After several years of high-profile roles in movies like “500 Days of Summer,” “Inception,” “Looper” and “Snowden,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt stepped back from the spotlight for three years to spend time with his wife and young children. After his self-imposed hiatus, he returns this week with “7500,” a taut thriller that is set almost entirely in the cockpit of an airplane that’s being hijacked by terrorists. The movie will debut on June 18 on Amazon Prime.
Gordon-Levitt says the low-budget film was emotionally taxing, requiring him to go to dark places as he portrayed a pilot struggling to maintain his calm during a terrifying situation. It was, he argues, the most difficult role of his career. On the eve of the film’s premiere, Gordon-Levitt spoke with Variety about what attracted him to the project, keeping busy during the coronavirus lockdown, and the Fraggle Rock movie that wasn’t.
You are in nearly every single shot of this movie. Was that draining?
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this movie was the most challenging acting job I’ve ever done. I know that’s quite a statement. I’ve done a lot of acting jobs in my life, but it really was.
I had actually taken a number of years off from acting because I had kids. I knew that when I came back that I wanted to find something that was a creative challenge and that would inspire me. And I did my very best to ignore the voices in my head, which were talking to me about career building and momentum and all that jazz. Instead I focused on why I love acting.
What made this part so difficult?
[Director Patrick Vollrath’s] approach is all about immersion. He gears his shooting style to let the actor immerse themselves in the characters and in the story. Normally on a movie set we do our best to stay true to our character and true to our emotions, but there’s so many technical elements. You have to hit your mark. You have to line up with the lights. You have to stay true to continuity. You have to do the same two pages, over and over again. Patrick’s approach to filmmaking is all about stripping those technical elements away, so we’re not hitting our marks. There are no marks. The whole set is lit. You can move anywhere at any time. The camera is hand held. There was a script, but we only used it as a springboard. Instead the camera would just roll for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes at a time. He would just let us be in that situation.
For me, who has always been fascinated with how much I can really feel like the character, this approach was a revelation. The particular story we’re telling is one of the more extreme situations you can find yourself in as a human. Combining that intensity with the extremely realism we were hoping to achieve meant that I was subjecting myself to some really powerful and brutal feelings and emotions and experiences.
You mentioned that you took some time off between projects. Weren’t you tempted to do something frivolous to ease back into things?
It was the opposite. I’ve been acting a long time. I started when I was six and I was 37 when we shot this. The break that I took was the longest break from acting that I’ve ever taken, so I wanted the return to be something special. The next movie I did after, called “Project Power,” was really easy and pure fun. It’s just me and Jamie Foxx running around New Orleans. It literally takes place in the Big Easy.
What kind of research did you do?
I wanted all the technical pilot stuff to be accurate. I did a fair amount of training. I used flight simulators. I watched a lot of dry videos of pilots doing their jobs.
We had a number of technical consultants, but the most important player in that regard was Carlo [Kitzlinger], the actor playing the captain. He was also a real pilot who came to acting later in life having had a whole career flying for Lufthansa. He was the one teaching me. He was the one drilling me. That allowed us to get way into the details, because little things make a difference, like would a pilot rest his foot on this thing here. That sounds micromanaging, but I think an audience can feel when something is that painstakingly accurate.
This film is debuting on Amazon Prime. Does it bother you that it will be going straight-to-streaming instead of having a big theatrical release?
There’s nothing like the cinema. I love going to the cinema and watching movies there. I’m delighted that there are still champions of cinema like Chris Nolan. I see his movies on big screens, because I know how he would feel if I didn’t. His movies are for that and he makes them with that in mind.
I think it’s also true that you can look at the whole history of storytelling through technology and there’s always an evolution in place. Things are always changing. First there was people gathering around campfires telling stories. Eventually there was theater. Skip ahead to movies and then television. There’s always upsides and downsides to the new ways that people use technology. It’s on the artists to take advantage of the upsides and avoid the downsides. This movie is the opposite of a Christopher Nolan movie, which is all about huge scope. This movie is entirely set in a cockpit. The other reality is a lot of people can’t afford to go to the movies. I like the idea that something I worked hard on and care can reach more people. If we made this kind of art film in the past, the only people that would have had the opportunity to see it would have been well-off people in big cities where there are arthouse cinemas.
You were attached to a Fraggle Rock movie for years. Will that still happen?
No, they did a show with Apple, which I haven’t seen but look forward to checking it out. There’s so many projects that are in development. Some get into the press for some reason and some don’t. We all spend lots and lots of time working on lots and lots of things that don’t become real. This was one of those.
What have you been doing during coronavirus?
I’ve been lucky and fortunate that I can work from home. I was in production on a TV show when coronavirus hit and that had to stop, but I have a company called HitRecord, which is a community focused platform for people interested in collaborating on creative projects from all over the world. Anyone can join. In fact this moment of isolation HitRecord has ended up filling a need for people who are looking for human connection online and not necessarily finding it on traditional social media, which can cater to the short attention span and be scatter-brained and just generally disposable.