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Joseph Gordon-Levitt upends conventions with risky roles, other ventures

Yes, that was Joseph Gordon-Levitt you may have spotted dining at a Tampa restaurant this month. Nothing movie-related; just visiting an unnamed "old, dear friend" who teaches at the University of South Florida. Gordon-Levitt, 30, could offer interesting table conversation, judging from a telephone interview to promote his latest film, 50/50. Pull up a chair for his thoughts on why tragedy can be funny, his pet project and why he seems to upend movie conventions with each new project. Steve Persall, Times film critic

50/50 is a risky idea, a comedy about cancer. Why can audiences feel comfortable laughing?

Even in the midst of really serious, really horrible situations, funny things do happen. It's okay to acknowledge those things, even healthy. We as a culture are sort of trepidatious; we walk around on eggshells a lot, not knowing if it's okay, if it's proper to smile. We think in the midst of something so serious that we should just be somber. I think it is okay to loosen up sometimes, even beneficial. They say laughter is the best medicine. That makes a lot of sense.

Was there a feeling of responsibility to (screenwriter) Will Reiser to get his own cancer experience right?

I never thought of it as a responsibility as much as a collaboration. His experience was enormously helpful, his feedback. I did feel a measure of responsibility to him to do it well, just like I felt responsibility to, say, U.S. soldiers when I played one in Stop/Loss, or people who suffered traumatic brain injuries when I did The Lookout.

Having the screenwriter be someone who went through something so similar to the character was really helpful and liberating. It freed me up to try things, take risks and feel assured that (Reiser) wouldn't let me go astray.

You've taken roles that reinvent certain types of movies: romantic comedies with (500) Days of Summer, film noir (Brick, The Lookout), comic book flicks with The Dark Knight Rises, and now disease-of-the-week movies. Do you see yourself as some agent of change?

(Laughs) I hadn't thought of that. That's very flattering, thank you. Any great movie is going to have a certain measure of honoring its predecessors and a certain measure of expressing its own uniqueness. There's something about finding that balance between tradition and rebellion, or repetition and deviation.

What is all about?

We call it an open collaborating production company. Basically I wanted to start a production company but didn't want to work within Hollywood. That can be kind of, you know, how Hollywood can be. There are so many great artists working all over the world, and I wanted to collaborate with them.

We just put out our first anthology of our work called RECollection, with a DVD of our short films, a CD of our music, and a 64-page book of our art and writing. We're a community of a little over 50,000 artists, and it's growing every day. This is a mixture of work from 471 of those people. I'm so proud of it.

I've been enjoying your musical performances on YouTube. You've got chops. Any plans to reinvent the movie musical someday?

I'd love to be in a musical. One day we'll find the right one. We're working on it. Zooey (Deschanel) and I have talked about it. I think it's quite doable, and I think it's in the cards.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt upends conventions with risky roles, other ventures 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 4:30am]
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