PLAYBOY: We’re about to see you play a bike messenger chased by a twisted cop in the big-screen action thriller Premium Rush. Meanwhile, audiences are still arguing about whether The Dark Knight Rises is the best-ever Batman flick, and your profile has kept rising since you did Inception and (500) Days of Summer. Having acted in commercials and TV shows such as 3rd Rock From the Sun since you were six and having made your 1992 movie debut at the age of 11 as Student #1 in Beethoven, do you look back on your childhood as a bit skewed?
GORDON-LEVITT: I wouldn’t say I was a normal kid. I’d say I was a lucky little kid, because unfortunately it’s not normal to have extraordinarily good parents who love and support you. I played baseball, did gymnastics, took piano lessons and started acting as just another one of the things I did. I wasn’t pressured into it. But it was acting I loved. I had a really cool acting teacher who taught us how to become a character, to be realistic and feel those feelings, so I hated being expected to behave like an idiot in TV commercials because they seem to think that’s what sells toys or whatever. I remember on Beethoven we weren’t allowed to pet the dog because it would have distracted him. For a dog lover that was disappointing and weird.
PLAYBOY: Back then, just as now, you never seemed to get caught up in any of the missteps that have turned many promising young actors into tabloid fodder. How?
GORDON-LEVITT: Being on TV when I was a teenager in high school was way harder than anything I’ve experienced since. It prepared me for what it is to work in pop culture. I’ve learned I have basically two different interactions with people. I love when someone approaches me and tells me they’ve seen me in something that made them feel something and that they connected to it. That’s part of why I do it. The other interaction is with people who really don’t care about the movies or anything like that. They just sort of buy into the fame thing, and that feels icky to me.
PLAYBOY: Have you followed the political traditions of your grandfather Michael Gordon, a director who survived the 1950s blacklists; your father, who was news director of a politically progressive radio station; and your mother, who in 1970 ran for Congress on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket?
GORDON-LEVITT: My parents are political in that they’re well read and as up on the news as anybody I know. To me that is political activism, choosing to stay informed and not just watching CNN or some bullshit entertainment show. Every time I sit down and watch television news, I think, This is show business. That’s what I do. I say, go on the internet and find news from all over the world through the BBC, the Pacifica stations, newspapers, people’s blogs and tweets. It’s so funny when people say Fox is bad. Sure Fox is bad, but I don’t think CNN and MSNBC are really any better.
PLAYBOY: You’ve shot a number of short films, including one last year documenting Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park in New York. How closely does the mainstream media’s coverage of that movement relate to what you filmed and experienced?
GORDON-LEVITT: Very little. What I’ve seen on TV focuses on the superficial stuff. It’s a pretty simple notion: People who have lots of money—people in corporations who have tons of money—are malevolently manipulating the system to keep their money. And the rest of the world suffers for it. You could show a trillion examples of how Goldman Sachs, McDonald’s, Walmart and Monsanto are clearly fucking over everybody, but CNN, Fox and MSNBC are owned by Fortune 500 companies, so they never show any of it.
PLAYBOY: Couldn’t a detractor accuse you, a famous, privileged actor, of being one of the elites?
GORDON-LEVITT: I grew up in the 1990s, when it was considered cool to be excessively rich. That’s what rappers rapped about, and later that’s what Paris Hilton had a TV show about and what MTV Cribs was about. The Occupy movement is a pop culture happening that’s saying money is not what’s cool. What’s cool is doing something worthwhile. If your goal is to make money in the movie industry, you make crappy movies, not good ones.
PLAYBOY: How did you make the rough transition from kid TV star to grown-up movie star?
GORDON-LEVITT: As a teenager in the 1990s I loved the spike of indie films coming through Sundance, and films like Pulp Fiction, Big Night, Sling Blade, Trees Lounge and Swingers. Had I said to my agents at the time that I wanted to do that stuff, they would have said, “You’re making a ton of money doing TV, and that’s what you’re going to do.” I went to school, quit acting for a while, and when I came back everyone wanted me to do another TV show and make more money. I didn’t want to. I made a decision that I was going to do only work that inspired me creatively, not what was supposed to be good for my career.
PLAYBOY: Yet the work that inspires can also be commercial. The sweet, upbeat indie romance (500) Days of Summer was a hit and turned you into a heartthrob.
GORDON-LEVITT: The (500) Days of Summer attitude of “He wants you so bad” seems attractive to some women and men, especially younger ones, but I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is. He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies. He thinks she’ll give his life meaning because he doesn’t care about much else going on in his life. A lot of boys and girls think their lives will have meaning if they find a partner who wants nothing else in life but them. That’s not healthy. That’s falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.
PLAYBOY: Are you actually slagging a movie that landed you on people’s radar and made many of them fall in love with you and Zooey Deschanel as a screen couple?
GORDON-LEVITT: No, I really liked that movie. The coming-of-age story is subtly done, and that’s great, because nothing’s worse than an over-the-top, cheesy, hitting-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer, moral-of-the-story sort of thing. But a part of the movie that’s less talked about is that once Zooey’s character dumps the guy, he builds himself up without the crutch of a fantasy relationship, and he meets a new girl.
PLAYBOY: Your character in (500) Days made extravagant gestures in the name of love. What kind of woman could make you do that?
GORDON-LEVITT: Making checklists of things you’re looking for in a person is the numero uno thing you can do to guarantee you’ll be alone forever. You can’t meet someone and think, Do they have everything I want in a person? You just have to pay attention, keep your eyes open, listen to people and be present. I guess what I look for in a girl is someone who’s doing that too. Beyond that there’s not much more I would specify, because you never fucking know, man.
PLAYBOY: You and Deschanel also made the music video “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” and a homemade one of you two singing the 1947 classic “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” How do you react when so many people—judging from comments on the internet—want the two of you to get together romantically?
GORDON-LEVITT: It’s awkward when people say that. Whatever. Zooey and I just think it’s funny. It is funny. We’ve been friends for 10 years. She loves movies, music and art, and she’s incredibly knowledgeable about that stuff. She’s turned me on to so many good movies and so much good music. It’s fun just to have conversations, watch movies with her and stuff like that.