If there is some enzyme produced by the Gordon-Levitt DNA coil that tends to make a person preternaturally ebullient and focused, pharmaceutical companies might want to look into marketing it. Joe's parents, Jane Gordon and Dennis Levitt, who met when they were working at the Southern California lefty-radical radio station KPFK-FM, appear to have imparted in their two sons an instinct for self-monitoring and an unusually healthy disregard for convention. (Daniel Gordon-Levitt, Joe's older brother, is a photographer and a fire spinner—yes, he dances with flaming torches.) Even in his sitcom days, Joe had a filter that kept any potential child-star self-sabotage in check. "When I was in high school, I loved smoking weed," he says. "I loved it. But I cut myself to once a month. That was my rule. And so as the first of the month came closer, my friends would be like, 'All right, what's the plan this weekend?' And actually it's really cool—when you do it that infrequently, you can really trip. In hindsight, could I have smoked weed on the weekends? Yeah. But it was cool to do it once a month. I still do that sometimes—I go on little weedfests. I'm a pothead. That's my drug of choice."
Really, though, it's more accurate to say that his drug of choice is the Internet—in particular a website called hitRECord.org. Joe launched the site about five years ago, and it has expanded into a hive of creativity, with more than 7,000 participants collaborating to make songs, images, stories, and short films. He oversees the site from a bank of computers in his home studio, a crepuscular room with black curtains over the windows, black walls made of foamlike sound-deadening material, a closet full of eerily beeping servers, and a drum kit that he uses to pound out any postmidnight frustrations.
This is what gets Joe fired up. "The most valiant thing you can do as an artist," he says, "is inspire someone else to be creative." He has instigated a spate of short films—some starring friends like Gugino and Channing Tatum—and he does a lot of the shooting and recording and mixing right here in his black-curtained cavern. Through hitRECord he wants to attract ideas from people all over the world and make original movies without a whit of Hollywood interference. A psychoanalyst might observe that the kid who kept hearing no from Hollywood has sublimated his annoyance by conjuring up an alternative salon where everyone always hears yes. "If the goal is to get the best artists, actors, and filmmakers in the world to create the best movies, Hollywood does a decent job," he says. "And I think no one would disagree with me that it also makes a ton of bad movies and employs a bunch of hacks. What's coming is going to be a lot better, whether it's music or movies or journalism. The media's about to become a lot more effective." Whether Joe is an altruist or a wired Louis B. Mayer in embryonic form, he's so convinced that idea-swapping indie media is the wave of the future that he nearly floats when he talks about it. "There's a lot of stuff that gets created for the love of it, and there's a lot that really does get created with almost no love involved," he says. "Just to make money. I think of Chris Nolan as a shining example of somebody who can do something for the love and still succeed at the money game. A lot of people make excuses and say, 'Ah, well, there's no room for love here. We have to make money.' And I love to point to Chris Nolan and say, 'Fuck you guys. This guy's making more money than you are, and he's making beautiful, genuine movies.'"
Besides, if the essence of Joe is that he has no discernible essence, well, that applies even to the idea that he is merely an actor. "To be honest," he says, "I sort of feel like 'movie actor' isn't of this time. I love it. But it's a 20th-century art form." The creative pioneer of the new era, he posits, is "the DJ, the curator, the remix artist, the person who confronts the superabundance, plucks out the gems, and puts them together in such a way that it means something." And if Joe is reluctant to be hemmed in as a silver-screen persona, he's more aggressively allergic to the notion of becoming a celebrity. He sees American tabloid culture as downright toxic. "It's a bunch of bullshit, a waste of time," he says. "It depresses me. And I'm not easily depressed. When I'm at the grocery store, those magazines—they always suck me in. I go, 'I can't fuckin' believe that this is what we're looking at.' It's really sad. Why shouldn't there be beautiful works of art on the grocery stands? Like Bob Dylan said, you know, art doesn't belong in museums, it belongs in gas stations." Joe goes on. "Even in a purely selfish way, I would absolutely argue that you are bringing bad shit your way by consuming and enjoying that kind of hostility." Naturally Joe continues to grin as he says this.