Joseph Gordon-Levitt may have pivotal roles in blockbuster movie hits like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, but the actor has always shied away from fame.
“I always found it uncomfortable when people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I saw you on TV. You’re on TV.’ That just really felt awkward to me,” Gordon-Levitt, 34, told ABC News’ Nightline.
Gordon-Levitt, who plays French tightrope walker Philippe Petit in the new film The Walk, fell in love with acting as a child, and his portrayal of a man/child alien on Third Rock From the Sun made him a reluctant star.
“I privately wished that we could go on set and do the work that I loved, but then burn the film afterward so that people wouldn’t see it or recognize,” Gordon-Levitt said.
Even today, Gordon-Levitt keeps his private life out of the spotlight and says very little publicly about his new baby with his wife, technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley. Being a new parent has made him feel more optimistic, he said.
“I look at my son and I say he’s awesome. He’s gonna grow up and he’s going to do such incredible things. But here’s the thing — and this is why I feel private — I don’t want him to feel the pressure of me having been on TV and saying that,” Gordon-Levitt explained.
“‘Cause what if he just wants to go off and live in Tibet and be a monk and never be heard from again? I wanna support that and I want him to feel encouraged to do that. And I don’t want him thinking like, ‘Oh God, my dad went on TV and told the world that I was gonna do great things. And you know what? I actually don’t wanna do anything that the world is ever gonna really hear about,'” he continued. “I’d like him to be able to speak for himself when he gets old enough. And I don’t know if it’s really my place to speak for him.”
In fact, Gordon-Levitt himself had actually quit acting and went to Columbia University to study French Literature.
He eventually returned, taking roles in indie films like 50/50 and 500 Days of Summer and writing and directing the critically acclaimed Don Jon.
“When people now come up to me and they say … ‘I saw 50/50 and that meant a lot to me because a friend of mine had dealt with cancer,’ or ‘I saw 500 Days of Summer, and it helped me deal with getting dumped,’ or whatever it is, if people connect to something that I’ve done, that’s very meaningful to me. And that’s different than I felt when I was a child,” he said.
But Gordon-Levitt said his most meaningful project is the crowd-sourcing production company HitRecord, which he co-created with his late brother Dan. Anyone around the world can contribute to artistic content they create, and it’s morphed into a TV show now in its second season.
“We open up our collaborative process to the world. And we use the internet and anybody can join our community and come make our short films, our books, our music. We made a TV show,” he said.
For his latest film role, Gordon-Levitt spent eight days training with Philippe Petit on a real tightrope. Petit captivated the world in 1974 when he snuck into the World Trade Center, rigged a wire between the Twin Towers and walked back and forth 1,362 feet above ground without a net.
“I think my parents never emphasized fame. They never emphasized, ‘Ooh, look, isn’t this exciting? Everyone knows your name. You’re gonna make so much money.’ I think if you chase after fame and money, it’s sort of a recipe for unhappiness,” said Gordon-Levitt.
“But if instead — like [Petit] — you’re really just driven by what it is that you’re doing. You know, he didn’t make any money doing the walk. That’s not why he did it.”