’s complicated, and that’s interesting to explore.

That guy was almost a bigger prick than the kid you played on Family Ties who bullied a deaf classmate.
I felt so bad about that, man! That was one of my first jobs, so when we were done shooting, I really wanted to apologize to that actor, who was actually deaf. I had to organize it because someone had to interpret for me in sign language. He had been acting for a while, so he was like, “Dude, whatever, it was just a scene.” That was an early lesson in what acting is.

Before he directed Precious, Lee Daniels directed you in Shadowboxer as Mo’Nique’s boyfriend. What was that experience like?
That was a fun one. I adore Lee and Mo’Nique, and I’m so happy to see them getting the recognition they deserve. There’s a lot of cool shit to see at Sundance, but I saw Precious there twice — Mo’Nique was like De Niro in Raging Bull. Lee is a mad genius of sorts, so hopefully I’ll get to work with him again. I stay in touch with him, and he’s such a sweetheart.

You made your professional stage debut in 2001 when you replaced Gale Harold in Uncle Bob off-Broadway as the sexually confused nephew of a gay man with AIDS. Because you’ve tackled so many gay roles and gay-themed projects, were you ever concerned about people assuming that you’re gay in real life?
No. Public perception is something you can’t worry about because it’s a loser’s game. There’s nothing positive that can come from paying attention to that kind of thing — not just wondering whether or not someone thinks you’re gay but also worrying what people will think of who you’re dating or what you drive. I just do my best to ignore all that shit. I love acting, but the funny thing that’s happened recently — like, within the last 100 years — is that actors have become famous figures. The people whose personal lives were out in public used to be royalty. Especially in the 20th century, since the United States doesn’t have royalty, those two concepts got blended: Hollywood became the castle and actors became royalty. I’ve never identified with that. I’ve always identified more with the vagabond bards and storytellers who were anonymous. It wasn’t about them; it was about characters they played and the stories they told. As for my personal life, I care very dearly about the people in my life, but people who I don’t know don’t know me.

Tags: film