Movies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt On Returning To Acting With ‘7500’ And Not Creating With An End Result In Mind

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord has been around for more than a decade, prompting collaborative creativity while fostering a community. The endeavor has been a successful one by measures creative (books, music, short films) and financial (for both the company and its community), but now, in the midst of a global pandemic with a side of isolation, HitRecord may be at the height of its usefulness, giving people an outlet to not only develop ideas but to connect. And it’s something Gordon-Levitt is leaning into, teaming with YouTube Originals to produce and host Create Together, a six-part mini-series (the 4th episode just dropped Monday) and feel-good embodiment of the HitRecord platform where members of the community work with Gordon-Levitt to tell their stories and create the poetry, art, music, and content that fills the show.

It’s hard to not buy in after listening to Gordon-Levitt talk about the message and the mission at the heart of what feels, at once, like a company and a cause. This despite my own cynicism about… oh, everything? But especially a digital pathway to a kind of fulfillment. To his credit, however, Gordon-Levitt is eyes wide open when it comes to the not always positive power of the internet and how it can misuse the allure of being seen and heard, contorting goals and priorities. HitRecord isn’t trying to be an influencer factory that serves as a gateway to individual notoriety and fat stacks. Instead, it seems more focussed on self-expression and the tangible feeling of accomplishing something for the sake of accomplishing it. Taking the ride, in other words. And, after speaking with Gordon-Levitt about Create Together and his return to acting with the tense 7500 (which is available to stream via Amazon Prime on June 19), it’s pretty clear that that’s his primary creative priority too.

I struggle to create without there being a [sellable] product at the end of it. Obviously, everyone here [on Create Together] is trying to collaborate and create something. Can you talk a little bit about the power of creating and creating as a part of a collaborative effort?

Having the show is, I think, a real incentive to have something that we are all making together, and that’s also a lot of what HitRecord does. It allows people to start a project and find collaborators and finish that project, as opposed to what can sometimes feel like kind of an endless stream of chatter on social media. I would hope that the internet can be a place where people are not just saying “here’s what I’ve made,” but let’s make something together. And that’s what we’ve been doing on HitRecord for years. And so it ended up when this pandemic hit and so many of us were facing this kind of isolation of staying home… not everybody is facing that. A lot of people aren’t able to stay home, but I think with so many people staying home, people wanted to feel a kind of human connection that was a little more substantial than what you can often find online. Online interaction can, not always, but it can often be kind of scatterbrained and disposable. And that is because a lot of it has to do with what you just said. There’s no end goal to a lot of the activity online. And whereas on HitRecord, when people are collaborating and making something together, that’s really intimate and there is a many-layered human connection when you have a common goal… working on something.

You work with directors, other actors. I’m sure you’ve experienced that thing of being star-struck. Yet the interactions here feel pretty effortless and no one seems star-struck working with you. How do you bridge that divide?

That’s an interesting question. I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that this has been going for years. And there’s a culture that preexists. I think when people arrive in an environment, whether they’re online or in real life, you’re impacted by the culture that precedes you. This culture has evolved over all this time. There’s a real kind of history and a really strong sense of community. I don’t behave like, “hey, I’m a star, and blah, blah, blah.” And people don’t treat me that way. We’ve all made so many things together, and sometimes I can be at the center of a project, but oftentimes, I’m a marginal contributor. I just like being a part of this community. It’s been a rewarding and positive thing for me over the years. That’s why I keep doing it. I feel very fortunate to get to work within the conventional entertainment industry, but Hollywood can be… Hollywood can eat its own tail a little bit sometimes. And HitRecord has always been a way for me get outside of that a bit and collaborate with people I wouldn’t be able to within the context of conventional show business.

How has the collaborative process changed on that side of things over the years?

It’s just different. I mean, being on set is very collaborative, but it’s exclusive. And a very, very, very, very slim fraction of people in the world get to work on a Hollywood movie set.

I would imagine also, it’s going back to what I said before about being sort of product-driven. Obviously, when you’re making a movie, commerce holds kind of a higher place.

Yeah. I mean, that’s definitely true. Certainly. And that can be kind of contaminating to any creative process if you’re too overly concerned with end results. But I actually think that… That’s just as prevalent in online culture as it is Hollywood.

That’s true.

The way that a lot of online platforms work is very results-driven. It’s very gamified. I think this is actually something I’m very concerned about with creative culture in our world, especially amongst younger people. Which is to see the creative process through the lens of how many followers am I going to get? How many likes am I going to get? I think that’s kind of poisonous to the inherent warmth creativity has to offer. And I think, yes, you see it in Hollywood, and now you see it all over. It’s easy to miss what’s so, I think, fruitful and sort of joy-giving about art or creativity, which is the process itself, making the thing. When I think back on the very lucky creative life I’ve been able to live so far, the moments that make me smile the most are not about the end result.

Or the weekend box office.

Yeah, it’s not about box office, the premiere. It’s not about the awards. It’s not even necessarily about the finished thing. It’s about when you’re doing it. Those are the moments that I really, really love. This is why I’m so grateful that I get to be an actor or any of the other things that I get to do. It’s being on a set and doing this with other people. And so that’s what we’re always trying to sort of emphasize on HitRecord. And that’s what we emphasize on our show. It’s not a contest. A lot of shows about art and creativity, they’re like, okay, there’s this many contestants, and they’re going to do whatever creative thing they’re doing. And then there’ll be a winner. There are some judges. And look, it’s not to say those shows can’t be entertaining. They are. I’d be entertained watching those shows, for sure. But I think, ultimately, those shows can be discouraging. They’re discouraging for me. And I’m in an incredibly privileged position as far as the ability to express myself. I think a lot of people feel kind of like, “oh, well, those judges would tear me apart, or I wouldn’t win, so it’s not worth me doing.” The truth is this: the reason to sing or to act or to write or to do any of those things, it’s not so that some judge will call you a winner, or that your record will go platinum. So many artists say this over and over and over again. That’s not the reason to do it. That’s not what’s going to ultimately make you happy.

When I have conversations with people, specifically comedians or actors, so many times, you can see the light that shines in people’s eyes when they talk about performing in front of theaters with nobody in the audience and just finding their way and working through the craft of it. So, I think obviously what you guys are doing is a tremendous way to kind of provide that.

Yeah. And again, to do it together with other people. It’s not obvious that a lot of these creative processes, it helps so much to have some other people. And it doesn’t have to be tons of other people. It could be one or two or three other people that you’re making a thing with. That makes all the difference in the world. I’ve found that over and over again, whether it’s the process on HitRecord, or it’s some big TV show I’m working on or whatever. Having other people is really so fundamental. A lot of online creativity, I feel like, it doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on making stuff together with other people.

Amazon

I think this is a perfect segue to talk about 7500. I do want to talk specifically about Omid Memar, who was fantastic in this, but so much of the movie is you kind of working in a solitary, claustrophobic environment. I’m curious about the challenge of doing that.

I really loved the choice of setting the whole story just in a cockpit, and you used the word claustrophobic, and I think that’s right. To me, this is a big connection to the central metaphor of this movie. The world is feeling claustrophobic. And I’m not talking about the pandemic. I just think our world is getting smaller and smaller. We’re all closer and closer to each other. We’re all more and more in touch and more connected to each other. And there are so many differences between people coming from different cultures, different perspectives, etc. How are we going to live with each other being on top of each other? There’s no escaping. We can’t all up and leave. We have to figure out how to live together, even though we’re different from each other. And we have to find those commonalities between each other.

To me, that’s a lot of what this movie is about. There’s this tiny little cockpit, and the people involved in the story are coming from very different perspectives. But as the story unfolds, you see they maybe have more in common than you originally thought. And there are prejudices in place on all sides. And those prejudices get undermined and complicated as the story unfolds. And to me, that’s what’s so fascinating about this movie. I mean, yes, it’s a movie about a plane getting hijacked, but it’s not about an action hero beating a bad guy. It’s the farthest thing from it. There aren’t really such simple heroes and villains. People are human. And that’s not to say that the hijackers aren’t doing something terrible. They are, but the movie also asks why are they doing that? Who are they? And when you start looking at people as human, you start asking how did they get themselves to this place where they’re doing this horrible thing?

Obviously, there are films that portray terrorists… Memar is so powerful and human, and yeah, he’s a kid and you see that. I don’t want to spoil it, but he just really comes through. You two played off each other so well.

I’m so glad you brought up Omid. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think for any fans of great acting out there, this is a young actor who is a legitimate artist. He’s incredibly dedicated, so honest and vivid in his performance. I just loved working with him. And I loved being challenged by that. By that kind of… there’s no cynicism. He was just so committed to making it real.
To go back to what you were saying about analogies, the idea of your character basically seeing a lot of these horrors on a screen and having the power to turn away at certain points — I thought that was really powerful. I’m curious when you’re performing in those moments, are you seeing the action on the screen?

Yeah, the whole production of this movie was geared towards the actors being able to immerse themselves in a realistic experience. And this is a big part of why I wanted to do the movie as well. Patrick Vollrath, the director, his approach is very different than traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Usually, you do a scene from the script. You do those lines from one angle. You change angles, you change the lights, you do the same thing. You do it over and over again. And there are all these technical things you have to hit in addition to trying to be genuine and in your character. His whole approach is about trying to strip away all of those technical things. And so on this film, he would just leave the cameras on for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes at a time. And most of the dialogue is improvised. There was a script, but he encouraged us to just… The script wouldn’t provide words for us to say for all that time. We were supposed to use the script as a springboard and just really try to get into the reality of it. And even if that meant just sitting there for long periods of time, he wasn’t trying to make each scene snappy. You know, you can figure that out in the edit. What he really cared about was making sure that the actors could fully immerse themselves in the characters and the story, and it was very, very challenging. I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is probably the most challenging acting I’ve ever done.

I actually took a couple of years off from acting, because I had kids. And I knew that when I came back, I wanted to do something that was really going to inspire and challenge me as an actor. That was really what I was focused on — learning things. I didn’t want to pay attention to those voices that were saying like, well, okay, you took a few years off, there’s a career to think about, blah, blah, blah. I really just wanted to focus on my own love for the art of it. And so when this opportunity presented itself, and I watched Patrick’s short film, and he told me about how he made it, he talked about this process that’s so geared towards immersion. I was like, this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to do. This is going to be hard, but this is the challenge that I’m looking for.

‘Create Together’ is available to stream via YouTube and ‘7500’ will be available to stream via Amazon Prime on June 19.

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