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Trusting Gregg

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.