‘Inception’ stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page dream big

July 08, 2010 | 8:39 a.m.

This is a longer version of my upcoming Sunday Calendar cover story on the two young stars who play opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in “Inception,” the most ambitious Hollywood film of 2010.

Jospeh Gordon Levitt and Ellen Page Inception Christopher Nolan


These days, the term “young Hollywood” conjures up images of pouty, plastic starlets being chased down Robertson Boulevard by paparazzi and probation officers, but recently the soulful side of young Hollywood made an appearance at a corner deli on Franklin Avenue. “Hi Joe,” Ellen Page said with a faraway smile as Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave her a hug.

Page and Gordon-Levitt are costars in Christopher Nolan’s  “Inception,” the perception-bending heist movie that opens July 16 amid high expectations and strong early reviews. Leonardo DiCaprio leads an extremely deep cast — there are seven Oscar nominees in the film — but Nolan says that Page and Gordon-Levitt more than held their own. “They were simply outstanding,” the director said last year on the London set, “their performances are key to the film and some of the best work I’ve seen.”

But more than their work in any single film, Gordon-Levitt and Page are interesting because, in an era when vacuous celebrity and recycled concepts are ascendant, they are talented actors of serious ambition. Of course, both of them roll their eyes at the expectations and even pretensions that come bundled with that sort of statement — but they also talk freely and articulately about their frustrations with media of the moment and the paradoxes of stardom.

Page, a Nova Scotia native with bird bones and a steady gaze, made her screen debut at age 10 in a Canadian television movie and turned 23 a week after this last Valentine’s Day. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as a pregnant high school student in the 2007 film Juno and before that startled audiences in the 2005 movie Hard Candy,” in which she portrayed a teenager who traps and tortures a man she suspects is a sexual predator.

Leonardo DiCaprio Ellen Page Inception Christopher Nolan

Gordon-Levitt, 29, grew up in Sherman Oaks and, from age 15 to 20, in front of America thanks to “3rd Rock from the Sun,” the loopy alien sitcom that ran for six seasons. With considerable trepidation, he left the cast and acting to pursue studies at Columbia University. The time in New York propelled him back toward acting in 2004 with a resolve to work only in high-quality and indie fare. His work in “Brick,” “Stop-Loss” and, especially, (500) Days of Summer” has given a new trajectory to his career and made him restless at the same time.

“The best path for anyone is to just trust yourself, do what you believe in and don’t try to cater to executives or whatever big company is going to give you a job at that moment,” Gordon-Levitt said as he munched on a blueberry muffin. Neither he nor Page arrived with publicist or entourage in tow — both speak more like New York stage actors than L.A. celebrities; Gordon-Levitt said that he doesn’t see his participation in a $160-million summer film as a surrender to the mainstream because “Inception” flies in the face of most popcorn-film conventions.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page Inception Christopher Nolan

“Mr. Nolan is a beautiful example of someone doing exactly what they want to do,” Gordon-Levitt said. “This movie wasn’t developed by committee … I think that goes to show that more than ever there’s room for quality and challenging things to become popular. Sure, there’s still a lot of stupid stuff out there but things are changing, I think. And I’d say that Ellen and I are also examples.”

He looked at Page sitting next to him. “Ten years ago, do you think that you and me would be in this position we’re in, in a huge summer movie? I feel like they would have looked for people that were less unexpected, if that makes sense. You’re in this position because you’re an awesome actress, because of your talent and the quality of your work. It’s not because of some celebrity thing.”

Perhaps, but is “Inception” really a sign of the changing times or just an exception to Hollywood’s current business as usual? Adult dramas and risk-taking scripts are harder to find on studio release schedules these days and most resources are going into sequels, remakes and “pre-sold” properties that are based on toys, comics, old television shows and video games.

It’s common to see “serious” actors  in summer special-effects films now — Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale and Adrien Brody among them — but is that a sign that the blockbusters are getting better or that the art house is getting smaller? The risk-taking of the 1970s American cinema seems like a long time ago. This summer, for instance, director Joe Carnahan veered from his indie-fare career to make “The A-Team” and sounded resigned when explaining his remake of a cheesy 1980s television show: “It’s getting tougher to lead out there with your chin and finance something that doesn’t have the loyalty of a fan base…there’s billions of dollars at stake now, and that fundamentally alters the DNA of how we make films.”

Ever the optimist, though, Gordon-Levitt believes technology is the force that will give rise to better art and less cookie-cutter entertainments. Page, however, an old soul in a vintage T-shirt with a bandanna knotted at her neck, is trying to step away from the digital noise of today so she can hear the pop and hiss of the human condition.

Inception Christopher Nolan DiCaprio Page city folding


“I’m listening to a lot of vinyl records and it’s not some hipster, retro thing … The other night my friend and I just lay down on the floor and listened to Joni Mitchell and [Radiohead’s] ‘Hail to the Thief’ and to Leonard Cohen. I love the iPods, but when was the last time that I sat at a computer or whatever and could listen to a whole album without getting ADD and saying, ‘Check out this cover by Feist…’‘ “

Page finds the poetry of ideas and art help her get past the contemporary drumbeat of scandal and celebrity and predictable entertainments. “There are people I meet who are my age or younger who are doing brave, sincere, courageous, rad work,” she said. “It’s just that the other stuff is what media gives its attention to and there’s people who play into that because it facilitates their profession which is, I guess, being a celebrity. I try to focus on the different things and fight off being cynical.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page Inception Christopher Nolan walking

If Page is ready to get back to the garden, Gordon-Levitt is reaching toward new technology for the promise of a new connectivity between performer and audience.

“In the last 10 years, we are in nothing less than a renaissance and pop culture is going back to what it used to be,” Gordon-Levitt said. “The big, cliquish machine that used to have all the say, is in its death throes and we’re seeing the worst of it come out, but I don’t think it’s long for this world. I think other things, beautiful things, are much more popular now but the executives at the big media corporations cant keep track of it all because their system isn’t built to do that. The way that I get my media? I don’t turn on a television, ever. I don’t turn on a radio, ever. That isn’t to say I don’t watch TV — I will watch some shows, which I get to pick, online. I read stuff and look at photos based on recommendations of people I trust and know all over the internet.”

Some listeners may hear naivete in his views. Gordon-Levitt said the feverish attention to scandal these days is the last-gasp effort by old media to hold on to an audience and that as content control shifts “to the people” the tone will change; yes, in essence, his view is that the Internet will save us from gossip. When surveying the crumpled remains of the recording industry, he points out that “there’s really not a lot of crap music making money anymore” without adding the second half of the thought — that pretty much the same thing can be said for great music.

The two actors came to “Inception” in the same way — Nolan and his producing partner and wife Emma Thomas made inquiries and the young stars jumped at the chance to meet the director of The Dark Knight and Memento.” Gordon-Levitt wore a suit and tie to meet the filmmaker, and Page speaks in awed tones about Nolan. “I am a massive fan,” she said, “and I’m humbled and inspired by the chance to make this film.”

Ellen Page Inception Chirstopher Nolan


In the film, Page plays Ariadne, a gifted young architecture student in Paris who is recruited by a mysterious man named Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) for his corporate espionage team, which invades the dreams of billionaires via a strange contraption and drugs. Her assignment is to craft rooms, buildings, even entire cityscapes, to fill this co-inhabited Land of Nod. Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, plays Arthur, Cobb’s point-man and the lieutenant who fears that his leader is slipping into his own personal nightmare as their shared reality bends and bleeds around them.

The movie is huge in every way — it was filmed in six countries — but Page said she walked away from the experience marveling at the way Nolan was able to protect the human emotion amid the massive gears of the big-budget thriller. “It was a very intimate experience as an actor and very fulfilling. It’s this blockbuster monster but when you’re working with Chris he does everything possible to make every single moment completely honest. And I’ve worked on a lot of independent movies where I wasn’t working with a director that wanted and needed every moment to be completely honest.” 

The production required Gordon-Levitt to do grueling combat scenes in a spinning corridor, and he finished some days bruised and battered. Perhaps more challenging for both actors was holding the screen in the company of veterans such as DiCaprio, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger and Pete Postlethwaite. (Each name on that list, by the way, is a former Oscar nominee, and Caine and Cotillard have won the prize.)

Inception spinning room


Page said she is hungry to learn from top-notch actors and directors and she said took on a role in the HBO project “Tilda” — which is about an online Hollywood columnist — largely to work side-by-side with Diane Keaton, who has the title role. She said she felt zero pressure to follow up “Inception” with a feature-film project of similar scale or prominence.

“I want to do things that inspire me intellectually and artistically, just like Joe said, and to do things that excite my heart. That’s the only way that works for me. If I did something else I would just be really bad in it anyway.”

Gordon-Levitt gave a hearty laugh and nodded in agreement. He has a number of film projects lined up, including “an untitled cancer comedy” with Seth Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Kendrick, but he says as technology shifts he isn’t sure that his future will be defined by major-studio feature films. He runs a production company called HitRecord.org that is an open collaborative effort — people around the Internet contribute images, music or ideas for a final product that is as much a tapestry of its audience as it is a mural by its makers. For example, he said, a documentary filmmaker might post a message that they need a visual that represents poverty, and around the Internet the audience would submit video, animation or some blend of both that would become that part of the movie.

“Things are moving away from the proscenium — the structure where there’s a stage here and an audience there, that is giving way to something that is more collaborative,” Gordon-Levitt said. “People are still interested in sitting and watching a movie, but that is a form that is growing dated too. The idea of stars and movies is changing. And I’m OK with that.”

— Geoff Boucher


Inception poster

“Inception” questions? Here’s THE most in-depth article on the film 

 Ken Watanabe wins over Nolan: “He’s such a movie star”

Bigger than Batman: Nolan takes on “Inception”

24 FRAMES: Are “Inception” expectations too high?

“Inception,” the only movie that matters?

Nolan breaks silence on Superman and Batman

Chris Nolan’s dim view of 3-D

THE BIG PICTURE: “Inception” may feel backlash

Forget crossovers: Nolan says his Batman doesn’t play well with others

PHOTOS: Top, third and fifth photos are portraits of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. All other photos: Scenes from “Inception” (Warner Bros.)

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24 Responses to ‘Inception’ stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page dream big

  1. Doug E. Fresh says:

    These two actors appear to be completely full of themselves. I'm still looking forward to Inception, though.

  2. JC says:

    These are two of the most exciting up and coming actors today who are actually taking the time to choose smart and interesting projects – I don't think they sound full of themselves in the least – they just sound passionate about what they're doing. Just look to Gordon-Levitt's hustler turn in Mysterious Skin or Page's Lolita work in Hard Candy for some of the best performances in the last few years. I'm ecstatic to see them in a Nolan film.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I think they're smart and mature, not full of themselves. It's refreshing to find serious young actors who put so much thought into their craft and future projects.

  4. Joyce says:

    Joseph Gorden-Levitt always surprises me. It's awesome how far he's gotten since his days as Tommy in 3rd Rock From the Sun and in 10 Things I Hate About You! It's evident that he hasn't lost his kid-like humour, which always adds a bit of realness. It's great that he uses the world's constantly changing technology to create open media that everyone can use. I'm so excited to see him in Inception! I've been trying to find any clips/previews I can get and I found a TON at MovieSet.com. There are also behind-the scenes clips and interviews, like one w/ Gordon-Levitt. f you're interested, check it out here: http://bit.ly/cNhAkN
    Hope you like it!

  5. Samantha says:

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page are remarkable actors who truly believe in substance over superficiality when choosing roles. Sure, they don't choose to star in big-budget blockbusters, but they still continue to shine in their respective films nonetheless with moving performances. They are incredibly talented and I look forward to seeing Inception.

  6. Mia says:

    I've watched Joseph Gordon-Levitt ever since he was on 3rd Rock From The Son. He has grown into an amazing actor and as a fan, I'm always looking forward to whatever film he appears in. So far, he hasn't let me down.
    Can't wait to see INCEPTION.

  7. Interview or Ambush? says:

    The author gave his opinions the last word here in three very obvious ways:
    1. Digressing at length from his account of what the actor said to give his own opinion to the reader
    2. Quoting from another person who wasn't there or asked to comment on the actor's opinions to contest what the actor said
    3. Creating a hypothetical reader who disagreed with the actor.
    The impression given is condescending, damning with faint praise. This reader would have enjoyed much more a simple transcript of questions & answers–perhaps the actors were given a chance to respond to the author/un- consulted film maker's/hypothetical reader lengthy rebuttals. Then I could judge for myself. Until he does, the reader is left to think the poor interviewees first found out what he really thought of their opinions when they read this.

  8. Jim says:

    Inception is so spectacularly entertaining you'll want to see it twice, and so mind-bendingly original you'll need to see it more than once to get all the intricacies of the story. Writer/director Christopher Nolan cements his place as one of our top living filmmakers with this trippy sci-fi action thriller/romance that more than lives up to its hype.

  9. Maryagirl says:

    I will never miss to watch this movie, and I really like your blog and i really appreciate the excellent quality content you are posting here.

  10. tyler says:

    i remeber when gordon-levitt stared in the kids movie Angels in the Outfield. He has really grown from there and become a fantastic actor.

  11. Terri Hanson says:

    Im really anchious to see the movie leonardo and joseph are such wonderful actors and one of my favorites I have always been a fan and would love to meet them one day they seem really cool.

  12. Awestruck says:

    Words can't describe exactly how excited I am to see Gordon-Levitt and Page's careers continue. To date they've brought us excellent work that has shown just how talented they both are. Tell me after reading this article you can't help but love how genuine they both seem, escpecially compared to the Justin Biebers and the Miley Cyruses of the world, who think creative fulfillment is making X-million dollars with their latest [insert product here].
    As for Inception, another ineffable topic for an awestruck fan such as myself. All I can say is 'Go and see it'. Hopefully the strength of my suggestion shows you just what an amazing movie it is.
    Good luck with the future, Ellen and Joe. I'm sure you don't need it.

  13. lexie says:

    is there a video of this interview?

  14. shahram says:

    500 Days of Juno :D

  15. uk dress says:

    Words can't describe exactly how excited I am to see Gordon-Levitt and Page's careers continue.

  16. Terri says:

    I went and seen the movie it was so amazing and so aslwome its deffently a movie i can watch over and over again they are such talented actors and my love goes out to them for all the hard work and effort they put into this movie and joseph did a good job in 500 days of summer i just sall it yesterday cause I had been wanting to see it but never got around to it until yesterday and wow i was blown away by that movie it made me laugh and made me cry how she treated him and how he was depressed but i loved the ending cause it was a happy ending there always my favorite.

  17. i really enjoyed watching the movie inception !
    really m not able to forget about the movie for the last 3 days !
    enjoyed it a lot

  18. ultraseksy says:

    Excited I am to see Gordon-Levitt and Page's careers continue and is there a video of this interview?

  19. I think inception was the greatest film I had seen in along time!

    Thank you…

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