Johnny Depp has remained a box-office superstar (without losing his cosmopolitan-eccentric credentials) for so long now that we forget he once had to fight typecasting after beginning his career as a Tiger Beat pin-up. Remember? “21 Jump Street”? The pouting and the bangs and sassy-boy attitude that helped put the Fox network on the map back in the late ’80s?
While he doesn’t get the credit for it that Depp does, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has pulled a similar 180 in his leap from small screen to big, taking on challenging roles and working with visionary filmmakers who find new facets of this talented young performer.
It’s not like Gordon-Levitt is following the usual post-sitcom paradigm: Heck, for someone who spent his entire teenage life in front of three cameras and a laugh track on the hit series “Third Rock from the Sun,” it’s amazing that he’s working at all, given how cruel the business can be to young performers transitioning to adult roles. And as for grown-ups who jump to movies after making with the ha-ha on prime time, they’re more likely to wind up in vehicles like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” or “Rumor Has It” than the kind of films that Gordon-Levitt has pursued.
Take, for instance, “(500) Days of Summer.” It may be one of the more conventional films he’s taken on — although it’s shrewd of Gordon-Levitt to play a romantic lead as a change-up from his usual character-actor roles — but it’s a bold choice, nonetheless. After all, as the film’s narrator informs us (and as the title implies), this may be a boy-meets-girl story but it’s not a love story. And in the same way that most action stars refuse to die on screen, there’s no doubt any number of rom-com heroes who won’t take a script in which they don’t get the girl at the end.
Besides, who can begrudge the actor the opportunity to pitch woo at Zooey Deschanel and dance around to Hall & Oates when he’s taken on so many grim and gritty roles of late? His turn as a gay street hustler on the run from the childhood sexual abuse in his past in Gregg Araki’s devastating and powerful screen adaptation of “Mysterious Skin” is an unrelenting and uncompromising performance. You never catch Gordon-Levitt acting; he completely inhabits the role, stripping away any layers of artifice that might lie between him and the audience. The film was little seen outside of gay and art-house film circles, but Gordon-Levitt delivers some of the decade’s most gut-punching screen work.
Other bold post-“Third Rock” choices for the actor include “Stop-Loss,” where he plays a returning Iraq War veteran who’s dangerously losing his grip; the smart and stylish “Brick,” which boasts a witty lead turn by Gordon-Levitt as a high-school gumshoe in a film noir universe; a role as a brain-damaged janitor who becomes the patsy in a bank heist in Scott Frank’s directorial debut “The Lookout”; the coming-out drama “Latter Days,” in which he plays a stern and homophobic Mormon missionary; and Lee Daniels’ cult fave “Shadowboxer,” which offers the once-in-a-lifetime romantic screen pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo’Nique.
‘I wanted to be in good movies’OK, yes, Gordon-Levitt will be seen later this summer as a bad guy in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but he’s entitled to take a money movie every so often. One can only imagine the number of well-paying dopey film and TV comedies that he’s turned down to make interesting, off-beat, low-budget movies that open at Sundance before, with any luck, breaking even at best at the box office.
What has allowed this performer to subvert the usual paradigm of the sitcom alum? Well, talent helps, obviously, but Gordon-Levitt has also shaped his own career with quality over quantity in mind, and that’s a rare phenomenon in show business. He told an interviewer in 2007, “The conscious decision was that I wanted to be in good movies.”
It also helped that, after “Third Rock,” Gordon-Levitt took some time to regroup and attended Columbia University for four years. While he didn’t graduate, the college experience provided some new perspective and even gave him the opportunity to become a fluent French speaker. Would that more actors between the ages of 18 and 25 put down the crappy scripts and read Flaubert or “The Federalist Papers.”
Gordon-Levitt also gravitates toward ambitious and challenging filmmakers who bring out his best work. You’ve got to be on your game when you sign on to collaborate with Kimberly Peirce (“Stop-Loss”) or Araki or Spike Lee (“Miracle at St. Anna”), and the results are mutually beneficial — he grows as an actor, they get great performances from a well-known name who helps them get financing.
Ultimately, it appears that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is investing in his future rather than cashing in on the short term. Sitcom stars who feel they have a limited amount of time before the audience loses interest have to grab the money while they can. On the other hand, if you’re a real actor who’s building toward a varied and ongoing career — where both the money and the prestige adds up over time — you take the interesting roles with the talented directors even if it means forsaking a fat paycheck.
He’s off to an interesting start.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .