Joseph Gordon-Levitt is billing his new movie, "(500) Days of Summer," as "an anti- romance," a cinematic riposte to the "silly and dismissible" romantic comedies that Hollywood has been making and marketing to lonely hearts for decades.
The whimsical and bittersweet tale about a regular guy hopelessly smitten with a girl who doesn't quite share the sentiment unfolds in a nonsequential narrative style that jumps forward and backward over the 500 days of their doomed relationship. Shot almost exclusively in and around downtown Los Angeles, the film, in theaters today, tips its hat to unconventional love-story standard-bearers such as "Annie Hall," "The Graduate" and "Two for the Road."
Love is hardly a many splendored thing for greeting card author Tom (Gordon-Levitt) and his girlfriend, Summer (played by Zooey Deschanel). In fact, before the film's first scene -- Tom's plate-smashing reaction to their breakup -- audiences are forewarned by a title card that reads: "This is not a love story."
As Gordon-Levitt explains, his character is hung up on Summer big-time, and director Marc Webb finds countless ways to express Tom's exuberant but often unhealthy infatuation with the capricious Summer, including a full-blown dance sequence with strangers on the street that comes after he spends his first night with her.
"I've been heartbroken before, and I didn't want to make light of it," Gordon-Levitt, 28, said. "As much as the movie does find humor in it, I don't think the laughs have to be shallow."
So when he wasn't feeling a sequence near the end of "(500) Days" in which Tom, wallowing in the loss of Summer, resorts to a self-help book to cope, Gordon-Levitt spoke from his heart.
"[He] said to us, 'I don't know that Tom would really do that. I don't believe any of us would do that,' " screenwriter Scott Neustadter said. The scene was later nixed.
Without Gordon-Levitt there to keep things grounded, "the movie could have exploded," Webb said. "It could have easily turned into something inane."
Gordon-Levitt hasn't always been comfortable being the center of attention. Raised in L.A. by activist parents, he started acting at age 6 and landed the lead in Disney's "Angels in the Outfield" at 13.
After a six-season run as a mouthy alien in a teenager's body on TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun" and several other films, including the 1999 teen comedy "10 Things I Hate About You," starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, he was burned out.
Fame became "a source of anxiety for me," he said, relaxing in a gray button-down and jeans at a Silver Lake coffee shop. "When I was younger and more selfish, I loved the acting, but I wanted to burn the film after. Having grown up some since then, I now really appreciate how movies and art can connect people."
Taking a timeout
That epiphany came a couple of years after he took a break from the spotlight, moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia University. He earned "about half a bachelor's" in French literature before deciding that brushing up on Final Cut Pro, a film-editing software program, was ultimately a better way to spend his time than going to class.
Living in New York -- "a real city where people are on top of each other" -- made him "hyper aware of the world at large" and keyed up to create art with others.
"Now I don't cringe when people tell me they used to laugh at '3rd Rock,' " he said.
What followed were a series of demanding roles that earned him acclaim within film circles: He played a young prostitute in "Mysterious Skin," a high school misfit-turned-sleuth in the neo-noir "Brick" and a brain-damaged bank robber in "The Lookout."
Webb had never seen "3rd Rock" before casting Gordon-Levitt in the comedy. Rather, it was his performance in "Mysterious Skin" that put him on the shortlist. "It's a brutal, brutal film, but Joe's character is sort of lighthearted and sweet and endearing, despite his circumstances," Webb said. "The tenor of the character wasn't that far away from how we envisioned Tom," the movie's hopeless romantic.
His "(500) Days" costar and longtime friend Deschanel said his renewed love of acting was infectious. The two met during the filming of the 2001 drama "Manic," and she has seen him wrestle with the ups and downs of life in the entertainment industry.
"It's cool to see him reinvigorated," she said. "I think everyone believes he has the talent and the looks to be a big star, but I think he just wants to keep telling stories and support art he thinks is interesting."
"(500) Days" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and Gordon-Levitt said that fans haven't been shy about approaching him on the street and expressing feelings about the film. "A lot of people have come up and said, 'Man, that meant so much me,' or, 'It reminded me of my old boyfriend or girlfriend,' or, 'That's me.' I love that."
He's bound to get a lot more attention in upcoming months. In August, he stars as the screeching Cobra Commander in "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," he just wrapped the low-budget "Hesher" costarring Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson, and he's shooting "Inception," Christopher Nolan's follow-up to " The Dark Knight."
" G.I. Joe" is about as far from an art film as one can get. Based on a toy line and an '80s TV cartoon, the movie, with its big budget and even bigger explosions, would seem anathema when compared with the indie-minded films that have crowded Gordon-Levitt's resume as of late.
The actor said he nearly passed on the project until producers showed him sketches of the high-tech body armor he'd be wearing as the evil Cobra Commander, who takes on the elite team of G.I. Joe soldiers. Those who have seen early cuts of the film -- Gordon-Levitt is not one of them -- say the actor spends the film with his boyish visage completely covered by a mask and barely recognizable.
While making the movie, Gordon Levitt said, he felt the kid in him emerge: "I looked in the mirror and it's not me -- that's a head trip. I don't care what other movie experiences I've had, it was awesome."
Asked whether he thought audiences familiar with his work would be surprised that he signed up for a special-effects-laden cartoon adaptation, he took some time to find the right response.
"I guess if someone were to have actually watched a bunch of movies I'm in and thought about why I do what I do . . . I guess it would make sense in that I love trying different things," he said. "The career stuff is for business people. I just want to be creatively inspired."