Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been gracing our TV and movie screens since the early 90s, with roles in A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield, eventually gaining attention as a teen for his role on 3rd Rock from the Sun. He rounded out the 90s with a role in the iconic teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, before taking a break from acting to attend Columbia University.
After leaving college, Joseph starred in a string of well-received movies, from the indie noir Brick to the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. In the last decade, he has appeared in a number of memorable films including Inception, 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Lincoln, Snowden, and Don Jon, which he also wrote and directed. Joseph's latest film, Project Power, in which he co-stars opposite Jamie Foxx, premieres on Netflix this month.
Recorded remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton talk to Joseph Gordon-Levitt about starring in a peanut butter commercial as a child, taking a break from acting to attend Columbia University, and starting his company HitRecord in 2005.
Then he takes on an Ask Me Another challenge based on an iconic scene in (500) Days of Summer, where songs famously associated with movies are rewritten to be about the movie scene in which they appear.
On Playing An Old Man Alien Trapped In A Teenage Body On 3rd Rock From The Sun
"It was appropriate for me to play that role in that way. Because part of me was precocious. Part of me was completely immature and a really late bloomer and just wondering what it would be like to kiss a girl. Just normal teenager things."
On Deciding To Pause Acting To Go To College
"I think I just wanted to do something more normal, and all my friends were sort of heading off into the world, and being like, 'What am I gonna do?' And I think I envied that wide open sense of possibility. And so I just wanted to go to college and see like, well, who knows what I'll be, I don't know. I might not keep acting, I might want to do something else. But it really didn't take very long before I started missing it a lot."
On Starting HitRecord in 2005
"It was a little bit before it was easy to post stuff online. And HitRecord just became this little mantra of mine. It was like, the red record button became a symbol. Like, I'm going to do it, I'm going to push that button. I'm going to start making stuff. But this community gradually started to form."
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Our next guest starred on the sitcom "Third Rock From The Sun" and in movies like "500 Days Of Summer" and "Inception." He founded the online creative platform HitRecord, and he's in the new Netflix movie "Project Power" - Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Hello. How's it going?
EISENBERG: So I recently learned that your parents met working at a listener-supported radio station.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yes, KPFK in Los Angeles. Yeah - even further to the left than NPR...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...And proud of it.
EISENBERG: Was radio a big part of your childhood growing up?
GORDON-LEVITT: I mean, there was that story of knowing that they met at that public radio station. By the time...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...I was born, they no longer worked there. KROQ was really important to me when I was...
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
GORDON-LEVITT: ...In high school. That's probably the biggest interaction I had with radio.
EISENBERG: Your acting career started when you were super-young. I mean, at the age of 5, you are getting jobs doing commercial work, local and national TV commercials for Sunny Jim peanut butter and Cocoa Puffs and...
GORDON-LEVITT: I like how you say Sunny Jim peanut butter as if anybody's heard of that.
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: (Laughter).
EISENBERG: I didn't hear about it, but I was like, that's what it's called.
GORDON-LEVITT: No one knows what that is. My line was, Sunny Jim - it's good. That was my line.
EISENBERG: That's all you need.
GORDON-LEVITT: It was - the commercial was set in the '20s, and we were dressed up like the Little Rascals, you know, with, like, too much pomade in our hair. And it was raining, so we're sitting under fake rain and just marveling at the fact that they made it rain in this soundstage. And then the bit went that I opened the jar of peanut butter, and the rain stopped, and the sun came out. That was the commercial.
GORDON-LEVITT: Sunny Jim, see?
EISENBERG: Sunny Jim.
EISENBERG: So I just find that there's this presumption with showbiz kids that you grow up fast - you mature quickly because you're in a business at a young age. And, you know, just the - that matched with the fact that the character you played on "3rd Rock From The Sun," Tommy, was a old-man alien trapped in a teenage body. You played this character...
GORDON-LEVITT: Hey, you've really watched the show. You know your...
EISENBERG: ...When you were a teenager.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, it was my whole adolescence - 13 to 19.
EISENBERG: Oh, my goodness.
GORDON-LEVITT: All my teenage years on that show.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Did you - I mean, did you feel like you related more to the character trapped within the alien body (laughter) rather than the teenager?
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. I mean, both in that it was appropriate for me to play that role in that way because part of me was precocious. Part of me was completely immature and a really late bloomer and, you know, just wondering what it would be like to kiss a girl and, you know, just normal teenager things, I guess.
EISENBERG: No wonder...
EISENBERG: ...You got the role. It's perfect. (Laughter).
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I don't think it's a coincidence. It's probably true.
EISENBERG: And then things really took off. I mean, you had huge breakout roles. You became a household name - I mean, "Angels in the Outfield," "10 Things I Hate About You" but "3rd Rock From The Sun." In 2000, you decided to attend Columbia University. You were studying history, literature, French poetry.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, that kind of thing. Yeah. I just wanted to - I think I just wanted to do something more normal. And all my friends were sort of heading off into the world and being like, what am I going to do? And I think I envied that wide-open sense of possibility. And so I just wanted to go to college and say, like, well, who knows what I'll be? I don't know. I might not keep acting. I might...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...Want to do something else. But it really didn't take very long before I started missing it a lot. And - you know, and I started dressing up and doing stupid things just to get out that kind of need for - I don't know - exhibitionism or self-expression or whatever it is that actors have inside them that...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...Makes us want to do that.
EISENBERG: Were you, like, deciding to put on a persona or character costume in everyday life?
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, kind of.
GORDON-LEVITT: More like night life.
GORDON-LEVITT: Like, I didn't go to class that way but - you know, but at night, if there was a wig around, that might, you know, accompany an accent or - I don't know...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...You know, just being goofy.
COULTON: (Laughter) Yeah, just a wig and an accent when you're going out at night. That's what everybody does. It's totally normal.
EISENBERG: Right. So you knew - you were, like, oh, maybe not French literature. Maybe I'm enjoying this.
GORDON-LEVITT: I guess so. Maybe I should look into this. Yeah, and it was pretty soon. And then the nail in the coffin was when I got Final Cut Pro, which is video editing software.
GORDON-LEVITT: And this is for my 21st birthday, so this is, like, 2002. I was just staying up all night editing. And I'd have papers that I was supposed to write for college. And I'd be saying, you know, I could write this paper, or I could keep editing this video. And soon thereafter, I dropped out of college.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) What were you shooting at the time?
GORDON-LEVITT: Just nothing.
GORDON-LEVITT: Just, like, I was just - I was just carrying around - it's funny, actually, now 'cause it's become the norm. One day, I really want to, like, go and get all that footage and, like, put it into Instagram stories because...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...It's exactly that. It's exactly that except it's, like, this is an Instagram story from the summer of 2000, which - probably, there's not that many of those.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And you had to spend about, like, four hours putting it together, right?
GORDON-LEVITT: Well, yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) It was just, like, I don't know. This is fine.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah (laughter).
EISENBERG: But, you know, you were saying that with Final Cut Pro and that you were kind of, you know, making what we now think of Instagram stories a long time ago - also, I mean, I feel like this is ahead of its time. You launched HITRECORD in 2005, which is an online space. And you invite people to be creative and work together and collaborate on projects.
GORDON-LEVITT: That's exactly right. I mean, it was a little bit before it was so easy to post stuff online. And HITRECORD just became this little mantra of mine. It was like the red record button became a symbol - like, I'm going to do it. I'm going to push that button. I'm going to start making stuff. But this community gradually started to form.
EISENBERG: There was one that I found very cathartic - so did the people making it, of course - of people with their kids and just in general all kind of howling and screaming.
EISENBERG: Sort of a primal scream.
GORDON-LEVITT: This dad put up a video of - he's there with his, like, two toddler boys - which I relate to because I have two young boys - and they're screaming.
GORDON-LEVITT: And he has his guitar, but he's not trying to cheer them up with the guitar. He's just, like - he's leaning into how they're feeling and just, like, playing metal on his acoustic guitar. And his boys are just screaming along with it. And so that video - it just felt like how we were all feeling. And so, like, OK, let's all do this together. I played drums. You know, there was some guitar, some bass, some, like - lots of screaming. And it turned into this kind of weird family scream therapy metal song thing.
GORDON-LEVITT: And it helps to get the demons out.
EISENBERG: All right. How would you feel about an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
GORDON-LEVITT: I very much am looking forward to this.
EISENBERG: Excellent. So our next game is in honor of your famous needle drop in "(500) Days of Summer," your dance number set to Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams," complete with a marching band and a cartoon bird.
EISENBERG: It would've been - this is a nice thing to watch right now, by the way.
EISENBERG: If anyone wants, like, just a lovely sense of relief and what it's like to do things with large groups of crowds and feel joy.
GORDON-LEVITT: That's true, you know?
COULTON: Yeah, remember those days?
GORDON-LEVITT: I have to go back to that. I haven't watched it during that. It's a good point.
COULTON: So we have rewritten popular songs to make them about the movie scenes that they are featured in. So just name the movie that I'm singing about, or you can name the song, or you could name the artist, or just say something generally charming and we'll give you a point for that.
COULTON: Very low stakes around here.
GORDON-LEVITT: OK. OK.
EISENBERG: I like generally charming. (Laughter) That was great.
COULTON: Just generally charming.
GORDON-LEVITT: Don't be too specific.
COULTON: No. Don't oversell it.
EISENBERG: Yeah, too charming, we take a point away.
COULTON: That's right. OK, here we go.
(Singing) They say it's February 2, but that was yesterday - tomorrow, too. Those morning DJs must be wrong. They keep playing the same damn '60s song here. I got stuck here.
COULTON: (Singing) I'm still stuck here.
GORDON-LEVITT: All right. That's "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher from "Groundhog's Day" (ph).
COULTON: Yeah. That's right.
COULTON: That is correct.
COULTON: All right, here's another one.
(Singing) I need a brand new escort while my husband and I are apart.
GORDON-LEVITT: I know what this is.
COULTON: (Singing) So John Travolta's with me at this '50s diner dressed up smart. Now there's a twisting contest. I talk him into taking part. We won the first place trophy, and later he'll restart my heart.
GORDON-LEVITT: (Laughter) That's "Pulp Fiction."
GORDON-LEVITT: I don't know what - let's see. What's the name of that song? I don't know that I know the name of it or the artist, to be honest. I know that's the scene from "Pulp Fiction" where John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance together.
COULTON: You are correct.
COULTON: I would not have known the name of the song either. It is "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry.
GORDON-LEVITT: It's Chuck Berry?
COULTON: It's Chuck Berry.
GORDON-LEVITT: By the way, thanks for keeping these movies to the '90s because I don't pay any attention to pop culture these days now that I'm a dad.
GORDON-LEVITT: I'd fail miserably if you played a popular...
GORDON-LEVITT: ...Movie from these days.
EISENBERG: What's going on in your house? Are you doing Thomas the Train? Is it...
GORDON-LEVITT: Haven't done Thomas the Train.
EISENBERG: ...Blaze, "Paw Patrol?"
GORDON-LEVITT: I'm going to sound like a snob, but do you know "Totoro" (ph), the Miyazaki "Totoro?"
COULTON: Oh, yeah. Sure.
EISENBERG: All right, enough. Enough. Yeah.
GORDON-LEVITT: I'm sorry. I know. I warned you I'm going sound like a snob.
EISENBERG: That's awesome.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, we - I'm snobby about what I let my kids watch.
GORDON-LEVITT: It's true. They watch "Totoro" over and over. They also watch - we, like, find cool things on YouTube. We'll sit - we have, like, our time each day where they can watch videos.
GORDON-LEVITT: And, you know, there's a funny YouTube channel that's just time-lapse photography of things going rotten. You get to see mold...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That sounds awesome.
GORDON-LEVITT: ...And maggots and things like that. They're - they like that.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, that's great. Oh, my goodness.
EISENBERG: I feel like that will - that just makes you feel better about everything.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: It's natural (laughter).
COULTON: All right, here's your next one.
(Singing) Staten Island wakes. The credits roll as Melanie and Joan ferry with giant hair.
GORDON-LEVITT: Nope, I don't know it at all.
EISENBERG: Joan Cusack - does that help? - on a ferry.
COULTON: Joan Cusack and Melanie Griffith - this is a movie from the '80s.
GORDON-LEVITT: I don't know it.
EISENBERG: Going to work.
COULTON: Going to work (laughter).
EISENBERG: That's a really good help. That's a really good hint.
GORDON-LEVITT: There was a movie called "Working Girl." Is that what you're talking about?
EISENBERG: That's it. Yeah. Yeah.
COULTON: That is the one (laughter).
EISENBERG: That's it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
GORDON-LEVITT: That's only just because of the hint you gave me. I didn't know the song at all.
EISENBERG: I'm just going to say, I loved that movie at the time - does not hold up. But Joan Cusack and Melanie Griffith are amazing.
COULTON: Yeah, sure.
GORDON-LEVITT: True. True.
COULTON: I should say the song was "Let The River Run" by Carly Simon.
GORDON-LEVITT: OK, yeah.
COULTON: All right. This is your last one.
(Singing) We're at the Catskills resort, and this music doesn't fit the time. But we do. The big lift - Jerry Orbach still looks mad.
GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. That's "Time Of My Life" (ph). I don't know the name of the artist. But that's from "Dirty Dancing."
COULTON: "Dirty Dancing," that's correct.
GORDON-LEVITT: I always get "Dirty Dancing" and "Footloose" mixed up, so I almost did that wrong.
EISENBERG: I mean, there's...
GORDON-LEVITT: "Dirty Dancing."
EISENBERG: They're both about dirty - they're both about dancing. I can totally see.
COULTON: Coming of age and dancing.
EISENBERG: Come on now. Yeah.
COULTON: That's - yeah. Another...
GORDON-LEVITT: Kevin Bacon, Patrick Swayze.
COULTON: That's right.
COULTON: Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
COULTON: That was "The Time Of My Life" (ph) by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: You did amazing. You did amazing all round. You did amazing all round. Thank you so much.
GORDON-LEVITT: I'm delighted to have been here, you guys. Thanks for having me.
COULTON: Thanks a lot.
EISENBERG: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's latest movie "Project Power" is streaming now on Netflix. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by Andrew Kane, Mike Nothnagel, Cara Weinberger, and senior writer Karen Lurie, with additional material by Ashley Brooke Roberts. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Kiarra Powell, Nancy Saechao, James Barber (ph), and Rommel Wood. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thank you to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.