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Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page embrace the 'Inception' of smart projects

They may be in a $160-million summer movie, but don't be fooled: It's the exception to the rule. The two young actors eschew celebrity for serious work.

July 11, 2010|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times

These days, the term "young Hollywood" conjures up images of pouty, plastic starlets being chased down Robertson Boulevard by paparazzi and probation officers, but recently the soulful side of young Hollywood made an appearance at a corner deli on Franklin Avenue. "Hi Joe," Ellen Page said with a faraway smile as Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave her a hug.

Page and Gordon-Levitt are costars in Christopher Nolan's "Inception," the perception-bending heist movie that opens Friday amid high expectations and strong early reviews. Leonardo DiCaprio leads an extremely deep cast — there are seven Oscar nominees in the film — but Nolan says that Page and Gordon-Levitt more than held their own. "They were simply outstanding," the director said, "their performances are key to the film and some of the best work I've seen."

But more than their work in any single film, Gordon-Levitt and Page are interesting because, in an era when vacuous celebrity and recycled concepts are ascendent, they are talented actors of serious ambition. Of course, both of them roll their eyes at the expectations and even pretensions that come bundled with that sort of statement — but they also talk freely and articulately about their frustrations with the media of the moment and the paradoxes of stardom.

Page, a Nova Scotia native with bird bones and a steady gaze, made her screen debut at age 10 in a Canadian television movie and turned 23 a week after this St. Valentine's Day. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as a pregnant high school student in the 2007 film "Juno" and before that startled audiences in the 2005 movie "Hard Candy," in which she portrays a teenager who traps and tortures a man she suspects is a sexual predator.

Gordon-Levitt, 29, grew up in Sherman Oaks and, from age 15 to 20, in front of America, thanks to "3rd Rock From the Sun," the loopy alien sitcom that ran for six seasons. With considerable trepidation, he left the cast and acting to pursue studies at Columbia University. The time in New York propelled him back toward acting in 2004 with a resolve to work only in high-quality and indie fare. His work in "Brick," "Stop-Loss" and, especially, "(500) Days of Summer" has given a new trajectory to his career and made him restless at the same time.

"The best path for anyone is to just trust yourself, do what you believe in and don't try to cater to executives or whatever big company is going to give you a job at that moment," Gordon-Levitt said as he munched on a blueberry muffin. Neither he nor Page arrived with publicist or entourage in tow — both speak more like New York stage actors than L.A. celebrities; Gordon-Levitt said that he doesn't see his participation in a $160-million summer film as a surrender to the mainstream because "Inception" flies in the face of most popcorn-film conventions.

"Mr. Nolan is a beautiful example of someone doing exactly what they want to do," Gordon-Levitt said. "This movie wasn't developed by committee … I think that goes to show that more than ever there's room for quality and challenging things to become popular. Sure, there's still a lot of stupid stuff out there but things are changing, I think. And I'd say that Ellen and I are also examples."

He looked at Page sitting next to him. "Ten years ago, do you think that you and me would be in this position we're in, in a huge summer movie? I feel like they would have looked for people that were less unexpected, if that makes sense. You're in this position because you're an awesome actress, because of your talent and the quality of your work. It's not because of some celebrity thing."

Perhaps, but is "Inception," a Warner Bros.-Legendary Pictures production, really a sign of the changing times or just an exception to Hollywood's business as usual? Adult dramas and risk-taking scripts are harder to find on studio release schedules these days and most resources are going into sequels, remakes and "pre-sold" properties that are based on toys, comics, old television shows and video games.

It's common to see "serious" actors in summer special-effects films now — Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale and Adrien Brody among them — but is that a sign that the blockbusters are getting better or that the art house is getting smaller? The risk-taking of the 1970s American cinema seems like a long time ago. This summer, for instance, director Joe Carnahan veered from his indie-fare career to make "The A-Team" and sounded resigned when explaining his remake of a cheesy 1980s television show: "It's getting tougher to lead out there with your chin and finance something that doesn't have the loyalty of a fan base … There's billions of dollars at stake now, and that fundamentally alters the DNA of how we make films."

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