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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.)
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
RECENT AND RELATED
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THE BIG PICTURE: “Inception” may feel backlash
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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