Trusting Gregg 

From Third Rock to Araki with Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Thursday, May 26 2005
Photo by Lacey TerrellJoseph Gordon-Levitt gained fame in the hit comedy series Third Rock From the Sun, as a 1,000-year-old interstellar life form that had assumed the shape of a wisecracking teenager. Now in Mysterious Skin, New Queer Cinema “bad boy” Gregg Araki’s adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel about the traumatic aftereffects of pedophile seduction, Gordon-Levitt has a decidedly different role, that of a a cynical, stone-cold gay street hustler. There hasn’t been a part like it since River Phoenix starred in My Own Private Idaho. And just as it did for Phoenix, Mysterious Skin has given this longtime child performer (whose screen career began with A River Runs Through It when he was all of 10) the “transitional role” of a lifetime. L.A. WEEKLY: Did you sense when you read the script what this film could do for you? JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: People always talk about how you’re perceived and what’s going to happen to you as you get older. The worries are valid, but if you get wrapped up in that, you’re lost. So many people I’ve talked to about this movie frame it as a “career move.” As if I wanted to change people’s perceptions of me, and so I chose a role where I could blah blah blah. I’m just very lucky to have found Gregg, and I’ll always be grateful to him for seeing this part in me. Third Rock stopped when I was 19. I did Mysterious Skin when I was 22. In between was my freshman year in college — those nine months of the first two semesters at Columbia were by far the longest break I’d had from acting. Most of the scripts you get aren’t any good at all. Here, you could really tell the writer put in a lot of thought and care. I hadn’t seen any of Gregg’s movies before I read the script. Then I watched Doom Generation and Nowhere, and it was, “Wow, this guy really knows how to manipulate sound and vision.” Even for Gregg, though, Mysterious Skin is a really special movie. It’s not like he’s totally departed from all things Gregg. It’s a Gregg movie. But it’s a big turn of the page for him. Partly because it’s the first time he’s adapted someone else’s book, and partly because he’s grown. Obviously a Gregg Araki fan would love it. But for people who don’t know him, or who think they know him, this is something new. I would imagine after Ten Things I Hate About You you were getting a lot of teen comedies. There are certain formulas that big movie studios follow, and I’d worked within them. I’d been kind of a “trustee” to a formula. Gregg was the first one with the wherewithal and the confidence in me to see past my résumé. Well, you were on Third Rock for six years. It was beautiful, and I would never say anything against it. I loved Third Rock. Everyone in the cast were theater actors, and we had such a great relationship with our audience. That was a really lively show. Here were all these really big actors, not just physically but stylistically. And there you are, this kid, making your mark in their midst. It’s funny you should use the word big. That was one of our mantras: “Bigger, faster, funnier.” It was all of my teenage years — we did the pilot when I was 13 and finished when I was 19. It was the best training that anyone could possibly hope for. It really taught me what I know about acting. You know, it’s funny, but I really didn’t take this part apart. I have done that with other roles. For Mysterious Skin I didn’t, largely at Gregg’s behest. He was like, “Don’t worry about it too much. I don’t want you to think about it too much.” So this performance is really about not trying too hard and trusting Gregg. From what you were saying earlier, it sounds as if you might have been thinking of getting out of the business. When I was a teenager, I was so scared of being called a celebrity. I hated that whole hegemonic idea that they had cooked up for us — that certain people are more important than other people. I didn’t want to be part of that. When I was young, I would have preferred to have gone to work every day, made those shows and had no one ever see them. I’d lived in a small world, and I was a selfish 15-year-old. I wasn’t doing it for anybody else. I had grown pretty cynical. All my friends had graduated high school and had that thing of “Well, you can do anything in the world, it’s up to you,” and I envied that, I wanted that. Moving to New York, my whole world got a lot bigger. I felt a different sense of what the world was, and what I was in the world. And I figured out that the way to relate to the world is through what you’re really good at. In my case, that’s acting. I imagine this film has cemented that feeling. I’m so excited to be coming home for this. I was born and raised in the Valley, so I put the Sunset 5 on a pedestal. ’Cause when I turned 16 and got my driver’s license I was so excited to drive over Laurel Canyon and go to the Sunset 5, because that was during the big boom of indie movies like Trees Lounge and Sling Blade. That’s the really big deal to me. I’ve never had a movie that played the Sunset 5! (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) The trick to Mysterious Skin is that your character is more damaged than the one played by Brady Corbet, who has repressed everything. Exactly. More delusional even. They were both molested by their baseball coach. One’s telling an elaborate science-fiction story about aliens, the other is telling an elaborate story about a love affair. It’s tragic that someone would mistake that kind of abuse for love. Everyone experiences events, especially tragic events, differently — and interprets it differently. It’s that subjectivity, that diversity of point of view, that’s actually the saving grace of humanity. In this movie, the fact that the two characters are different allows them to save each other. The look on your face in that scene when you find out you’re going to Brighton Beach, and realize you’ve been picked up by the wrong person, is really frightening. Well, that was important to me. There are a lot of different parts of the movie that are upsetting, but they’re true to the story and true to the world. Some people call the movie “dark.” But you can’t show light without darkness. It could have been a hell of a lot darker even darker than the rape scene. It really could have been. But it’s not a movie that’s trying to upset you for the sake of upsetting you. So many more people have loved the movie that you would expect. At the Toronto Film Festival there was one screening at a theater, and there were a lot of older people there — not a festival-type audience. All these middle-aged women coming up to Gregg who were so moved and so into the movie. Mysterious Skin is a story about the way two different people deal with child abuse, but it’s also about how two different subjectivities relate to experience.

Related Stories

  • 5 Splendid Things to Do This Week for $15 or Less

    Yeah, yeah, so you've got to celebrate Mother's Day this weekend. But that's just brunch - which leaves you with at least six days free for all sorts of rambunctious, fascinating fun. This week's calendar has a wealth of offerings that won't break the bank. Mosey on south to Long...
  • Farmers Market Report: Studio City Market

    Farmers Market: Studio City Farmers Market  When: Sundays, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Where: Ventura Place between Laurel Canyon Blvd. and Radford Ave. What: A big, family-friendly market with more than 70 vendors and a children's area.  Who Sells Here: Among the sellers are numerous produce vendors, including Fresno-based Arnett Farms; Nary Dairy...
  • L.A. Life Hacks 39

    Los Angeles is a pretty baffling place, a vast and wild mess that can frustrate even the most native of Angelenos. It helps to know a few tricks around here, tricks to get around, to get cool or simply get by. Here, then, are 10 essential life hacks to make...
  • Major L.A. Wildfires - and What Areas Could Burn Next 3

    Fire officials  are spooked today as the drought-dried mountains above Glendora blaze with wildfire and "get out or be arrested" orders remain in effect. Their fear is not only about homes threatened by the Glendora Fire that began in the San Gabriel Mountains 25 miles east of Pasadena, but that L.A.'s "fire season,"
  • How River Phoenix Inspired a Generation

    Twenty years ago in the early hours of October 31, River Phoenix, the brooding, talented actor who seemed more interested in creating great art than scoring a box office blockbuster, died at the age of 23. When I heard the news about his death in 1993, I was angry, shocked,...

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Tue 19
  2. Wed 20
  3. Thu 21
  4. Fri 22
  5. Sat 23
  6. Sun 24
  7. Mon 25

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • 20 Neo-Noir Films You Have to See
    The Voice's J. Hoberman was more mixed than most on Sin City when he reviewed it in 2005, but his description of the film as "hyper-noir" helps explain why this week's release of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has us thinking back on the neo-noir genre. Broadly speaking, neo-noir encompasses those films made outside of film noir's classic period -- the 1940s and '50s -- that nevertheless engage with the standard trappings of the genre. As with most generic labels, there isn't some universal yardstick that measures what constitutes a neo-noir film: Where the genre might begin in the '60s with films like Le Samourai and Point Blank for one person, another might argue that the genre didn't find its roots until 1974's Chinatown. Our list falls closer to the latter stance, mainly featuring works from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Though a number of the films mentioned here will no doubt be familiar to readers, it's our hope that we've also highlighted several titles that have been under-represented on lists of this nature. --Danny King

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

Now Trending