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 Arakis adaptation of Scott Heims 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 hasnt 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 youre perceived and whats going to happen to you as you get older. The worries are valid, but if you get wrapped up in that, youre lost. So many people Ive talked to about this movie frame it as a career move. As if I wanted to change peoples perceptions of me, and so I chose a role where I could blah blah blah. Im just very lucky to have found Gregg, and Ill 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 Id had from acting. Most of the scripts you get arent any good at all. Here, you could really tell the writer put in a lot of thought and care. I hadnt seen any of Greggs 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. Its not like hes totally departed from all things Gregg. Its a Gregg movie. But its a big turn of the page for him. Partly because its the first time hes adapted someone elses book, and partly because hes grown. Obviously a Gregg Araki fan would love it. But for people who dont 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 Id worked within them. Id 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. Its 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, its funny, but I really didnt take this part apart. I have done that with other roles. For Mysterious Skin I didnt, largely at Greggs behest. He was like, Dont worry about it too much. I dont 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 didnt 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. Id lived in a small world, and I was a selfish 15-year-old. I wasnt 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, its 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 youre really good at. In my case, thats acting. I imagine this film has cemented that feeling. Im 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 drivers 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. Thats the really big deal to me. Ive 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. Ones telling an elaborate science-fiction story about aliens, the other is telling an elaborate story about a love affair. Its tragic that someone would mistake that kind of abuse for love. Everyone experiences events, especially tragic events, differently and interprets it differently. Its that subjectivity, that diversity of point of view, thats 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 youre going to Brighton Beach, and realize youve 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 theyre true to the story and true to the world. Some people call the movie dark. But you cant 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 its not a movie thats 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 its also about how two different subjectivities relate to experience.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.