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Forces of Geek is proud to welcome correspondent Patrick Lee, who covered WonderCon for us this past weekend.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way since playing the precocious long-haired teenager Tommy in the ‘90s on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, making a splash in the rom-com (500) Days of Summer and becoming a regular in Christopher Nolan’s repertory company with appearances in Inception and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises.

Now comes maybe his weirdest role yet: The 31-year-old actor plays the younger version of Bruce Willis (!) in the time-travel action movie Looper, directed by Rian Johnson, with whom he previously collaborated on the offbeat high-school noir movie Brick.

Ignoring the fact that he looks nothing like Bruce—he will be heavily made up in the movie (see images attached to this story)—the role gives him a chance to wrap his head around an odd concept.

Here’s the official description of the movie:

“In the futuristic action thriller Looper, time travel will be invented – but it will be illegal and only available on the black market.  When the mob wants to get rid of someone, they will send their target 30 years into the past, where a “looper” – a hired gun, like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – is waiting to mop up.  Joe is getting rich and life is good… until the day the mob decides to “close the loop,” sending back Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis) for assassination.  The film is written and directed by Rian Johnson and also stars Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels.  Ram Bergman and James D. Stern produce.”

We caught up with Johnson and Gordon-Levitt at WonderCon in Anaheim, CA, last weekend, where they talked with a bunch of reporters about Looper, opening September 28th.  

After the jump check out an edited version of our conversation.

Looper star Joseph Gordon-Levitt (left) and director Rian Johnson at WonderCon, Anaheim, CA, on March 18, 2012. (Patrick Lee)

I guess just to get started talk about, at this point, is everything finished?

Rian Johnson:  Its done, finished. There’s no way we can fuck it up now. Or fix it, I guess. One of the two.

How would you characterize the partnership you have built?

R:  Loving

Joseph Gordon-Levitt:  Romantic.

Ah, I just love his movies. I love the way he makes movies.  You know, a lot of movies kind of get made by formula and are sort of indistinguishable one from the next, but occasionally there’s a filmmaker that you can just, you can tell right way, that oh that’s, that’s that filmmaker.  And he’s one of those.  And it was an honor to be in his first one and its an honor to be in his third one and he wrote this part for me.  No one’s ever written a part for me before. And that meant a lot to me that he would do that.

What does that tell you about how Rian sees you?

J:  That he sees me as a killer.

R:  Stone cold killer

Rian, did you take anything from knowing Joe?

R:  No, the character couldn’t – I mean in terms of the character, it can’t be any more different than Joe.  Joe is like the warmest, most wonderful human being on the planet.  And the killer, the guy is, like you said, he’s a killer who has a lot to learn in life. … I’ve been wanting to work with Joe again since “Brick.” We just stayed friends, and getting to do it again on this movie and not only that, but getting to see him do such an interesting [job] and pull off such an interesting challenge in terms of the role and specifically in what it called for was pretty amazing to watch.

And what was that?

R: … Because it’s a time-travel movie, Bruce Willis plays the older version of him. So we basically had to figure out a way to sell Joe as a young Bruce Willis. And that was prosthetics. It was three hours of makeup every morning, and it was a performance which is this incredible kind of high-wire act of acting, … where Joe is … doing Bruce, … but at the same time he’s creating a unique character, and so it’s not imitation. He … has the Bruce voice, but it’s kind of amazing to watch.  I’m not going to do justice describing it. its something you really have to see in the context of the movie.

Bruce Willis (left) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in as “Joe” in TriStar Pictures, Film District, and End Game Entertainment’s action thriller LOOPER. © 2011, Looper, LLC

So not like a Moonlighting version of Bruce Willis.

R: … That’s the weird thing. It’s your own character that you created, but … at the same time, you see that character, and you believe in the movie that could be a younger version of the Bruce you’re seeing on screen. …

What kind of conversations did you have with Bruce about playing the same character at different life points?  did you compare notes?

J:  It was more just kind of hanging out and spending time together.  We didn’t really need to talk about it explicitly. I just … watched all his movies and would take the audio out of his movies and put them on my iPod so I could listen to them over and over again. … But by far the most productive part of the preparation process was just hanging out, shooting the s–t, having dinner, talking about music, whatever, getting to know him.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as “Joe” in TriStar Pictures, Film District, and End Game Entertainment’s action thriller LOOPER.  © 2011, Looper, LLC

Time travel is an interesting subject for films because of the emotional beats it often produces.  Can you talk about how they might be unique in this film and how you put your unique stamps on this genre?

R: … Yeah, any time time travel is part of a story, it’s kind of this beast. … From a writing standpoint,  it’s a problem.  Because time travel never makes sense. And the best you can do with it–unless you’re Shane Carruth [director of Primer], who I think actually knows how time travel works–unless you’re that guy, the best you can do is kind of this magic trick where you distract the audience narratively from the fact that it actually doesn’t make sense. 

And so for me that was a really fun challenge. You know, how do you have time travel be an element in the movie, but convince the audience not to think about it so deeply to where they’re ignoring the movie because they’re thinking, “But, wait, this; but, wait, that?”

And so the approach we took is, “OK, these guys are assassins, basically, who use time travel as part of their job. So we’re just going to be with them. They don’t know how this stuff works; they don’t know the science.” They don’t care about grandfather paradoxes and all the complexities of, you know, all the message board comments on the io9 site about how it works or how it doesn’t. They’re showing up every day. A guy is appearing from the future, and they’re shooting him. That’s their job.  And so we stick with this kind of worm’s eye view of it, and that way we can get away with not answering a ton of questions on the blackboard halfway through the movie.

Did any other movies help inform this one?

R: The first Terminator was a model for me on how to deal with time travel, because it uses it very succinctly in the setup, and then gets out of the way for the characters and the action to take you through, and we very much followed that model in this movie.

J:  For me, more, it wasn’t so much about the time travel, like you said, because the character is not really thinking that much about it.  I would say its more Goodfellas or something like that, just like that character of a criminal, a hard guy, someone who has to kill people for a living.

Rian Johnson and the Looper Time Machine

The scrappiness

J:  Yea, I mean, what does that do to somebody, to have to pull the trigger every day and be that person?

Can you say how the project began?

R: I wrote a short film that I never ended up shooting, like, 10 years ago, and … I had been talking to Joe about it ever since. Around the time when we finished making Brick, and it kind of grew out of that and I wrote it after we made The Brothers Bloom. …

Having done this movie after inception, coming into a movie with so much complexity –  do you have questions yourself ?

J:  I ask lots of questions. You can ask Rian and Chris [Nolan], too, because my job as an actor is to understand the filmmaker and the film that they’re making. Because even though it looks like an actor is giving the performance, what the actor actually has to do is give the filmmaker the ingredients to then construct a performance in the editing room. And so I feel like my job is to understand it as best as I can what the filmmaker has in mind, and then provide those ingredients that they’re looking for.

So, yes, I ask lots of questions.  

Looper arrives in theaters September 28th, 2012
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