Joseph Gordon-Levitt on ‘Sin City’ and Why He Considers Himself a Male Feminist

The star of ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ opens up about his role as a lady-killing gambler in the violent neo-noir, and how his parents raised him to respect women.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the compact, dimple-faced actor equipped with an unbridled—and infectious—enthusiasm, has proven tough to pigeonhole. In his early years, you knew him as Tommy Solomon, the wisecracking know-it-all in the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun or perhaps the lovesick nerd who’s schooled in the ways of wooing by Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You. Then, he wiped the slate clean, quitting acting in favor of Columbia University, where he studied literature and French poetry—only to drop out, and reinvent himself once more as a daring indie character actor, with gripping turns as a child sexual abuse victim-turned-gay hustler in Mysterious Skin and a student-detective in the neo-noir Brick.

The charming 33-year-old is at home in virtually any genre, be it a rom com, like (500) Days of Summer, sci-fi, like Looper, or superhero blockbuster (The Dark Knight Rises). And just last year, he wrote, directed, and starred in the critically acclaimed flick Don Jon, about a porn addict trying to turn over a new leaf. In the upcoming film Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, he plays Johnny—a cocky gambler who finds himself in dire straits when he crosses the evil Senator Roark, played by Powers Boothe. The 3D sequel, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, hits theaters Aug. 22.

I grew up a big fan of film noir, but what drew you to the Sin City universe?

First and foremost: Robert Rodriguez. I’ve loved his movies—Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, you name it. But I remember seeing the first Sin City movie in theaters and thinking, “Wow… this is a Rodriguez movie but it’s also something else entirely.” I loved it. It’s the combination of him and Frank Miller that makes these movies special, and “graphic” is the best word to describe it—“graphic” as in it’s not about realism in the drawings, since the night sky looks jet black and the rain looks snow white. When you apply these graphics to filmmaking, and to acting, it’s a fascinating prospect.

Your character in the film is a cocky gambler. Have you ever gone on a good run?

Well, there was this one game of Monopoly where my brother was certain I wouldn’t land on Free Parking, but I fuckin’ did. [Laughs] Besides the traditional Vegas casino games, as far as taking risks, that’s something I’m certainly attracted to. If you stop taking risks, you get bored. Doing what people think you’re supposed to do is never fun, and sometimes what inspires me isn’t the most “normal” or “safe” move; it’s a risk.

What would you consider the biggest professional gamble you’ve taken?

Last year, I directed a TV show called HitRecord on TV and this has grown out of a project of mine I’ve worked on for years that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s not the thing you’d typically do after being in The Dark Knight Rises, and that’s not what a lot of business people around me would’ve expected me to do, but it was really creatively inspiring to me, and super, super fun. And it paid off enormously. I have something I’m really proud of, and we’re working on the second season now and the contributions we’re getting in Season 2 are in a different league from the ones from Season 1.

Most of your character’s action takes place inside a strip club. Where do you fall when it comes to strip clubs? I’ve got friends who enjoy them and friends who can’t stand them.

I…don’t know if I really have one.

I read that you consider yourself a “male feminist,” and you credit your parents who are educators and really taught you about the history of feminism. But nowadays, you have a lot of young stars coming out against being labeled a feminist.

Coming out against the label? Wow. I guess I’m not aware of that. What that means to me is that you don’t let your gender define who you are—you can be who you want to be, whether you’re a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, whatever. However you want to define yourself, you can do that and should be able to do that, and no category ever really describes a person because every person is unique. That, to me, is what “feminism” means. So yes, I’d absolutely call myself a feminist. And if you look at history, women are an oppressed category of people. There’s a long, long history of women suffering abuse, injustice, and not having the same opportunities as men, and I think that’s been very detrimental to the human race as a whole. I’m a believer that if everyone has a fair chance to be what they want to be and do what they want to do, it’s better for everyone. It benefits society as a whole.

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I’ve heard rumors that you auditioned for Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy and the titular hero in Ant-Man. Is that bullshit?

It’s bullshit. No, I wouldn’t use the word bullshit—but it is incorrect. But I am working on Sandman and we’re in the very early stages of working on the adaptation. It’s such rich material, and it’s a challenge to adapt Sandman into a feature film because it wasn’t written that way; it was written as 75 issues of an episodic comic book, so adapting that into a feature necessitates us getting really creative with it. I think we’re really onto something. It’s David Goyer, myself, the screenwriter Jack Thorne, and Neil Gaiman, and then the good folks at DC and Warner Bros. It’s a great group of people with a lot of respect for the material, and I really think we have the potential to do something great.

One of my first Sundance Film Festivals was back in ’05, and it was really your coming out party with the one-two punch of Brick and Mysterious Skin premiering. But your buddy Rian Johnson is now directing the Star Wars sequel. Are you going to be lobbying for a part? “Dude, just let me hold a lightsaber!”

“Just please, let me! I’ll be an Ewok… anything!” He’s just going to knock that out of the park. I’m so certain.

Back to Sin City. There’s also a scene where your character gets the absolute shit kicked out of you. I don’t think we’ve ever seen you get beat so badly in a movie before. What’s the worst injury you’ve ever sustained?

I’ve been pretty lucky in that I haven’t been injured too bad. I got 31 stitches once when I was working on the movie Premium Rush where I was playing a bike messenger, and the aftermath of that accident is actually in the movie. I was bleeding all over the place. It was part my fault because I was going too fast on the bicycle, but we were also shooting in New York City where the United Nations is, and there are all these diplomats in town who don’t have to obey the traffic laws. So we had all the cones set up to block off a few city blocks and get our shot, and some diplomat just busted through our lock-up and double-parked right where we were headed, so I ended up going through the rear windshield of a taxi cab. Thankfully I got my hands up in time so I broke the windshield with my elbows instead of my face.

Can’t hurt the moneymaker.

Yeah. “Not the face!”

I remember the first time I saw 10 Things I Hate About You. The local theater in my town would have these “sneak preview” screenings on Saturday nights where you got to see a film six days before it came out and then as a bonus, you’d screen a free one after. So we sneaked The Matrix and the movie they gave us after was 10 Things I Hate About You. Do you have any favorite memories from the making of that flick? It’s gone down as a bit of a teen classic.

I loved making that movie. That was one of those movies where the cast really made friends and were all hanging out with each other every day. Oftentimes when that chemistry is onscreen it’s because it’s really happening.

I loved Man on Wire and you’re going to star in The Walk as Philippe Petit. How good have you gotten at the high-wire act?

Yeah, I can walk on a wire with the balancing pole and Philippe taught me. I spent eight days with him before we started shooting, and before that I had absolutely no balancing skills, but by the end of it I could walk across. And during filming I trained on the weekends. I’m not an expert high-wire walker, but I can do it, so in the movie it’ll be a mixture of me doing it sometimes and a guy Jade Kindar-Martin, and Jade actually trained with the son of Phillipe’s trainer. Ben Kingsley plays Philippe’s trainer, “Papa Rudy,” in the film.

Does the number of stars that came out of Angels in the Outfield amaze you? You’ve got yourself, Matthew McConaughey, Adrien Brody, Neal McDonough…

…That’s right! It’s crazy. And Christopher Lloyd, who’s in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. It was our Angels in the Outfield reunion. He’s so good in the film because you’re used to seeing him being so lovable, but here he’s playing this dark, fucked up doctor.

My little brother and me have a weird fascination with Havoc…because it’s hilarious. But you seem to have made a bunch of lasting friendships on that, with Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway, etc. So in retrospect, has it been one of the most rewarding filmmaking experiences you’ve had?

It was really great. That was the movie where I met Chan and Annie, and they’re both really good friends of mine.

I have to ask: Was the “Ain’t no 16th Street Punk disrespectin’ my Goddess!” line improvised?

[Laughs] Honestly, I don’t remember. We were making up a lot of our lines in that movie, though.

I heard a rumor that you and Channing Tatum were trying to make a film version of Guys and Dolls together. Is that going to happen?

I don’t know! You never know with these things. That was something that we’d been talking about for a while. Chan and I really want to do a musical together, and for a second there we were talking about Guys and Dolls, but we talked about a lot of different ideas of how to do a musical together.

Channing is directing Magic Mike 2, and you did do that Magic Mike striptease routine on SNL. So… cameo?

[Laughs] We’ll see! He hasn’t asked me yet, but anything is possible.