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Hesher – Joseph Gordon-Levitt on how his audition changed the directors mind

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Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © 2011 Newmarket Films

Joseph Gordon-Levitt spends his time going between blockbuster studio films, like Inception, and independent releases, such as (500) Days of Summer. His new movie Hesher falls into the independent category.

Starring as the title character, he’s an eccentric unhinged drifter who loves loud music, pornography and burning stuff to the ground. Hesher appears from nowhere to help a struggling family, 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu), his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson) and TJ’s grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie) deal with the loss of a loved one in a most unconventional of ways.

I’ve never seen you in a role like this before. Were you shocked to be asked?

Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nicole (Natalie Portman) © 2011 Newmarket Films

Well at first the director (Spencer Susser) didn’t think I could do it, probably for the same reason you’re talking about. He said, ‘All due respect, he’s a great actor, but I don’t think he could do this character. He’s nothing like that.’

I convinced him to meet me and so we went and had dinner and it was great meeting him but he still said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ So I convinced him to let me audition for him, and I changed his mind.

I know you loved Metallica when you were young, that their music features prominently in this movie.

It’s a funny thing, growing up and having that music mean so much to me, I loved that band, and I still do listen to that music, but it was great having a role come so full circle and have that music be so central to the creation of the character. We based a lot of the character of Hesher on the old Metallica bassist Cliff Burton.

And then what was really cool was Spencer made a cut of the movie with temp music as you do, and he put Metallica in there. We said, ‘Well, that sounds great, but they’ll never let us use their music.’ But he showed them the movie and the band actually really dug the film, and they let us use their music, and they don’t let anybody use their music.

It was a real honor. That’s so gratifying, to have the people who inspired a lot of what we did in the movie, to then have the movie resonate with them.

How would you describe Hesher?

Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © 2011 Newmarket Films

I think he’s always undermining expectations, I think that‚s part of why he calls himself Hesher, is because I think he gets is jollies surprising people, and he calls himself by a stereotype because he’s so counter to any stereotype. I think a lot of people who would see him would assume that they have his number right away, ‘Oh, long hair, boots, I know who you are,’ but you don’t. I think Hesher’s quite a thinker and quite a righteous individual in fact, despite his unruly appearance.

Was there any conversation about your looking like a messed up Jesus, because you are a savior to the family?

It wasn’t something that we were aiming for. I won’t disagree with you, I think that’s a beautiful interpretation of it.

What part of Hesher’s wisdom resonates with you the most?

What I like about him is he’s really present, he’s detached himself from a lot of the things that I think we all carry around with us, like our material things, our cars and our houses and our clothes, and he’s detached himself from the future. We all get wrapped up in, ‘What’s going to happen if I do this?

What’s tomorrow going to be like? What’s five years from now going to be like?’ He’s just here and now. You can’t live only that way, well you can but you’ll be homeless in a van, and that’s a valid choice I guess, and I admire him for making that choice.

But I think even if you’re not going to live as extremely as Hesher does, to remember the merit in forgetting all those things and just paying attention to what’s going on right now, and how you feel right at the moment. I think that’s illuminating and I connected with that and I think everybody has some of that in them.

Were there parts of the character that you did not like?

Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © 2011 Newmarket Films

I like him. I don’t think he’s a perfect human being and I like that about him. I don’t think anyone really is. I think he’s cool.

Your performance is raw emotionally, was there any scene that was difficult for you?

The last scene in the movie where I’m supposed to be really messed up I was really messed up. (he laughs) That didn’t feel good at the end of the day.

You had a great chemistry with Piper Laurie.

Piper was great to work with. She’s such a great actress and I’ve loved the movies she’s been in, The Hustler, that’s a classic movie with Paul Newman. I thought it was just a beautiful performance that she gave, it was really heartfelt, and really funny at the same time.

That’s a rare combination to find someone who’s got comic timing and understands how to make something work in that way, but also stays really genuine and heartfelt.

Why do you think he has such a special relationship with the grandmother?

Hesher - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) © 2011 Newmarket Films

That’s a good question. I think the grandma is really honest and I think he likes that. Most people really put up a front and I think Hesher spends a lot of time messing with people and their fronts. But the grandma just wears her heart on her sleeve and I think he feels a real connection with that.

At the beginning of the film Hesher is messing with the family in almost an abusive way, but he grows to care about them. What do you think happened within Hesher to make him change?

That’s a good question. Oftentimes you have a movie with a big broad character at the center of it, but there’s nothing underneath and it’s just the same shtick over and over again, but Hesher does have a story and he does change and he does grow.

Unintentionally I think he ends up feeling a lot of sympathy and empathy for these three people in this family and does develop a connection to them, and doesn’t necessarily know how to deal with those feelings but he’s not one to run from his feelings either, so he plows right in.