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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Returning to Sundance With ‘Flora and Son,’ Working With Eddie Murphy on ‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley’

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Stephen Lovekin/Variety

Joseph Gordon-Levitt first learned about Sundance Film Festival while he was making his big screen debut in 1992’s “A River Runs Through It.” That’s where the film’s director (and Sundance’s founder) Robert Redford gave him a T-shirt emblazoned with the festival’s moniker. But it wasn’t until he was a bit older that he fully understood the rebel spirit that has made Sundance a destination for indie auteurs and artists for decades.

“As a 14-year old, I started watching ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ ‘Sex Lies and Video Tape,’ ‘Swingers,’ ‘Sling Blade,’ ‘Big Night’ and all these movies that were coming through Sundance,” Gordon-Levitt remembers. “That was my thing in my adolescence. That was what I dreamed of doing.”

But getting up the mountain proved difficult. At that time, Gordon-Levitt was best known for his work in “3rd Rock From the Sun,” a broad comedy about a group of alien explorers.

“I was on this network sitcom and in ’10 Things I Hate About You,'” Gordon-Levitt says. “But I was also that kid saying, ‘I want to be in ‘Reservoir Dogs.” The response was like, ‘Oh, that’s very nice kid. Go make some money and get on another sitcom.'”

But Gordon-Levitt persisted, scoring roles in gritty indies such as “The Lookout” and “Mysterious Skin” that reshaped his clean-cut image. Many of those films also debuted at Sundance, giving the festival special meaning to Gordon-Levitt. “In many ways, it’s responsible for the career I’m having,” he says.

Later, Gordon-Levitt would return to premiere “Don Jon,” a drama about a sex addict that marked his feature directing debut. It’s also where he launched HitRecord, an online collaborative media platform that he recently sold to Master Class. He’ll be back this year with “Flora and Son,” a warm-hearted drama about a struggling single mom (Eve Hewson) in Dublin who finds a way to connect with her emotionally distant son through music. Gordon-Levitt plays her sympathetic guitar instructor, a laid-back Angeleno, who forms a surprising bond with his student via Zoom.

“It’s partly a case of opposites attracting, but they’re also what each other needs,” says Gordon-Levitt. “She could use someone who is warm and kind and earnest. Her whole world is so guarded and tough. She has this ‘I don’t care’ kind of exterior. And here’s this guy who cares deeply about something that to her seems unimportant, music. It sweeps her off her feet.”

The project had a similar impact on Gordon-Levitt, who lobbied writer and director John Carney to cast him in the part. He’d been playing the guitar since he was a teenager, but in a casual way, and Carney had flirted with casting a more seasoned musician.

“I had to convince him that he would not find any shortcomings on the musicianship,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I told him that I will put in the work. I will do the practice. I will do whatever it takes.”

That kind of commitment has been a hallmark of Gordon-Levitt’s approach. This is an actor, after all, who taught himself how to walk on a tightrope to play the Twin Tower bestriding high-wire artist Philippe Petit in “The Walk.” And that kind of intensity may be why Gordon-Levitt says he is very picky when it comes to choosing projects. “My answer is almost always no,” he says with a laugh.

But he had been a fan of the way that Carney combined realism with uplift in “Sing Street,” “Begin Again” and “Once.” These are movies, he says, that offer the go-for-broke emotionalism of the best movie musicals, but also provide the kind of grounded-ness that can be found in indie dramas.

“I’m a big fan of the musical genre, but I dislike most musicals,” says Gordon-Levitt. “But John’s movies find this balance of giving you musical magic, but making it feel human and not ridiculous.”

So why do musicals usually leave Gordon-Levitt cold?

“The music in most musicals is not music I really like listening to,” says Gordon-Levitt. “It’s more down-to-Earth. It’s not your typical Broadway kind of thing.” Here, Gordon-Levitt turns the word “Broadway” into a belty, Ethel Merman-esque roar, demonstrating for a fleeting moment his own prodigious musical chops.

“Flora and Son” debuts at Sundance on Jan. 22, where it should be one of the more commercial films looking for distribution. Given Gordon-Levitt’s star power, Carney’s track record and Hewson’s recent buzzy turn on Apple TV+’s “Bad Sisters,” it could spark some intense bidding. It also kicks off a busy period for Gordon-Levitt, who will star in the darkly comic mystery “Providence” and will then appear opposite Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel Foley.” He’s mum about the latter, but says fans of the original films won’t be disappointed.

“There’s a reason Eddie Murphy is Eddie Murphy — and that will be very clear to anybody watching this movie,” says Gordon-Levitt. “Going to work on ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ isn’t like work. You think my life is a dream. I’m riding in a helicopter next to Eddie Murphy, and we’re making each other laugh.”