Joseph Gordon-:Levitt is going to surprise everybody in the not too distant future. See, the kid’s a great actor, but he’s still got the Third Rock From the Sun thing around his neck and he’s been acting in a lot of smaller indie movies that don’t get seen much outside of specialty circles. But someday soon he’s going to end up in a good role in a big movie and for most of America it’s going to be like he came out of nowhere – but we’ll have been watching all along.
Jeff Daniels isn’t going to surprise anybody, at least not if they’ve seen his other films. Daniels is one of the most solid, reliable, and enjoyable actors working today. He’s one of those guys who, even when he’s in crap, will make the crap somehow palatable.
Getting to talk to these two actors together at the press day for The Lookout was a rare treat. In the film Gordon-Levitt stars as Chris, a former high school athlete suffering from mass brain damage after a tragic accident. Daniels is his roommate, a cynically funny blind man. Into their life comes one of Chris’ former schoolmates, who offers him the opportunity to get involved in what seems like a sure-fire heist.
The Lookout is the debut directorial effort from the excellent screenwriter Scott (Out of Sight) Frank. It opens this Friday. Look for my interview with Scott Frank tomorrow.
Have you been back to Brooklyn lately, Jeff?
Daniels: I haven’t. But I liked working there, it’s a nice place. I took the train every day to work, the 2 train. No limos, no budget. ‘It would really help us if you took the train.’
I saw you on the street the other day.
Daniels: In a fog, I bet.
You were wearing this black hat. I didn’t want to bother you.
Daniels: The hat from the Lookout! I’m doing a play right now and it… I just have blinders on.
Speaking of blinders, how was the experience of playing a blind character?
Daniels: [laughs] Very good.
Gordon-Levitt: Next table we do he’s going to sit down and say, ‘I’m doing a play, I have blinders on…’ [looks expectantly around the room]
Daniels: I really enjoyed it because I didn’t know how to do it. The script was well-written, the character was well-written, really good story, a passionate writer/director who couldn’t wait to make his first movie. I had never done blind before. I had never done the aging crystal meth guy. There were a lot of specifics to him and I didn’t know how to do it.
How did you figure it out?
Daniels: First you say yes and then you figure it out, because then you’re challenged, then you’re motivated, then you’re into it. As opposed to, ‘Oh, you want me to do that thing I did before, but this time for you.’ I went to the Michigan Institute for the Blind, in Kalamazoo, Michigan – I live in Michigan – and they were very helpful. Very helpful not only in the externals, like how to walk and how to read Braille, all the external stuff that actors have to do to make it look it authentic so that you don’t have to think about it, but also in what it does to your psyche. Your mental and emotional stuff. That was all very helpful.
Is it very technical playing blind? Do you get caught up in the small details?
Daniels: You do all the research so you can forget it. It becomes second nature. Plus, when I had the sunglasses on, I just closed my eyes. When you go for the glass there isn’t just reaching for the glass, you sneak up on it. So you have to do it the way they taught you, otherwise you spill the coffee.
Did you have any accidents on set doing that? Did you ever spill the coffee?
Daniels: The kitchen scene was a disaster.
Gordon-Levitt: The tomato sauce.
Daniels: I was getting pissed off. I had to take the tomato can, find the [can opener], put it in there, vroom, and by the way don’t cut yourself because you’re blind, and pour it over here.
Gordon-Levitt: And you had to talk.
Daniels: And do some schmacting at the same time. Joe was very patient with me?
How is it now going into a stage play?
Daniels: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mainly because the play is so difficult, and the dialogue is so difficult. There is no easy, simple way to do this particular play. I tried to find a way to do the mule on the trail thing that actors do so they can work eight times a week; I’m going to pretend I’m in pain so I can go to lunch later with a friend of mine, and you can’t. It’s pain, pain, pain, curtain call.
Joe, what kind of prep did you do for your role in this?
Gordon-Levitt: Probably similar to Jeff’s. I hung out with guys that had been through it. I did some reading also about what, technically, traumatic brain injury is, but more fruitful was hanging out with guys and letting it seep in. And learning that you can’t put any of them in a box and no two of them were alike. These were all individuals, and hanging out with them, talking with them, was like talking to a person – which led me to not want to make the character a simple stereotype but instead make him a whole human being where one of the things about him was that he was in this accident, but there are plenty of other things about him. He’s a unique individual.
Do you find that you keep aspects of the character in between takes or do you snap in and out of character?
Gordon-Levitt: That’s a hard one to answer because I don’t know how to answer it really.
Daniels: It depends on the scene, doesn’t it?
Gordon-Levitt: It definitely depends on the scene. It also depends on the character. This character… I guess it’s more of a mood. You stay in the right mood.
How do you do that?
Gordon-Levitt: I would always have my eye on making sure I was in the right mood once I got to work. I didn’t sleep a lot. To me music is a big part of it, choosing what music to listen to. Movie sets are just logistical nightmares with a million distractions all the time, so keeping focus is half the job. Put on headphones and listen to music. Any time I create a character, picking what music defines that character is a big part of it for me.
Is that music that defines it for you or music that the character would be listening to?
Gordon-Levitt:Sometime there’s overlap, but they’re not necessarily the same.
Both of you guys played disabled folks. Were you afraid of crossing the lines of pathos at any point?
Daniels: The thing that I found, and I think Chris [Joe’s character] was coming to was, ‘I’m normal, what’s your problem?’ That’s what the blind guys that I worked with said. ‘I’m fine. I’m probably better off and happier and have fewer issues in my life than you do. I just can’t see.’ You get this onslaught of positivity from these people – not all, but a lot of those people. I think Chris was still struggling to overcome that.
Gordon-Levitt: I think it would be easy to fall into that trap. Chris is sad, and he’s guilty and regretful and ashamed of this accident that he caused, and so I think it would be easy to play this morose Eeyore, and I didn’t want to do that. Even though the story of The Lookout seems really sad, it’s actually a really fun movie to watch. It’s this entertaining, snappy heist, and there are a lot of laughs. People laugh at him [gestures to Daniels] all through the movie, and they even laugh at me sometimes. We wanted it to be fun, it’s not a movie about being disabled at all – it’s a bank heist.
What was it that you saw about that story that made you want to be in the movie?
Gordon-Levitt: For me, as always, it was the script. I think good writing is hard to come by. I think writing has been under emphasized in our business, unfortunately, in favor of marketing gimmicks and special effects. But Scott Frank really knows how to write, and it’s a rare gem to come by. And then I met Scott, and he’s just an inspiring guy. We immediately started talking about all sorts of things, details he wanted to put in the movie and the camera and the music, as well as larger issues of that the movie could make you think. If I can creatively connect with somebody and I have some material that inspires me, that’s all I care about.
Is it all because of special effects and marketing or does a lot of it have to do with audience demographics that have changed a lot in the last fifteen years?
Gordon-Levitt: You know, I don’t believe that. I hear a lot of people say that it’s the audience’s fault and that the audience wants to see bad stuff, but I don’t believe it. They want to see good movies.
Daniels: But there’s this whole, ‘Write it so a 14-year old could get it.’ How long has that been around?
With The Messengers, the haunted house movie, they were told to target 13-year old girls.
Gordon-Levitt: But there are cool 13-year old girls. When I was 13 I liked the Coen Brothers. I think that’s an archaic way of looking at it. I don’t believe it. I think that’s the way the business is working now, but that’s why the business is falling apart right now.
Daniels: I don’t know a damn thing about marketing, and I don’t want to know, because marketing is killing this country and it certainly elected a president. I think that’s part of the change – it seems to me, and this is an exaggeration, before you give the green light to a movie, you have to get the OK from marketing. And it didn’t always used to be that way.
Gordon-Levitt: And The Lookout is an exception to that, by the way.
Were you ever in films that were destroyed by bad marketing?
Daniels: Something Wild was marketed as like a Chevy Chase comedy, but it wasn’t. But there’s no exact science to this stuff. A movie that’s smart isn’t going to – the smarter the movie is, the smaller your audience is going to be.
Gordon-Levitt: Until you get a movie like The Matrix, which was really, really smart and a big hit.
Daniels: Were there sequels in the 60s and 70s like there are now? Because certainly what’s going on is ‘Do what you did before that made 200 million.’
They did dozens of Dead End Kids movies in the 30s.
Daniels: That was before television, though. That was like the movies version of a television series.
Joe, this weekend in the New York Times there was a profile of you with the headline ‘From Alien Boy to Indie Darling.’ Are you at the stage of your career where you’re sick of having this teen actor thing around your neck?
Gordon-Levitt: I’m really proud of Third Rock From the Sun, I think it’s great.
But do you feel like you might still get pigeonholed into that teen magazine thing?
Daniels: Joe won’t allow that. He just won’t allow that. I’ve seen it and he won’t allow it. That won’t happen.
Gordon-Levitt: I think I’m lucky that Scott Frank and some others that I’ve worked with in the past few years had their mind on what’s important, which is not ‘What magazine can we put you in,’ but what part you’re going to play. When you make it about the work and not the other stuff, then I think that it all works out fine.
Where’s the line between the celebrity stuff and the work stuff? Can you get rid of all the celebrity stuff and still have a really great career in the business as it is these days.
Daniels: [raises hand] Yeah. It’s kind of freeing in a way, I must say.
Gordon-Levitt: Making good movies is not a short cut but it works fine.
Daniels: Being around for a while I can say that having chops goes a long way. Nicholson told me on Terms, ‘This is the pro game.’ When you’ve got a 100 million dollar movie, or you’ve got The Lookout and you’re carrying the whole movie, it’s two seconds left and you’ve got to hit the three pointer. It’s what we do every day. [Joe] had to do that every day, and if you’re just a celebrity, just a hunk coming off a really popular television show where you’re photographed in gauze, you can’t do that. The people around you can see that you don’t have it. For as much as they want to make him into something like that, it’ll eventually go away and they’ll find somebody receptive to that.
Scott Frank said that one of the biggest challenges in this film was the weather, that it was extremely cold.
Daniels: It was cold.
Gordon-Levitt: I liked how cold it was. It allowed me to focus – like I was saying, keeping your concentration on a movie set and staying in it is at least half the battle. We’d have our jackets on and be waiting, and then when it was time to roll we’d take our jackets off and be fucking freezing. It’s not hard to be in it when you’re really cold.
Daniels: The fewer things you have to act, the better. That’s the difference between stage and film. If it’s supposed to be cold and you’re out there and it’s ten degrees in Winnipeg, oh good. I don’t have to shake, I don’t have to make believe cold. You use it. It all makes it easier.
What do you guys have coming up next?
Gordon-Levitt: I did a movie called Killshot, where I play a sociopathic killer in a Cadillac with Mickey Rourke, and I did another one called StopLoss, about soldiers coming home from Iraq.
Your grandfather was blacklisted in the industry because of his politics. You’re doing this movie, which deals with how soldiers are treated by the military, which could be very controversial, and has political overtones. Do you think it’s important to be political in filmmaking?
Gordon-Levitt: That’s a tough one to answer. I think any good story should speak about the whole world, and it’s up to the audience to make that inference.
Daniels: If being political means asking questions, getting to the end and having questions and throwing that in the faces of the audience so that as they’re walking out they’re asking themselves, then yes.
Gordon-Levitt: One of the things I like about The Lookout is that people do disagree about certain things. They’ll talk about Lovely a lot. Did she really care about him or was she just using him? I like movies that make people ask questions, that make people wonder. That make me wonder.
That is a good question. Was she a good person, was she a bad person?
Gordon-Levitt: After I just gone telling you…!
You couldn’t really tell. She did care about you, that was obvious.
Gordon-Levitt: That speaks to Isla Fisher’s talent as an actress. It would have been easy to play that character simplistically, but it was her finesse that makes it more mysterious.
Jeff, you have Mama’s Boy coming up. Who do you play in that?
Daniels: Diane Keaton’s love interest. It’s John Heder and Diane and me. Lot of fun. Comedy. Loved working with both of them, but because of the whole Woody Allen connection and Purple Rose I loved working with Diane.
Did you compare Woody war stories?
Daniels: Not really. How deeply do you want to go into it? She would mention him – ‘Oh that’s something Woody would say.’ It’s strange because we had a walk and talk from the car to the door on our date (and she doesn’t think she’s an actress; they’re doing an AFI tribute to her in a couple of weeks and she says, ‘Oh I’m not an actress. I’m a personality. I turn it up, I turn it down, that’s what I do. La dee da.’ ) and you’re walking to her door and you find yourself doing Woody! [begins a series of impressive Woody-like gestures and then slaps his own hand] Stop it! Stop it!