Mr. Gordon-Levitt, few people are both as lauded and condemned as Edward Snowden. How do you go about playing such a controversial character?
Snowden’s story is part of a larger political conversation, but I tried to approach him like any other character, tried to understand who he was as a person and bring more attention to that than any political argument or agenda.
You’ve met him, too. Is there anything about him that’s hard not to like?
He is quite an old-fashioned guy, extremely polite. He’s from North Carolina where people traditionally attach importance to good manners. Of course, he has very strong beliefs and principles. He really is extremely dedicated to what he cares about. And he cares a lot about his country.
Something most Americans probably wouldn’t agree with …
Sure, he was critical of certain individuals and institutions within our government. But for him, that criticism is something that comes very much out of the love he has for his country. When he sees something bad happening there, he wants to try and fix it.
Do you have strong convictions yourself?
I have never risked my life for any of my principles. I would not compare myself to Snowden.
What are your principles?
One that I focus on is not being overly seduced by money. But the truth is, I have never been hungry or poor. I don’t know what it’s like not to have enough.
As a Hollywood actor, you’re presumably no stranger to commercial considerations …
I don’t think very often about whether a movie is going to make money or be good for my career. I follow my creative impulses.
Can you afford to do that?
So far, yes. I also have faith that the career and the business will do what they are supposed to do if I stick to that principle.
Is it enough to have just one?
That’s an interesting question. I feel that we should appreciate what makes each of us unique. Rather than comparing somebody to the expectations you might have, you should listen to and treat people as individuals. You could call that empathy. I don’t know if it’s a principle. It is difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I am certainly not perfect at it, but it’s something I strive for. I do it explicitly when I am acting.
So did you become an actor to develop your empathy?
If you ask an artist why he does what he does, there is no answer. If I could explain it in words, why would I have to do it? I remember the first time I was on a stage. It was in a little community theater and I was playing the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. I was five years old. And I remember the first scene, walking like the scarecrow, falling and getting up, and I remember the audience laughing and the rush that gave me. I wanted to experience it again. But that wouldn’t be my answer because it would be too simple.
Do you get an adrenaline rush in front of the camera?
To a degree, yes. But it’s more intense when it’s a live performance. Like when I twice hosted “Saturday Night Live” – live TV, very rare nowadays. You have no second chance if you mess up.
If you ask an artist why he does what he does, there is no answer
Your parents are founding members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which campaigns for social equality, among other things. How have they influenced your attitude to life?
My parents played an enormous part, just like my older brother. I would give a lot of credit to my parents for making me a self-possessed person and giving me the confidence to listen to my inner self.
And what does it say you should be doing?
My dream is to make people participate in rather than just consume media.
Which is why you founded the interactive online production company HitRecord, whose users create art together. What’s special about it?
HitRecord changes the whole concept of creativity. In our culture, we have a tendency to pigeonhole, saying “Either you are a writer or you are a performer. You can’t be both.” At HitRecord we use a single word for all the different types of media so as not to set limits to human creativity. Those projects make me happy.
Don’t you risk losing sight of reality in the big, wide world of the Internet?
That’s a tough one, a big question for our generation. There are certainly a lot of pitfalls inherent in online culture. The Internet is highly addictive, damaging and mind-numbing, shallow, narcissistic etc. But it has the ability to allow us to connect to each other and organize and be productive. Ultimately, it’s the same as with any technology, it can be used positively or negatively. Not a particularly original answer, but that’s the way I see it.