First, call him Joe. The hyphenated mouthful—Joseph Gordon-Levitt—that appears onscreen when you see one of his movies is a perfectly decent name, of course, but it sounds as if it should belong to some Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist. Whereas the guy sitting here in the darkness of his home studio comes across like an overgrown kid who just got off his 17th spin on Space Mountain.

An extraordinarily bright kid, true: Get Joe rolling and it's only a matter of minutes before the conversation is ping-ponging between Buddhism and Fellini, French poets and Russian clowns. But his brightness is so shiny and childlike, as he swivels around in an ergonomic chair at his house in the Los Angeles hipster playground of Silver Lake, that even his eyelids seem to grin. Start him talking about his new movie, Inception, the mystery-shrouded summer thriller directed by Christopher Nolan, the auteur behind The Dark Knight and Memento, and the 29-year-old actor appears to hover in a Tasmanian Devil funnel of static electricity. "He never loses his sense of enthusiasm—truly boyish enthusiasm for the fun thing we're doing," Nolan says. "When you work on big movies, everybody gets jaded, myself included, and you have to remind yourself: If we were 10 years old, this would be pretty damn exciting. Joe never seems to forget that." So, yes: Joe.

Anyway, in spite of that Space Mountain smile, something bad happened yesterday. "I don't even want to talk about it," Joe says. Well, maybe a little. See, he just finished shooting "the cancer movie"—an as-yet-unnamed oncology comedy in which he plays a chemo patient alongside Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick. He shaved his head for it. His hair still hasn't grown back, which means that Joe, with that Tibetan-monkish pate and those sapling arms of his protruding out of a maroon T-shirt that has a gaping hole in the back ("That's embarrassing," he says. "I shouldn't have worn this—I think a lamp burned a hole in it"), sort of resembles a handsome version of a hairless cat. He had come home after shooting scenes in Vancouver, switched on his computer, and...well, something went wrong. "A lot of shit got erased," he says. "It's okay." The overgrown kid consoled himself with a bowl of chocolate Cheerios. He laughs, grimaces, sighs, says it again: "It's okay. You have to let go of some things. I've lost so much."

Years ago, when his teenage apprenticeship as a boy alien on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun was winding down and he had enrolled in Columbia University to study French, Joe walked into his Manhattan apartment one day to find that a beloved laptop had been stolen. "And I stupidly had not backed up the files," he says.

Wasn't he anxious about identity theft?

"That was the least of my concerns. I was much more worried about the hundreds of pages of shit I had written."

Was any of it meaningful?

"Yeah," he says. "Deeply meaningful. I was writing almost every day. I mean, there was a lot of bullshit. I would spend, like, a page writing about some girl's body. But that's good stuff to have too."

• • •

Joe revisits the wincing angst of the stolen-laptop episode and grins some more. This is telling, because the being known as Joseph Gordon-Levitt wouldn't be where he is right now—appearing in a massive Christopher Nolan film and on the brink, it seems, of movie-stardom—if he didn't have a spirited approach to the timeless American art of identity erasure. Starting anew is what keeps him moving forward.

Back when that undergraduate laptop was burgled, in fact, Joe was going through a crisis. He had plenty of money, sure. Six years on a hit sitcom, as well as roles in movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Angels in the Outfield, had fattened his bank account far beyond what you'd expect from a kid who'd been offed in the first reel of Halloween H20. At the same time, his allure as an actor was in need of overdraft protection. "I was going to a lot of auditions and getting a lot of nos," he says. The standard reflex when Joe's name came up was something along the lines of "Huh? You mean that long-haired kid from 3rd Rock?"