Like most Americans, the acclaimed actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt remembers exactly where he was during the 9/11 attacks. It came during what he says was “a transformational time” in more ways than one. Discouraged by the roles he was being offered and eager to embark on a new challenge, he’d recently made the tough decision to quit acting and enroll in Columbia University. There, he immersed himself in the worlds of literature and French, and divorced himself from showbiz.
“I wanted to not know,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I had been working as an actor since I was 6 years old, and I loved it, but I wanted the experience of uncertainty and exploration.”
On September 11, 2001, he was leaving class when he ran into a shaken friend who said, “Oh man, you don’t know what happened.” Gordon-Levitt then scrambled to contact his parents, and managed to fire off an email to them right before the Internet went down.
“I was living in New York City on 9/11 and I remember that day vividly,” he says. “Whenever I see images of the Twin Towers my mind immediately goes to that tragedy, and I think that’s really the case for anybody, whether you were living in New York or not. But with any tragic loss, it’s worth remembering the good things and the beautiful stories and memories about what was lost. When you grieve over a lost loved one, you don’t only want to focus on their death, you want to celebrate their life.” And that is exactly what Gordon-Levitt and filmmaker Robert Zemeckis have done with The Walk, a monument to the Twin Towers that tells the story of Philippe Petit, a French high-wire artist who, on September 7, 1974, broke into the World Trade Center and walked a wire between the two towers. His story was first captured onscreen in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, and is further immortalized here, courtesy of an IMAX 3D experience whose climactic 17-minute wire-walking sequence will floor you.
It’s fitting that the 34-year-old actor is the one embodying Petit—after all, Gordon-Levitt was living in New York City and studying French when the towers fell, and emerged from his academic experience with a renewed vigor and passion for acting.
“I had the good fortune of making money on a television show, Third Rock From the Sun, and I wanted to do something different from what I’d been doing for so long,” he says. “I had the opportunity to wait because I saved money. There was a while where I was trying to get work in the movies that were inspiring me at the time, which were smaller and less mainstream roles, and no one would give me any jobs. I can understand why they wouldn’t, because I was this guy from a TV comedy, but I give a lot of credit to the ones that did—Jordan Melamed who put me in Manic and Gregg Araki for Mysterious Skin and Rian Johnson for Brick.”
In 2005, one year after dropping out of Columbia, Gordon-Levitt and his late brother, Dan, started HitRecord—first as a way to receive feedback on their own video projects, and then expanding it into an interactive online community where artists collaborate online with one another, remixing and teaming up on a wide variety of projects, from short films to animations to books. It’s since been adapted into a TV series for Pivot.
“The Walk is about a guy who hung a high-wire between the Twin Towers, but more broadly than that, it’s about this guy who had an image in his head that seemed crazy, an image that he wanted to make real but everyone around him told him that it was impossible, but he didn’t listen. And he found other people to help him realize that dream, so we thought of how we could make something like that happen in our community, and that led to this collaboration called The Impossible Dream.”
The Impossible Dream began last August and involved users submitting videos of themselves discussing an “impossible dream” of theirs that they wished to realize, with the rest of the HitRecord community rallying around them, offering support and creating art to inspire that dream. For example, in one video a woman with Asperger’s opens up about how she wants nothing more than to visit New Zealand. So members of the HitRecord community responded in kind by creating a song that would inspire her to do it, as well as an animated sequence of what her dream trip might be like.
Just as The Walk is a monument to the Twin Towers, HitRecord is a monument to Gordon-Levitt’s late brother Dan, a fire-spinner who passed away in 2010 at the age of 36.
“It’s a wonderful legacy for my brother to have,” he says. “The Impossible Dream is the most Dan-ish collaboration we’ve done in years, because that’s what he was all about—encouraging people to do something they didn’t think was possible before. My brother went by ‘Burning Dan’ and he was a great fire-spinner who performed all over the place. But he wasn’t always that way. When he was younger, he was quite shy and introverted. We were in Paris and saw these two young women spinning fire in the street, and he told me later he loved what they were doing but thought, ‘I’m not the kind of person who does this sort of thing.’ Then he thought, ‘Well, why the fuck not?’ He went through a process of proactively changing himself into a person who would do that.”
“He inspired a lot of people to come out of their shells, much in the same way that he himself did, and to me, that’s always been a big part of what HitRecord is,” continues Gordon-Levitt. “I know The Impossible Dream is something that my brother would absolutely love. It’s very, very him.”
The spirit of HitRecord—collaboration among strangers—stands in stark contrast to the zeitgeist, one of selfie sticks and selfies, wherein people have become more solitary in their endeavors.
“How technology impacts our behavior is something I love thinking about,” says Gordon-Levitt. “Right now, because it’s so new, with the Internet we’re still in the culture of the old way of doing things. We’re still stuck in the star system that was created in the 20th century to support movies, so we’re calling people ‘celebrities,’ everyone wants to be a ‘celebrity,’ and nowadays people are using the Internet to take selfies, promote themselves, and get lots of Instagram followers. That’s us using new technology to imitate or automate the old way of doing things. But I think there are ways for us to use technology for novel things, and I think community is at the heart of that. Technology can be used for things that aren’t focused so much on selfishness.”
“But,” Gordon-Levitt adds, “the Internet could also become something that’s used by those with the most power to keep their power.”
Which brings us to his upcoming film Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone, Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who exposed a series of secretive global surveillance programs, through which governments were working in concert with the big telecommunications companies to spy on its citizens.“I did meet Snowden,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I went to Moscow and I sat down with him for four hours. I was going to play him as an actor, so I wanted to understand him as a person and look for not only his strengths, but his weaknesses. I found someone who really, sincerely believed in what he did, and was acting in what he believed was in the best interests of his country and the world at large.”
As to where he falls on Snowden, the actor is a bit cagier. “It’s debatable whether or not mass surveillance is a good thing and whether it’s safe,” he says. “I’m not really an authority on that, but the great thing is it’s something that we’re talking about. Before Snowden it wasn’t, because the government was hiding the fact that they were even doing it and lying to cover up what they were doing. I’m grateful to him for starting the conversation.”
In addition to Snowden, which won’t hit theaters until 2016, Gordon-Levitt’s next film is The Night Before, coming out in November. He plays one in a trio of friends, along with Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie, who hit the streets of New York City for one last Christmas Eve hurrah. A hilarious clip of the trio performing Kanye West’s “Runaway” on a floor piano—an homage to Big—was recently released online, sparking rumors that West may make a cameo in the film. Not so, according to JGL.
“No, that’s a rumor! We didn’t get to work with Kanye,” he says. “But we did get to play ‘Runaway,’ that definitely happened. I haven’t really listened to a lot of Kanye’s latest stuff, but I remember The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation. Those were really great albums.”
Intriguing movie projects aside, Gordon-Levitt’s experienced some major developments in his personal life as well. Last December, he married Tasha McCauley, the co-founder of the robotics company Fellow Robots. And in August, the couple welcomed their first child, a baby boy.
“It’s not a lot of sleep!” says a proud Gordon-Levitt. “We met through mutual friends that we both knew. The truth is, there’s a certain amount of insanity that comes with working in show business and for me, a big part of keeping my sanity is having a personal life that’s really separate from show business. With my wife and my son, I like to have a side of my life that’s excluded from public performance.”