The most-hyped movie of 2012, The Dark Knight Rises, features Tom Hardy as a hulking, accented terrorist; Anne Hathaway as a slinky, morally ambiguous thief; and Christian Bale as—well, you know who Christian Bale was.
So it’s saying something that the most-talked-about character arc was that of the steel-nerved Gotham City cop John Blake. Though blessed with no latex costume or throaty growl, Blake added a layer of human nuance to the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy—a nuance that largely owes its success to the assured, idiosyncratic skill of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is quickly establishing himself as one of today’s most consistently interesting actors.
Gordon-Levitt could easily trade on his handsome looks and ample charisma to churn out predictable dreck along the lines of Dear John and The Lucky One. But in every film he takes on, there are surprising layers beneath the surface. He prefers themes that challenge and leave viewers scratching their heads.
Whether playing a victim of childhood sexual abuse who becomes trapped in a life of prostitution in his under-seen 2004 breakthrough film Mysterious Skin, a hipster everyman learning about the harsh realities of love in 2009’s (500) Days of Summer or a twentysomething wrestling long odds with cancer in last year’s 50/50, Gordon-Levitt rose through the indie film world by making tough choices with intellectual heft, plenty of heart and limited mass appeal.
Even as he stepped into blockbuster roles with The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and his new film, Looper, he has kept his aim straight, as each of these films have plenty to say about society and the human condition. Looper, in particular, stands out for its willingness to ask big questions about good, evil and the consequences of life choices—all amid a dizzying array of adrenaline.
For this son of two former political activists who tries to avoid the trappings of celebrity life off-screen, acting is just a window through which he can look at the world.