10:00am

Fri February 3, 2012
Movie Interviews

Going In '50/50' On A Cancer Comedy, With Laughs

Originally published on Fri February 3, 2012 11:26 am

This interview was originally broadcast on September 28, 2011. 50/50 is now available on DVD.

When screenwriter Will Reiser was 24 and diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer, he coped by thinking up ideas for cancer comedies with his best friend, actor Seth Rogen.

"We wanted to do a parody of The Bucket List where you do really absurd and ridiculous things," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Like skydiving with hookers and things that were completely outlandish. But it was a joke, and it was sort of a coping mechanism for me at the time."

Six years after his diagnosis, Reiser is now cancer-free. He's also now a screenwriter, for a comedic film loosely based on his experiences throughout his cancer diagnosis and treatment. The movie, called 50/50 after Reiser's initial survival odds, stars Rogen alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a kind of Reiser stand-in.

Gordon-Levitt, a veteran actor who has been in films like Inception, Hesher, and (500) Days of Summer, says he was drawn to the part of Adam because Reiser's script was one of the rare comedic scripts he's received that doesn't have cliched plot points or stereotypes.

"I read the script, and I quite liked it. I was laughing. I was concerned. I didn't know what was going to happen next," Gordon-Levitt says. "These are all what makes me want to get involved with a project. So I flew up to meet [the cast and crew] and accepted the role the next day."

And over the next few weeks, Gordon-Levitt repeatedly interviewed Reiser about his physical and emotional transformation over the course of his cancer treatments.

"I'd ask him, 'What hurt? Where? When? For how long? How badly?' " says Gordon-Levitt. "That was always really useful. ... But the more interesting stuff that we would talk about was not medical at all. It was, 'How do you feel? What were you thinking about?' And that's really what the movie is about, to me."

The movie does have its funny moments. Reiser says the film doesn't make fun of cancer itself, but instead finds humor in how people close to cancer patients react to their diagnosis. Adam's on-screen mother, played by Anjelica Huston, tries to smother her son — which is exactly what Reiser's mom did in real life.

"She got on a plane and flew to L.A. We went to one doctor's appointment, and I just could not handle being babied. I was 25, and I was just at the age where I was really kind of finding my own independence," Reiser says. "The idea of having my mother take care of me just seemed so unbearable. So I put her on a plane and made her go back to New York. ... It's hard at 25 to know how to ask for help from your mother, because it's the person you're trying to break away from."

His best friend Rogen, meanwhile, tried to be helpful by making Reiser laugh — and by changing his bandages despite having an aversion to bodily fluids.

"Seth was incredibly squeamish," says Reiser. "Despite what you might think about Seth, he is an incredibly fragile human being who does not like the sight of blood or cuts or scrapes or anything like that. For him, changing the dressing and seeing my giant wound was a traumatic experience for him. But he did it — he just complained about it the whole time, much as he does in the movie."

Rogen also suggested to Reiser that he use his cancer diagnosis as a sympathetic pick-up line. But that didn't work out so well.

"People would give me a lot of sympathy, but really, it was the kind of sympathy that you'd give a sick dog," he says. "It wasn't like women found me really attractive because I had cancer. It's because they felt bad for me. It was pity-sympathy. It wasn't sex-sympathy."

Reiser says he looks back on his illness differently now.

"I did feel like I was a victim right after I went through the entire ordeal, but now I've really kind of processed that and moved on from that period," he says. "But there was a time when it was really difficult, and I felt like who I was was entangled in being 'a sick person.' ... It's pretty incredible for me to take what was the most painful experience in my life and turn it into something that I'm really proud of and that I've made with my friends. I think it's pretty great."


Joseph Gordon-Levitt Additional Interview Highlights

On 3rd Rock From The Sun

"By the time I did 3rd Rock, I had been acting for seven years. I had just crossed the majority-of-my-life threshold. It was always a bit of a joke on set with Kristen [Johnston] and French [Stewart], who had two of the other regular roles on 3rd Rock — they were from the theater before, but hadn't done much TV or movies. That was the joke ... because the character I played on that show was supposed to be the old one."

On life after 3rdRock

"After 3rd Rock, it was very difficult to convince anybody that I could do anything other than be in a funny TV show or romantic comedy. I don't blame folks for not wanting to put me in their movies or whatever. I understand if their audiences had an association with me. [But] it was definitely hard for me to get jobs for me for a while."

On Inception

"A lot of the motivation for doing the "Make 'Em Laugh" [opening monologue] on SNL was because I had just finished shooting Inception, where there were zero-gravity scenes and I got into really good shape and was training and did all these stunts. Coming off of that, that instilled me with the confidence to do "Make 'Em Laugh."

On his older brother Dan, who died last year

"He did everything first. ... He was an extreme optimist. And so encouraging. His whole thing was getting people to bring to the forefront 'the superhero inside of them,' is one of the ways he would put it. So to have somebody so encouraging as a big brother, I definitely think that it was huge for me."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The movie comedy "50/50," which has just been released on DVD, is about a 27-year-old diagnosed with cancer and given a 50/50 chance of survival. The movie was written by our first guest, Will Reiser, who drew on his own experience of being diagnosed with cancer in his 20s. He had just begun to establish himself in the world of comedy, working on "Da Ali G Show," where he met Seth Rogen, who became a good friend.

Rogen is a co-producer of the film "50/50" and plays the part of Adam's best friend. Adam, the young man diagnosed with cancer, is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt first became known for his starring role on "3rd Rock from the Sun." His movies include "Mysterious Skin," "(500) Days of Summer" and "Inception." He'll join the conversation a little later. Terry spoke to both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Will Reiser in 2011.

Let's start with a scene from "50/50." Adam has invited his parents to dinner, where he intends to break the news he has cancer. His girlfriend, who is very uncomfortable around sickness, is also at the table. She's played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Adam's mother, played by Angelica Houston, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "50/50")

ANGELICA HOUSTON: (As Diane) So, what's the special occasion?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Adam) Have you ever seen "Terms of Endearment"?

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: (As Rachael) Adam, just tell her.

HOUSTON: (As Diane) Tell me what?

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Adam) I have cancer.

HOUSTON: (As Diane) I'm moving in.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Adam) No, no, mom, no.

HOUSTON: (As Diane) I'm your mother, Adam.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Adam) No, exactly, that's why. And - mom, mom, mom.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Will Reiser, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, welcome to FRESH AIR. Will, let me start with you. I bet when you were suffering with cancer, you weren't thinking someday this pain is going to translate into a good comedy, in fact a romantic comedy.

WILL REISER: Yeah, well, it's interesting. You know, six years ago, when I was diagnosed, and I had cancer, my closest friend at the time was Seth Rogen, and the way that we dealt with it was by finding the humor in the situation. And cancer aside, is we would always come up with just kind of ridiculous movie ideas.

And while I was sick, we just kind of - we floated the idea, you know, back and forth with one another, just the idea of doing a cancer comedy. But it was really, it was really just a joke. We wanted to do like a parody of "The Bucket List."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISER: But where you do really absurd and ridiculous things, like, you know, skydiving with hookers and just things that were completely outlandish. But it was a joke, and that was really kind of - that was a very - it was sort of a coping mechanism at the time. And for me, I would think about this movie from time to time when really absurd things would happen to me in my life because at the time when I was sick was actually probably the most absurd period of my life.

And once I got better, that was when I actually started thinking, oh, you know, and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg started really urging me to write the movie. But when I was actually sick, it was really kind of this place I would go in my head to kind of retreat from all the chaos, and I would just kind of think of where I could - you know, you know, all the crazy things that were happening in my life, I would just think of, you know, a place where I could put all of that. But I never actually thought that this movie would be made.

GROSS: So what kind of cancer did you have?

REISER: I had a massive tumor in my spine, and similar - very similar to what Joe's character has in the movie, and Joe has a schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma, which is basically a tumor in the spine. It grows on the nerve.

GROSS: A cancerous tumor, yeah.

REISER: Yeah, it's a cancerous tumor that grows along the nerve sheath and then spreads out through the back and in between the vertebrae, and it's very messy.

GROSS: So how was your spine affecting from them disentangling the tumor from the spine?

REISER: Well, I had to go through a lot of intensive physical therapy. It probably took about a year to a year and a half until I was walking without, you know, a limp. But, you know, after the surgery the doctor thought that I would never be able to run again, but two years later I was jogging, so.

Now, you know, six years later, I'm still in physical therapy, but I've pretty much fully recovered.

GROSS: That's great. I'm really glad to hear that. Now, the movie raises a question that I think a lot of people have to face if they get very sick. Young people have to face it, you know, like people in their teens or 20s have to face it. People who are middle-aged have to face it. Like, if you're not married, and if you don't have, like a real serious partner in life, who is going to help take care of you? And in your movie, the character is about 24?

REISER: He's 27.

GROSS: Twenty-seven, okay. And so, like, you know, his mother, as we heard in the clip, his mother is like, oh, I'm going to move in, which he refuses to let happen. But so the question is, like, is there a good friend who is going to take care of you? Are you going to invite a parent if you have one that's still living, a sibling? Or, you know, what are you going to do?

So how did you handle that? You know, in the movie, Seth Rogen kind of takes over that role of being the person who really sees you through it.

REISER: Yeah, I mean, in real life Seth did play that role. He was sort of like my Patch Adams.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISER: You know, he definitely...

GROSS: I won't tell him you said that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISER: I tell him. I've told him, so it's OK. But, you know, my mom really wanted to take care of me, and I was in L.A., and she was in New York, and the moment I told that her I was diagnosed, she got on a plane and flew to L.A. We went to one doctor's appointment, and I just could not handle, you know, being babied.

I just, you know, I was 25, and I was just - you know, that's at the age where I was really kind of finding my own independence and the idea of having my mother take care of me just seemed so unbearable. So I put her on a plane and made her go back to New York, which just - I mean, that just - you know, she was really patient with me, but I really - I was not - did not treat her as well as I probably should have.

And that's reflected in the script and in the movie, you know, the relationship between Joe and Angelica and how trying that is for them during that period. And that was exactly how it was for my mother and I. And it's hard, you know, at 25 to really - to know how to ask for help from your mother because it's the person you're trying to break away from.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, right, right.

REISER: You know, I think at that age, you know, it was hard for me to really ask for help from anybody, I think. I wanted to feel as normal as much as I possibly could. So all I tried to do is just joke around and make everybody feel like it was, you know, everything was okay.

GROSS: Sure, and then you get home from the hospital, and you are so not normal.

REISER: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: When you're recovering from the surgery, especially your kind of surgery. So who helped out then?

REISER: Well, I had a girlfriend at the time who helped. I had a nurse who came and helped.

GROSS: The girlfriend didn't bail like in the movie?

REISER: No, the girlfriend character in the movie is fictional. She's sort of an amalgam of a few different people from my real life who did actually bail. You know, I think it's a really intense ordeal to go through, and some people just don't know how to handle it, and I think people, they don't know what to do, they don't know what to say, and they just don't know how to conduct themselves.

And I think the idea of being around someone who's reflecting back their own fear of mortality, I think that just kind of sends people running away. And I definitely saw that in people who were very close to me - friends, family members. And so that was really hard.

So I really tried to, you know, take that and inject that into a character, and that's what I did with Rachael, with just, you know, the girlfriend who can't handle her boyfriend's cancer and just can't handle the pressure of being around someone who's sick.

GROSS: There's a scene where Seth Rogen's character is trying to help the character that's your surrogate, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and at Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, like, insistence, he's going to change - Seth Rogen's going to change the bandage. And then Joe basically asks: Did you wash your hands first? And of course Seth Rogen hasn't. And thought, ha, that's kind of funny in the film. If that happened in real life, I would just be horrified, just absolutely horrified. Did you go through that?

REISER: Well, Seth did actually change my dressing, and he was incredibly squeamish, and he's a very - despite what you might think about Seth - he is an incredibly, incredibly fragile human being who does not like the sight of blood or cuts or scrapes or anything like that.

And for him, changing the dressing and seeing my giant wound was really - was a really traumatic experience for him. But he did it. He did it. He just complained about it the whole time, much as he does in the movie.

GROSS: So when you got sick, you were working on a comedy show. Were you working on Ali G then?

REISER: I got sick just after we - about seven months after we wrapped on the second season of Ali G. And when I was actually diagnosed, I was working on a VH1 comedy show called "Best Week Ever," and that was right around the time I was diagnosed.

GROSS: Was it hard to be working on a comedy show knowing how sick you were?

REISER: It was a great distraction. I just felt - I didn't feel well while I was at work. So that was really hard. I just kind of would have to labor through the day. But I think just being around funny people in general was a really great distraction from thinking about what I was actually going through.

I did eventually have to take time off from work because just of the magnitude of the surgery. I wasn't incapable of actually, you know, getting in a car and going to work on a daily basis just because my body just needed to recover.

But during the period - you know, there's a four-month period where I just had to keep going in for test after test in the hospital because they kept - I was misdiagnosed. I was originally diagnosed with a terminal form of lymphoma, which was really horrible, and then after that, they just - you know, I kept getting passed along from doctor to doctor.

And so that four-month period from when I was first diagnosed until I had my surgery, that was really when I was in this constant state of trying to avoid thinking about, you know, what the outcome of this cancer might actually be.

GROSS: So in the movie, Seth Rogen suggests that you can use cancer as a pickup line, get girls' sympathy. Did you ever try that? Did he actually suggest that?

REISER: It was something we'd talk about a lot because people would give me a lot of sympathy, but it's really the kind of sympathy you give like a sick dog. It was less the sympathy you give, like, James Franco. You know, like I don't know what means, necessarily. But, you know, I mean, it wasn't like women suddenly found me really attractive because I had cancer. It was just that they felt bad for me. So it was kind of - it was pity sympathy.

GROSS: It wasn't sex sympathy?

REISER: It wasn't sex sympathy, yeah. But no, but I did introduce Seth to his fiancee while I was sick, and I think that's probably why she stuck around to this day.

GROSS: How did you manage to do that?

REISER: She was friends with a girl I was dating, and we basically set them up.

GROSS: Nice.

REISER: Yeah, and they're getting married six years later.

GROSS: So he got something out of this thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISER: He got something out of it. It made him, it painted - yeah, and it was while I was sick. We introduced Seth to Lauren, and I think it made Seth look like an incredibly sympathetic friend.

GROSS: Which in fact he was.

REISER: Which he was, yeah.

GROSS: My guest, Will Reiser, wrote the new film "50/50." The character loosely based on him is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. We'll talk with Reiser and Gordon-Levitt after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Reiser, who wrote the new film "50/50" that's loosely based on his experience with cancer. And also joining us, and let me bring him into the conversation, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the character based on Will Reiser.

And Joseph Gordon-Levitt of course first became known for co-starring in "3rd Rock from the Sun." He went on to make "Mysterious Skin," "Inception," "(500) Days of Summer" and soon will be in the next Batman movie. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

GORDON-LEVITT: Thank you so much. I'm really glad to be here.

GROSS: Really glad to have you. So...

GORDON-LEVITT: Can I just have a gratuitous kiss-ass moment for a little second?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Hey, help yourself.

GORDON-LEVITT: I grew up listening to NPR and public radio in my mom's car. My mom and dad actually met working at a - I don't know if you know this station - KPFK in L.A., it's Pacifica Radio. It's public radio on the West Coast. So I have a very fond place in my heart for what you do, and I appreciate it.

GROSS: I appreciate you saying that. And I should say, are you responsible for the fact that your character in the movie works for Seattle Public Radio? Was that already written in when you took the part?

GORDON-LEVITT: That was written in. I'm not responsible for that.

GROSS: Well, what a coincidence, OK.

GORDON-LEVITT: But I can take responsibility if that...

REISER: I'll take credit for it.

GROSS: OK. Will, why was it public radio that he works in?

REISER: Well, I've always felt really guilty about - I'm a huge supporter of NPR, and I've never pledged or given a donation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISER: I've always felt really guilty about it, and I figure this is the best way to donate some time to NPR. It's the biggest donation I could possibly give, I think, so there you go.

GROSS: That's hysterical. That is really hysterical, OK.

GORDON-LEVITT: So you guys should maybe, like, send him a tote bag or something

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That is really great. So what are some of the things you wanted to know from Will as the writer of the movie and also as the guy who it's based on, loosely based on, but based on?

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, there were sort of two categories of questions that I would ask Will. The less interesting category but very necessary category was more I guess medical or technical, just how it physically felt. I wanted to make sure that I looked like I was going through what he went through.

And so I would ask him pretty detailed questions of what hurt, where, when, for how long, how badly, et cetera. And that was always really useful, especially because he was there on-set every day, all day. So I could ask him really specific questions, like, if I'm sitting on these cement steps, and I'm going to get up, how bad would that hurt, you know, and get a specific answer from him.

I'm really pleased with how that part of the performance turned out. I think it's not hitting you over the head, but it looks real and accurate. And I think that's largely due to his credit.

But the more interesting stuff that we would talk about was not medical at all. It was just, how did this feel? What were you thinking about? And that's really what the movie is about to me.

GROSS: So Joe, you had to shave your head right before you started losing - in the film, right before you start losing your hair from the chemo, you decide to just, like shave it. Were you afraid of what you would find once you were bald?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, to be honest, I had shaved my head in the past. There was one other time in my life where I had just got done playing a really heavy role in a movie called "The Lookout," and I just wanted to shake it up, and I shaved my head right after I finished shooting the movie. So maybe that alleviated any fears of the unknown like you're talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

REISER: I actually think Joe looks really good bald.

GORDON-LEVITT: Hey, thanks.

REISER: You're welcome. You have a really nice head.

GORDON-LEVITT: Everyone kept saying that to me throughout the shoot, but I suspected they were just trying to make me feel better, that it was a bit of a conspiracy, that everyone had been directed to say, like, make sure that you tell Joe that his head looks nice because, you know, he's walking around bald, and we've got to make him feel good about himself.

REISER: But, you know, you could shave your head, and you could look just like a skinhead or something. But you didn't. You look like a really nice, friendly person.

GORDON-LEVITT: That was the cardigans.

GROSS: So Will, do you still have residual pain from the surgery or, you know, from the tumor that was removed?

REISER: I do. I do. I have felt pain every day since the surgery, but every day, that pain, you know, dissipates a little bit.

GROSS: Because it mentally recedes or because it's actually going away?

REISER: Because it's going away, because it - just my body's getting stronger, and, you know, nerve endings are - you know, I lost feeling in part of my right leg, and I - they had to remove the psoas muscle on my right side, which is a really major muscle, and I've - you know, I've spent the last six years rebuilding that and, you know, building it back up.

And because that muscle was - you know, most of that muscle was removed, it meant that other muscles in my body had to take over, and those muscles were just, you know, incredibly - have been incredibly strained the last six years. So teaching my body to kind of use new muscles has been part of that and also just the nerve endings growing back, as well.

GROSS: Just one more question. You know, when you're in your 20s, you really are finding your adult personality, who you are, who you want to be. You can make certain adjustments. You're still a little flexible. But, you know, and at that time, suddenly you get sick. You get this, like, terrible diagnosis of this cancerous tumor that is growing around your spine, and then you become disabled for a while as a result of the surgery.

You have to build yourself up over a period of years. So how much did I am sick, I am weak, I am in pain become a part of that new adult identity?

REISER: I think that there was less of the I am sick mentality versus more of the anger of feeling, like, why did this happen to me, versus, you know, while I was seeing my friends who were perfectly healthy, like why - just feeling like I had to take all these extra steps in my life to feel good, whereas they had it so much easier.

But that was really - that was how I felt initially. I look back at it in a much different way now. I did feel like I was a victim right after I went through the entire ordeal. But now I really - you know, I feel like I've really kind of processed that and moved on from that period.

But there was a time when it was really difficult, and I sort of felt like who I was, was sort of entangled in this idea of being a sick person, for sure.

GORDON-LEVITT: I could jump in with a bit of a third-party perspective on that question.

GROSS: Sure.

GORDON-LEVITT: And I wasn't there. I didn't know Will before he got sick, but I've gotten to know him quite well since them, and I've heard lots of stories from Will himself, as well as from Seth and Evan, about what Will was like before he got sick, and the way at least I have it in my head is the attitude you're describing of a bit of a I am weak, I am in pain, that sort of victim's mentality, it seems describes Will much more before he got sick than afterwards.

The Will that I know is, like, far from a complainer, far from that. He's a really strong, graceful guy. And that's I think a big part of the story that we wanted to tell with "50/50," is the character starts out as kind of neurotic, insecure, and then he goes through this ordeal, and by the end, he's loosened up, he's more able to sort of go with the flow. He's a stronger, happier person having gone through, you know, the challenge.

GROSS: Will, I really want to express my gratitude that you have had such a good recovery and that also you were able to get something good, you were able to find something of value from the experience of being really sick, that thing being this movie "50/50."

REISER: Yeah, thanks.

So, you know, congratulations on that. That's really saying something.

Thank you so much. Yeah, thanks. No, it's pretty incredible for me to take, you know, what was the most painful experience in my life and turn it into something that I'm really proud of and, you know, that I made with my friends. I think it's pretty great.

BIANCULLI: Well, Reiser, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. He wrote the screenplay for the new film "50/50," which is now out on DVD. It's been nominated for a Writer's Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in the film. In the second half of the show, we'll hear more from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stars in the movie "50/50," which is now out on DVD. Levitt starred in the movies "Mysterious Skin," "10 Things I Hate About You," "(500) Days of Summer" and "Inception." He first became known for his role on "3rd Rock From the Sun," the NBC sitcom about a family of extraterrestrials posing as humans while studying them. Gordon-Levitt got that role when he was 13. He was already a show biz veteran, having done several commercials and films, including "A River Runs Through It."

Here's a clip from "3rd Rock." Gordon-Levitt's family has found a couple of bags of mysterious dried herbs and they want to know what Gordon-Levitt has been doing with them. The scene also features John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston and French Stewart. The action starts with Joseph Gordon-Levitt walking in the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN")

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) Hey, guys. What's going on?

JOHN LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) Why don't you tell us what's going on?

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) What do you mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) Where did you find those?

LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) In your sock drawer.

KRISTEN JOHNSTON: (as Sally Solomon) How could you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FRENCH STEWART: (Harry Solomon) After all we've done for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) Okay. It's not what you think.

LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) It's exactly what I think. It's oregano and fresh rosemary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

JOHNSTON: (as Sally Solomon) I can't believe it, you can cook too.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) Pop, no. No I can't cook. I swear.

LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) Then how do you explain this?

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) It's, it's marijuana.

LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) This whole time we've been eating her slop and you're a damn gourmet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Tommy Solomon) No, it's pot. I swear. I smoke it with my friends. I love to toke up on the fat daddies.

(as Tommy Solomon) Dude.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So like every laugh line gets is like huge laughter in that. Are things like punched up a little bit?

GORDON-LEVITT: Actually the opposite. They would have to take out laughs because if we left in all the laughs that the live studio audience actually gave us the show would go over its 22-minute time allotment. The truth is is that people were so excited to see the show that they're used to watching on TV...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GORDON-LEVITT: ...that when we would perform once a week in front of the studio audience they would really - they would go nuts. They really would.

GROSS: Now, you know, you, after acting for a while took a break to go to Columbia University. And then I think it was after that that you starred in the Gregg Araki movie "Mysterious Skin." And...

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: It's a really terrific movie and it's such a total departure from something like "3rd Rock" well, you know, which is a, you know, a sitcom. And in "Mysterious Skin" you played a teenager who is a gay hustler. And the back story is that when your character was a young boy he was sexually abused by his coach. But he thought that the coach's attention was a sign that the coach deeply cared for him and made him special and he had like fond memories of this. So it's a very complicated role. It must've been really important for you in your career to get a role like that and to say I'm not just the teenager in a sitcom; I'm capable of other things.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yes, indeed. After "3rd Rock From the Sun" it was very difficult to convince anybody that I could do anything other than, you know, be in a funny TV show or a romantic comedy or something like that. So it was definitely hard for me to get jobs for a while.

GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people saw you on "Saturday Night Live" - what was it - like a year ago, two years ago...

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...when you hosted and you did this incredible, like instead of an opening monologue, you did this incredible song and dance thing.

GORDON-LEVITT: Thanks.

GROSS: It was based on the Donald O'Connor number "Make 'em Laugh" from "Singin' in the Rain."

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: And so it's like you doing pratfalls and you're literally dancing up the wall, like jumping onto the wall and coming over in a back flip. You did that twice live in real time.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: It was really...

GORDON-LEVITT: On the concrete.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh jeez. Is it a concrete stage?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Ouch. So how did you come up with the idea of doing that?

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, I was a big fan of "Saturday Night Live," I always was. I used to watch it, you know, with my brother and everything. And, so when they invited me to host the show I was pretty flabbergasted and excited and I knew I wanted to do something for the opening monologue that was special. And in watching back, a lot of my favorite opening monologues that people would do were musical numbers. Steve Martin did this really good one. Justin Timberlake has a couple really good ones.

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

GORDON-LEVITT: The Rock did a really good one. And so I started trying to think of what I could do, what kind of musical thing I could do, and I always loved "Singin' in the Rain," and I just figured why don't I give this a shot? Let's see if they would let me do it. And it took me weeks to get Lorne Michaels on the phone, because they don't concentrate on future shows. They have enough on their plate just working on the current show that they're doing so it's sort of abnormal for him to speak to a host that wasn't going to be on the show for a while. But I got him on the phone and said listen man; I'd love to do this if you would be interested in me doing it. And here's what I want to do and it's "Make 'em Laugh" from "Singin' in the Rain" and I've been, you know, learning it and what you think? And he was like well, sure. Why don't you learn that and we'll see.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

GORDON-LEVITT: And, I mean...

GROSS: You put weeks into learning it and then we'll decide.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. But, you know, you can't blame him. That's the only sensical(ph) position he could take. I mean...

GROSS: Yeah. Sure.

GORDON-LEVITT: ...he couldn't tell me that without having seen what I was doing that yes I could do it. So I took that as a yes. And I got together with this friend of mine, Michael Rooney, who had choreographed the dance number from a movie I was in, "(500) Days of Summer." And that dance number had gone so well and I really liked Mr. Rooney so I called him up again and asked him if he would do me the favor of helping me choreograph a routine to "Make 'em Laugh" for "SNL" and he did. And we worked hard on it. And I also I was working on "Inception" at the time so I also was sort of getting help from some of the stunt guys, getting pads from them, learning how to fall. And, I mean I had done pratfalls on "3rd Rock" a lot but these were pretty intense.

GROSS: So did you have body pads from "Inception" that you used for "Saturday Night Live" just in case?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. Body pads and ankle braces and...

GROSS: Oh, really?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, I was pretty padded up. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Wow.

GORDON-LEVITT: And...

GROSS: Were you afraid you'd fall?

GORDON-LEVITT: No. You can't really be afraid. It doesn't work. So I wasn't afraid I'd fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You probably had to do a lot of stunts for "Inception" also because it's a movie about dreams and implanting or extracting memories while somebody is in the dreaming state and people share dreams and you never know whether you are in your dream or somebody else's dream. And the laws of physics change in some of the dreams so there's like impossible things that are happening through the film, so you probably had to learn a lot of stunts for that too.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. There's - well, I think a lot of the motivation for doing "Make 'em Laugh" on "SNL" was that I had just - I was just finishing shooting "Inception," where there was this zero gravity scene and I got into really good shape and was training and did all these stunts, and so coming off of that I think that instilled me with the confidence to try to do "Make 'em Laugh."

BIANCULLI: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of the movie "50/50," speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of the movie "50/50" about a young man diagnosed with cancer. The film is now out in DVD.

GROSS: So one of the things that you do, you founded a production company that operates largely on the Internet but in other places as well. You describe it as an open collaborative production company. It's called hitRECord.org. And basically you invite people to put up their videos, their artworks, stories, songs, remix other people's songs, and you've just collected a bunch of movies, songs, short stories and drawings into a collection that's a combination book/DVD/CD. What pleasure...

GORDON-LEVITT: Well put.

GROSS: What pleasure do you get from being the producer/director of this kind of, you know, open production company?

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, hitRECord for me was always an outlet to do the stuff that I wanted to do. And I love acting. But acting is different. The job of an actor is to give a filmmaker the necessary ingredients to make the film that the filmmaker is making. And, of course, it's collaborative and, of course, I feel like I'm expressing myself in a movie like "50/50." But it's different than writing your own thing or shooting your own thing or all of those creative exercises which I really enjoy and I've always done ever since I was young.

I was making videos and I wanted to put them out into the world so I started a website called hitRECord.org and, you know, had some videos up on there and slowly this community sprouted up around it. I had never conceived of it as a communal or collaborative thing but it organically turned into that over years. People, when they would post messages on the website, the conversation sort of evolved from just talking about the things that I had made to well, we started talking about well, what could we make together? Look at that thing you made and what if we mixed that with this thing that someone else made. And over time that creative process just became more and more fulfilling and exciting to me. And two years ago we decided to sort of codify this hobby that I had been doing for years and years into a professional endeavor.

GROSS: So one of the films that you have, one of the short films that you have in the DVD/CD/book collection "RECollection," that you've just put out is called "Everything's On Fire."

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: And it features some footage or video of your late brother, Dan, dancing with lit torches...

GORDON-LEVITT: Yes.

GROSS: ...which is apparently what he used to do a lot. Was he a performer?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. He's a fire spinner. He would perform and teach, also. He would teach people how to do it.

GROSS: What kind of places did he perform?

GORDON-LEVITT: All sorts of things. I mean he would do everything from like busking on a street to playing in big, you know, theatrical shows or, you know, all the above. He threw these parties monthly where musicians would come and fire spinners would come and it would just be this sort of big improvisational feedback loop of the musicians would play and the fire would spin and then, you know, the fire would make the musicians excited. Those parties still go on. Even though he died, the Flow Temple parties continue.

GROSS: So your brother Dan died last year...

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of - was it a drug overdose?

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, you know, I haven't really spoken about it...

GROSS: OK.

GORDON-LEVITT: ...in public as far as the details of how he died. For me it's really less important to talk about how he died and more important, I guess, to talk about what he was like and what he stood for and what he did and how he lived.

GROSS: What did he stand for? I mean, you had, it's great to have an older brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: You're damn right.

GROSS: I have one, so, you know, I just found that just like really helpful because, you know, when you have an older brother or maybe an older sister too - I have no experience with the older sister - but they introduce you to things that you might not have found out on your own. Did you go through that with your brother?

GORDON-LEVITT: Sure. Yeah, and I think I just looked up to him so much. I mean he did everything first. And his whole thing was he was just so positive. He was an extreme optimist, and so encouraging. His whole thing was getting people to bring to the forefront the superhero inside of them, I guess is one of the ways he would put it. And so having somebody so encouraging as a big brother, I definitely think that it was huge for me. And, you know, like it's interesting. You asked me were you afraid you were going to fall.

GROSS: When you were doing the "Saturday Night Live" stuff.

GORDON-LEVITT: When I was doing "Saturday Night Live" stuff.

GROSS: Yeah.

GORDON-LEVITT: And like I wasn't afraid because I think - and partially because like Dan was there, you know? Like he wasn't afraid so why would I be? He...

GROSS: He was little he there? He was alive then?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yup. Yup.

GROSS: So, again, this might be too personal. So you described your brother as somebody who always had a really, like, positive attitude and was very supportive of you but always had, you know, an optimistic attitude. And then, you know, he dies in his 30s.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

GROSS: So does that kind of undercut the optimism...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...that you feel like you picked up from him?

GORDON-LEVITT: That's a very good and fair question. No. My answer is a resounding no. I think he wasn't - I don't think he was an unrealistic optimist. And anybody who's got some sense about them knows that, you know, horrible things happen in the world, and that doesn't mean that you despair. And this is definitely the worst thing that's ever happened to me, without a close second, without anything even comparable. And I refuse to let that turn me into a pessimist.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GORDON-LEVITT: I just - he wouldn't accept that, either.

GROSS: OK. Well, thanks for talking about that a little bit. So I want to close with a song that you wrote and saying on your box "RECollection" - that's films, stories, songs collected from your website. And this is a song called "Nothing Big." Why don't you just introduce it for us?

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, "Nothing Big" was just a song I wrote real quick one day when I wasn't feeling so hot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Okay.

GORDON-LEVITT: And on "RECollection," there's the version that I just recorded really quick with just me and my guitar, and then...

GROSS: Which is what were going to hear.

GORDON-LEVITT: And then the cool thing is if you get it, you can hear another version of someone from the website downloaded what I did and put all sorts of instruments to it and made it into a much, you know, fuller arrangement. And that's the kind of stuff that happens on hitRECord.

And when you opened the creative process up and, rather than saying, like, this is my song. Don't touch it. You're allowed to listen to it for 99 cents, but that's it. And instead, what we do is on hitRECord is say, well, here's this song, like, does anybody want to add anything to it or change it or maybe sample a part of it or...

GROSS: Yeah.

GORDON-LEVITT: When you let go like that, you know, really beautiful, unexpected things can start happening.

GROSS: OK. Well, why don't we hear your version and the remix. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt, thank you so much, and good luck with your new film "50/50."

GORDON-LEVITT: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure to be on your show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BIG")

GORDON-LEVITT: GORDON-LEVITT: (Singing) Nothing big. Nothing grand. Nothing useful. Nothing planned. Nothing smart, or at least not very. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing urgent. Nothing hot. Maybe quiet. Maybe not. Nothing hard. Nothing wet. Nothing naked. Well, not yet. Nothing witty. Nothing wise. No big deal. No first prize. Nothing solemn. Nothing set. Nothing much to give or get. Nothing now but me and you. Nothing more, thanks, that'll do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BIG" REMIX)

GORDON-LEVITT: (Singing) Nothing big. Nothing grand. Nothing useful. Nothing planned. Nothing smart, or at least not very. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing urgent. Nothing hot. Maybe quiet. Maybe not...

BIANCULLI: That's Joseph Gordon-Levitt's song "Nothing Big." We heard his version first, followed by a remix of that recording. Both are included in his CD/DVD and book anthology called "RECollection," collecting some of the submissions from his open, collaborative website. You'll find a link to his website hitRECord and scenes from his new film "50/50" on our website: freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a CD box set saluting Fame Studios, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording outfit whose artists including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Etta James. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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