The Cover Story

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Still Believes in Movies

The star of Netflix’s Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F and self-described “jaded old Hollywood guy” reflects on a career of blockbuster spectacles and indie surprises.

Written by Jake Kleinman
The Blockbuster Issue

In his 33 years as an actor, writer, and director, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has done it all, from superheroes and sci-fi blockbusters to independent sleeper hits. In 2012 alone, he starred in both The Dark Knight Rises and Looper. (That’s right: He played Robin and Bruce Willis in the same year.) But it wasn’t until 2024 that the 43-year-old actor finally grabbed hold of his cinematic holy grail.

That movie? Beverly Hills Cop.

“When I was younger, my older brother introduced me to Eddie Murphy,” Gordon-Levitt tells Inverse. “If you have an older sibling, the stuff they like takes on a certain mystique. It’s a little forbidden. It’s a little over your head. The person who occupies that place in my psyche is Eddie Murphy. So to get the opportunity to play the sidekick in the new Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie was a lifelong dream fulfilled.”

“To get the opportunity to play the sidekick in the new Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie was a lifelong dream fulfilled.”

Netflix/Melinda Sue Gordon

In Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, out July 3 on Netflix, Gordon-Levitt plays a Los Angeles detective who inadvertently becomes entangled with Murphy’s Axel Foley when the unconventional Detroit cop returns to Southern California for a fourth time to track down another explosive case. It’s a major role for Gordon-Levitt, and not just because he grew up idolizing Murphy. The L.A.-born actor took a break from Hollywood in the late 2010s to focus on fatherhood. Now, he’s back with his biggest movie in years, and one he doesn’t take lightly.

“Even though it’s a fun, entertaining action comedy, it’s quite meaningful to a lot of people,” Gordon-Levitt says. “You want to make sure you're not fucking it up.”

“When I saw what he was really doing with that helicopter, it genuinely took my breath away.”

Netflix/Melinda Sue Gordon

There’s no denying Gordon-Levitt has established himself as an A-list actor who can carry a blockbuster. But while some actors might view those big-budget movies as a necessary step on the path to making the films they actually care about — one for them, one for me as the old mantra goes — that’s not how Gordon-Levitt sees things.

“I tend not to think of it as, like, ‘I’ll do this one in order to get clout,’” he says when asked which movies fall where on that spectrum.

And yet, there are certain laws that control the universe, and actors occasionally doing movies they’re not exactly proud of is right up there with gravity. (After all, for every Brick, there’s a G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and for every Lincoln, there’s a live-action Pinocchio.) What sets Gordon-Levitt apart is that, even when he’s doing one for them, he brings a degree of authenticity that raises up the entire project, which is why his greatest roles rank so high, while his more frivolous roles can still feel surprisingly potent.

When you look back at his career — as we did, with some insights from the man himself — a picture emerges: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the most thoughtful actors of our time. A man who still believes in movies.

You could argue that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first big break came from director Rian Johnson. Sure, he acted in plenty of movies as a kid, along with the oddball, underrated sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun — “That’s where I learned to do comedy,” he says — but it was Johnson who decided to put Gordon-Levitt in his own breakout hit with Brick (2005), a high school noir-thriller that made $3.9 million on a budget of $450,000. The pair reunited seven years later for Looper, and Gordon-Levitt technically has a role in every one of Johnson’s movies, including off-screen cameos in both Knives Out films and a CGI alien in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Looking back on their time working together, it’s clear Gordon-Levitt sees Johnson as much as a collaborator as he does a boss or even a mentor.

“One of the things that really stands out about Rian is his humility,” the actor says. “He’s one of the very smartest and most creative people I’ve ever met. His facility for story and character is astonishing, and yet he’s super low-key about it. He’s perfectly happy to listen to anybody’s ideas. I think that’s part of why his movies end up so good. He’s not ego-driven. He doesn’t get attached to stuff. If something can be made better, he is open to do it. And that’s frankly a lesson I’m only starting to learn more recently as I’ve gotten older.”

Looper (2012). “One of the things that really stands out about Rian is his humility.”

TriStar Pictures

With the third Knives Out movie filming now and Gordon-Levitt’s name notably absent from the otherwise stacked cast, it seems guaranteed he’ll instead get another small cameo. But when I ask if he ever plans to collaborate with Johnson again, whether for a Knives Out movie or something else, Gordon-Levitt seems optimistic.

“I would love to,” he says. “We’ll do something together at some point, and we’ll see when the right thing comes along.”

Four years after Brick, Gordon-Levitt went on a tear. He appeared in five movies in 2009 alone, including both G.I. Joe (not his finest moment, though he did get to wear some cool prosthetics) and 500 Days of Summer (more of a “one for me” film, but perhaps the one that launched him into leading-man territory). By the early 2010s, Gordon-Levitt was inescapable, a genuine Hollywood star scoring major roles with major directors like Steve Spielberg and racier filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez. But if there’s one director who launched him into the stratosphere, it’s Christopher Nolan.

Nolan cast Gordon-Levitt in major roles for both Inception and Dark Knight Rises. In each film, he takes on stoic supporting roles, guiding the audience confidently through chaos and explosions as the world around him falls apart, sometimes literally.

Dark Knight Rises ends with the reveal that Gordon-Levitt’s police officer is named “Robin,” presumably positioning the character to take on Batman’s mantle. While many fans have speculated that Nolan had designs for future Robin movies, according to Gordon-Levitt, that was never the plan.

“Nolan was making a trilogy,” he says. “He never wanted to make any more movies. This was an ending to his trilogy. It’s funny, we look back on it now with the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — everything is a sequel to a sequel to a sequel. But back in those olden days, doing a trilogy was a lot, and that was how it was thought of.”

(On the topic of superheroes, Gordon-Levitt has long been the subject of various Marvel casting rumors. Over the years, reputable publications claimed he was in the running for both the role of Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy leader Peter Quill. The actor has pretty much denied those rumors throughout his career, and this time wasn’t any different: “Yeah, people like to talk. I understand why it's fun to talk about these kinds of things. I don’t really have anything to add to this. I’m sorry.”)

Inception (2010). “In some action movies, the ‘acting,’ quote-unquote, is a bit of an afterthought, and Nolan never treats it that way.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

As for Inception, Gordon-Levitt’s character might be best remembered for his physics-defying hallway fight scene, but a small corner of the Internet prefers to see the film as a love story between his character, Arthur, and Tom Hardy’s Eames. When I bring this up, the actor smiles for a moment while calibrating his response. “I’ve seen some of that fan fiction,” he says. “It’s very inspired and inspiring.” As for whether there might be any credibility to those theories, your guess is as good as Gordon-Levitt’s. “What is credibility? Art is up to the viewer to be whatever they want it to be,” he adds wryly.

Looking at Nolan’s work in its entirety, Gordon-Levitt says the thing that sets the director apart is his refusal to treat a blockbuster movie like, well, a blockbuster movie. “In some action movies, the ‘acting,’ quote-unquote, is a bit of an afterthought, and Nolan never treats it that way.”

As for the director’s latest film, Oppenheimer, while Gordon-Levitt wasn’t in the sweeping biopic about the father of the atomic bomb, he sees the movie’s success as both a huge win for Nolan and a harsh rebuttal of Hollywood’s typical approach to big-budget filmmaking.

“The more cynical sort of rule of thumb would be that if you want to make something popular, you’ve got to compromise and make it sort of the lowest common denominator,” Gordon-Levitt says of Oppenheimer. “He just shattered that notion, and I admire him immensely for it.”

When it comes to the movies that Joseph Gordon-Levitt does for himself — the independent films that Hollywood would probably prefer not to make at all but happily take credit for when they become surprise hits — perhaps the best example is Don Jon. Written by, directed by, and starring Gordon-Levitt, the movie follows a young man named Jon who struggles to balance his Catholic upbringing, societal pressures, and his addiction to porn.

Released in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival, Don Jon made $41 million on a budget of $7.5 million. Looking back a little more than a decade, it’s also clear the movie was ahead of its time in its nuanced portrayal of modern masculinity, toxic or otherwise.

“A lot of the themes in that movie have only become a lot more relevant in the last decade,” Gordon-Levitt says. “A lot of that movie is about gender roles, but I think it goes beyond gender. It’s a movie about objectification. He objectifies himself. He objectifies his gender. He objectifies his religion. He objectifies his friends and his family and his car. And he objectifies the women that he has sex with.”

The same goes for Scarlett Johansson’s character, Barbara, who dates Jon while also objectifying him and everything else in her life, demanding that her new boyfriend live up to certain standards that range from sending him to night school to deciding it’s unmanly for him to Swiffer his own apartment.

“A man’s not supposed to clean his house,” Gordon-Levitt explains. “It’s not manly to do that. That’s obviously a very old-fashioned idea. In the 10 years since, it’s become even a more deeply old-fashioned idea. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that anybody would believe that. But not only did people believe it in the past, if you step out of your bubble for a second, there are still tons and tons of people all over the world who still very much hold this belief and see gender in this way.”

Don Jon (2013). “It’s a movie about objectification.”

HitRecord Films

Ultimately, Gordon-Levitt looks back at Don Jon as a movie about a failed romance. “They can’t have a deeply loving and meaningful relationship because they’re so focused on what everything is supposed to be rather than what is,” he says. “I get a lot more out of life if I’m less focused on the categories I fit into and more leaning into what makes me unique.”

More recently, Gordon-Levitt took another risky shot with the Apple TV+ series Mr. Corman, in which he plays a failed musician turned fifth grade teacher in what sometimes feels like an imagined version of the actor if his Hollywood career hadn’t worked out. Full of creative swings, including animated scenes and musical numbers, Mr. Corman debuted in 2021 to mixed reviews and didn’t get a Season 2. But despite the response, Gordon-Levitt is thankful for the opportunity to try something weird in between his bigger movie roles.

“I admire Apple a lot for letting me do that, and I’m really proud of that show,” he says. “We got to do all kinds of odd and, in my opinion, beautiful things that you don’t normally see on TV.”

This brings us to Beverly Hills Cop, arguably an extremely “one for them” movie but also clearly a film that Gordon-Levitt feels passionately about. One thing that sets the movie apart, according to both Gordon-Levitt and director Mark Molloy, is a devotion to practical effects over CGI, even during a particularly chaotic helicopter chase scene in the film’s final act.

“I want to shoot everything in camera,” Molloy tells Inverse. “People were like, ‘Oh, let’s get the green screen out.’ And I was like, ‘We’re not going to get the green screen out. We’re going to do this for real.”

“Nowadays when you watch action movies, oftentimes you're mostly watching a cartoon; it’s computer-generated realistic animation,” Gordon-Levitt adds. “That was not the case on this one. This was sort of an old-fashioned production. There really was a helicopter doing all of that shit. And I was there watching him do it. I’m a jaded old Hollywood guy, but when I saw what he was really doing with that helicopter, it genuinely took my breath away.”

“Challenge your brain to pay attention to something for 90 whole minutes instead of just 90 seconds.”

Gordon-Levitt might not be so much jaded as a strong participant in the Hollywood battles of this age. You can probably guess where he stands when it comes to the preposterous ubiquity of green screens. He has been outspoken in the battle against AI in filmmaking, and he’s equally worried about our declining attention spans thanks to TikTok and the rise of short videos that go viral on social media.

“There’s a difference between telling a story in 90 minutes versus telling a story in 90 seconds, and the way everything is evolving, we’re moving more and more into telling a story in 90 seconds,” he says with a hint of frustration. “Just challenge your brain to pay attention to something for 90 whole minutes instead of just 90 seconds. I definitely believe that if you just stick to only 90-second videos, your brain will lose the ability to pay attention to something and track a story from beginning to middle to end. And it’ll probably make it harder for you to understand how the world is working and how your life is going.”

As a first-time movie director, Molloy took his cues from the stars, giving Eddie Murphy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plenty of room to both define their roles ahead of production and also improvise on set.

In one scene, Gordon-Levitt even ended up directing himself during a pivotal romantic moment. Molloy recalls: “There was a kiss scene, and Joe was like, ‘Are you sure you want to cover it that way? I think if I was going to cover that kiss, I reckon I should be on this side and you should be on that.’ I was like, ‘You’re totally right, Joe. And he said, ‘I’ve done this a few times before. I know what I’m doing.’”

“Ultimately, I wanted to be a good sidekick for Eddie.”

Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F isn’t streaming on Netflix just yet, but regardless of how this movie is received (the franchise has a mixed track record, though the original is an undeniable classic), Gordon-Levitt doesn’t seem concerned. He already has the endorsement of the only person who really matters: the man who set him on this path all those years ago back when he was a kid watching movies with his older brother.

“One of the most satisfying moments for me was at the end of shooting, Eddie gave me a big hug, and he said to me, ‘We did a good one,’” Gordon-Levitt recalls. “That was kind of the ultimate moment of satisfaction for me because as much as I care about what audiences think or what anybody else thinks, ultimately, I wanted to be a good sidekick for Eddie. The fact that he was really pleased and felt good about the movie, that really meant a lot.”

Photographs by The Tyler Twins

Related Tags