The Transformation Of Joseph Gordon-Levitt From Childhood To 41 Years Old

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting for most of his life, but he's not necessarily comfortable with the fame that comes along with being a regular on-screen presence. The former child actor has been many different levels of famous over the course of his decades-long career, and he told The Independent that he constantly checks himself to make sure he isn't giving in too much to the desire for more and more fame. "It's always been a struggle. I'm not immune to how seductive those desires are," he admitted. "I'm aware of myself doing that all the time." He goes even further, proclaiming, "Fame is objectifying in the way that pornography is objectifying to the people in pornography."

Perhaps that's why he has gone through so many transformations in his career. He's been a child star, a teen heartthrob, an indie darling, a tech pioneer, a blockbuster leading man, and a streaming fixture, moving seamlessly between modes of stardom in order to match whatever is required of him in the moment. Read on for a look back at the transformation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, from childhood to 41 years old.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was born in Los Angeles

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was born in Los Angeles in 1981 to a father who worked at a radio station and a mother who had once run for Congress, according to The New York Times. His parents were very politically active; his father, he said, kept anarchist writing around the house. Still, though, the "Inception" actor maintained that his father was nonviolent. He explained, "My dad never blew anything up, but he probably had friends who did. He and my mom have always preached that the pen is mightier than a Molotov cocktail." According to Showbiz411, his maternal grandfather was in entertainment, too; Michael Gordon was a director who was blacklisted in the 1950s for alleged communist sympathies.

His pre-fame childhood, by most accounts, seems pretty low-key. He grew up feeling competitive toward his older brother Dan Gordon-Levitt, competing in the way brothers do at things like video games. Otherwise, though, before the acting bug bit him, things were pretty good. Joseph later reflected to The Independent, "I was lucky that my dad was earning a living such that we never wanted for anything."

Child stardom found him quickly

For a while, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was like lots of kids, trying to figure out what he liked and what he was good at. "I played baseball, did gymnastics, took piano lessons and started acting as just another one of the things I did," he would later tell Playboy (via ET). "I wasn't pressured into it. But it was acting I loved." He took a particular liking to his acting coach, and the rest quickly became Hollywood history.

Luckily, his parents supported the budding young star. According to Paste, he had talent representation by age six, and he began racking up credits in films like "Beethoven" as well as television shows like "Dark Shadows," the 1991 reboot of the classic dark fantasy show. He also did a lot of commercials, which he apparently was not a fan of. "I hated doing commercials, because it wasn't serious acting," he told Vanity Fair, already setting his sights on respectability at a young age.

Everything changed when he was cast in "A River Runs Through It," director Robert Redford's film based on Norman Maclean's semi-autobiographical novel. "That was the first time I had ever been directed by an actor," Gordon-Levitt noted of the film, in which he sported an adorable bowl cut. "He did not treat me like a kid at all. He treated me just like an actor, which is what I was dying for."

He led the cast of Angels in the Outfield

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's first major leading role was in "Angels in the Outfield," a 1994 Disney film about a young boy who comes to believe that his family's future hinges on the success of the California Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels). So, he prays for the failing baseball team to get some divine help, and angels (led by Christopher Lloyd) show up to assist the team in going all the way. "Forever grateful for the experience of making that movie with such a wonderful cast and crew," Gordon-Levitt reflected years later, marking the film's 25th Anniversary on Twitter.

The film would be instrumental in setting up relationships that would continue throughout Gordon-Levitt's career. He reunited with Tony Danza many years later, casting the "Who's the Boss?" star to play his own father in his directorial debut, "Don Jon." The former child star confirmed on twitter that he and Danza had reminisced about the good old days. He also worked with Lloyd again, sharing the screen in the much more violent "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" in 2014. In a throwback photo posted to Instagram, Gordon-Levitt noted, "You couldn't ask for a movie more diametrically opposed to 'Angels In the Outfield' than 'Sin City.'" When asked about his experiences working with Lloyd, Gordon-Levitt tweeted, "He was a sweetheart. What's weird is if you watch Angels in the Outfield, and then watch the scene he and I did together in Sin City 2."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt played a long-haired alien on TV

When he was 14, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned his attention to television. On "3rd Rock from the Sun," an NBC show that ran for five years, Gordon-Levitt played Tommy. Alongside co-stars like John Lithgow, Jane Curtin, and Kirsten Johnston, Gordon-Levitt's character was part of an alien family trying to fit in on Earth. The child star sported shoulder-length hair parted down the middle for the role, and his character frequently wore backwards berets, leather jackets, and all manner of ultra-90s fashion.

That long hair, in fact, became somewhat of a trademark for the character. As he grew up, however, Gordon-Levitt became dissatisfied with his look. Several seasons into the show, he told Conan O'Brien that he tried to convince production to let him switch it up. "I'd had it long for a long time, and I'd been asking them, 'Hey can I cut my hair soon? Cause it's hot when you sleep, and it's summer, and I'd like to cut my hair,'" he said. Producers told him that the haircut was distinctive and unlike any other kids on TV, but eventually they relented and let him chop his locks.

Years later, Gordon-Levitt looked back positively on his time on the show. He reflected to ET, "I am really lucky that I got to be on a popular television show when I was a kid so I was able to pay for my own college."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Teen Heartthrob

After first finding fame as a child star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt became a bona fide teen heartthrob with his next film role. "10 Things I Hate About You" paired JGL with other teen sensations like Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, retelling Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" through the lens of high-school hookups and gossip. In the movie, Gordon-Levitt played Cameron, a kid who wants to date a girl (Larisa Oleynik) who isn't allowed to have a relationship until her older sister (Stiles) has one. He pays off Ledger's character to woo Stiles', but they wind up falling in love instead.

"I think a big part of why audiences really like it so much is cause we really were all having a great time. All of us. We all made friends; we all hung out every night," he told Sirius XM. "I think a lot of the friendship and chemistry that you see on screen, it comes off like that cause it was pretty real." The actor even shared behind-the-scenes snapshots from the set years later on Twitter, delighting fans.

However, the film itself wasn't Gordon-Levitt's favorite role at the time. Looking back on his career with Vanity Fair, he revealed that he used to be more pretentious when it came to picking projects. "I was mostly embarrassed about '10 Things I Hate About You,' to be honest. I was," he confessed, though he admitted that he's now proud of his work.

He took a break to attend Columbia

After acting throughout most of his childhood and all of the '90s, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was ready for a change. His longtime friend and co-star Zooey Deschanel told New York Magazine in 2009, "Joe was really, really burned out. He'd spent all his high-school years working — and you can't reduce a person to a type, really, without it being sort of hard to take." For his next act, he decided to go to college.

Gordon-Levitt enrolled at Columbia University at the dawn of the 2000s and devoted himself to his studies. "When I arrived at Columbia, I gave up acting and became interested in all things French," he told The New York Times Style Magazine. "French poetry, French history, French literature." The change, it seems, was a welcome one. "I wanted that," he later reflected on "Off Camera." "I wanted to not know what I was gonna do."

However, it seems that JGL couldn't escape his old life. His former "10 Things I Hate About You" co-star (and one-time girlfriend) Julia Stiles lived on the same floor in his dorm, according to Rolling Stone. She told the magazine, "We're friends. We say hello to each other." After a few years, he decided not to continue with undergrad and return to filmmaking. "After two years, I regained my interest. It was hard," he told the New York Times. "I then had to reinterest everyone else."

His indie film career took off in a big way

When he returned to acting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt established his indie cred by working with auteur directors like Gregg Araki, who directed him in "Mysterious Skin." In that film, Gordon-Levitt played a shaggy-haired teenager who makes a living as a gay sex worker, repressing the trauma of being abused as a child. The actor told IGN that taking the project was a conscious choice. "I was really looking to do something good, which sounds obvious. But there's a lot of stuff that's not made with the goal of being good," he reflected. "It's made with the goal of making money or doing what other people tell you to do." "Mysterious Skin," he said, was different, and would change the opinion many film fans had of the former sitcom star.

His next big indie success was the Sundance hit "Brick," a neo-noir detective tale set at a high school helmed by "Knives Out" director Rian Johnson. Of Gordon-Levitt's talent for sinking into a role, Johnson told Indiewire that both his voice and costuming played a part in getting into character. "Joe really loves transforming himself into the part," Johnson said.

Gordon-Levitt now views the year "Mysterious Skin" and "Brick" both debuted as the start of a new chapter in his career. He later told Vanity Fair, "That was sort of, in a way for me, the beginning."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's run of blockbusters

After spending much of the 00s acting in independent films, Joseph Gordon-Levitt successfully returned to the mainstream with a pair of roles that cemented him as a leading man. "(500) Days of Summer" paired him with Zooey Deschanel in a quirky romantic comedy that won critical acclaim; the film sits at an impressive 85% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. "Joe isn't interested in the same things that interest other young actors," Deschanel noted to New York Magazine, gesturing toward the actor's fondness for reinvention and transformation. Indeed, he noted, "(500) Days of Summer" was a film that he hoped defined its time period. "'(500) Days of Summer' wouldn't have made sense in our parents' generation. It reminds me so much of 2009," he said.

However, while he told the magazine that he liked people relating to his character, Gordon-Levitt also began to worry that people had misinterpreted the main character. "He develops a mildly delusional obsession over a girl onto whom he projects all these fantasies," he noted to Playboy (via NME).

The following year brought another starring role in a major hit, Christopher Nolan's "Inception." Gordon-Levitt played Arthur, a dapper man who assists Leonardo DiCaprio in pulling off a heist inside a dream (inside a dream inside a... you get the idea). He particularly enjoyed his action sequences, telling MTV News about the iconic hallway fight, "One of the coolest things about it is we kind of did it for real." The teen heartthrob had finally grown up.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hitRECord, and his brother

In addition to his work as an actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also a new media pioneer. In 2010, he and his brother Dan Gordon-Levitt relaunched hitRECord, an online platform for user-submitted works of art, after initially founding the website years earlier as a way to solicit feedback on their own projects. In the new version of the site, users can upload videos, songs, lyrics, music, writing, paintings, etc. and can then mix and remix each other's submissions into something new. "Rather than just exhibiting and admiring each other's work as isolated individuals, we gather here to work on projects together," the "Inception" star explained to Time.

The name of the site, he told Paste, was something of a personal mantra for the actor. "It's something... When you start rolling, when you start recording, that harbors... it's sort of a magic power for me," he said,  "there's a certain thing that turns over and then you're allowed... you can do anything."

Joseph's brother died later that same year. The actor memorialized Dan online ten years after his passing, inviting hitRECord users to share art inspired by his late co-founder. "Today's my brother dan's birthday," he wrote on Twitter in 2020. "He and I started @hitrecord together a long time ago. We all miss him."

For Looper, he became Bruce Willis

In Rian Johnson's twisty time travel thriller "Looper," Joseph Gordon-Levitt underwent his biggest on-screen transformation yet. In order to play a younger version of Bruce Willis, Gordon-Levitt wore facial prosthetics and colored contacts to complete the look. As noted in, it took three hours every day to get the prosthetics attached, including fake lips and nose. However, the makeup didn't affect Gordon-Levitt's performance too much. "You're able to forget it enough that it doesn't distract you while you're working, and it doesn't impede any facial movement, but you never forget it's there," he said in Vulture. "I mean, there's glue on your lips. You don't forget that." He was also quite pleased to work with the veteran "Die Hard" star, telling PopSugar, "I'm happy to do it. It's my honor to change my own face to look more like him."

It wasn't just the prosthetics that allowed Gordon-Levitt to mimic his older co-star. He reflected to Vulture that watching Willis' films helped, too, but actually meeting the star in person was one of the biggest keys to his transformation. "Whether we were just talking about the movie or having conversations about other things, just being around him and letting his nature seep in was probably the most productive part," he recalled.

Gordon-Levitt's "Looper" transformation paid off. The film was a critical success, racking up a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and making back many times its budget at the box office.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt took on a new behind-the-scenes role

After cementing himself as a leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt made a shift into a new Hollywood role: writer/director. In 2013, he wrote, directed, and starred in "Don Jon," a film about a porn-addicted Italian-American Lothario who falls in love with a woman (Scarlett Johansson) who wants to wait to have sex. Gordon-Levitt told that he learned how to direct by taking note of the filmmakers he had acted for, including Rian Johnson, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg. "I've always paid a lot of attention to what directors have done and what everyone else has done: what they are doing over here in the camera department or how they put together the set or what the script supervisor is up to," he explained. "I really like being a part of that team, being a part of something larger." The film was a critical success, garnering an impressive 80% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

In addition to his new role behind the camera, Gordon-Levitt also transformed his body for the leading role, a gym rat. His personal trainer told Coach Magazine that Gordon-Levitt had gotten trim for his part in "Premium Rush," so they wanted to make him look more muscular. "We were in the gym every day for two-hour sessions... focusing on his chest, back, legs, shoulders and arms," he said. "This went on for a few months till he'd built up some strength and put on a good amount of size."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a family man

After he proved himself as a leading man, Joseph Gordon-Levitt took a step back from acting for a new role: family man. Between 2015 and 2019 he continued working a bit, leading the cast of Oliver Stone's "Snowden" and providing an uncredited vocal cameo to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but for the most part, he focused on family life. People confirmed in December 2014 that he had wed a woman named Tasha McCauley, who isn't part of the entertainment industry; she works for a robotics firm. The magazine quoted Gordon-Levitt as saying she wasn't interested in public life. "The girl that I'm with, she really doesn't want to be a part of that," he said. As People reported at the time, they appeared in public together at a Halloween party fundraiser in 2016, covered in fake blood.

The two had their first child, a boy, in 2015. Details were not forthcoming, and Gordon-Levitt explained on "Live! with Kelly and Michael" that this was intentional. "My son, he's just a baby," he said. "So he hasn't made the choice to be in the public eye, and that's a choice I would like him to be able to make when he's older ... For now I guess I'm just a protective dad." A second child was born in 2017.

"I felt lucky; I got to take some time off," the "Stop Loss" star told Jimmy Fallon in 2020. "Now I have two boys, and it's the best, man. The best."

He embraced the streaming era

By the time Joseph Gordon-Levitt returned to acting, Hollywood had transformed in the few short years since he last led a major blockbuster; his biggest post-break projects have all been straight-to-streaming. "It's kind of the Wild West," he said on "Larry King Now" in 2019. "I think everybody's trying to figure out what exactly they're doing with media... All the old Hollywood companies are kind of getting melded into these new tech companies." This was a transformation that Gordon-Levitt was ready for.

In 2020, he appeared in two Netflix Original Films, the Jamie Foxx-led superhero flick "Project Power" as well as Aaron Sorkin's historical drama "The Trial of the Chicago 7." In the latter movie, he played a real-life lawyer named Richard Schultz, and he told Bust that he was surprised by how relevant the film felt. "When you watch this movie, it doesn't feel like you're watching history. It really feels like you're watching what's going on today," he marveled.

The next year, he created and starred in "Mr. Corman," for Apple TV+. The actor noted that his show, which was formally-inventive and dealt with mental health stigma, wasn't a sure-fire hit. "I have to really give a lot of gratitude to Apple for letting me make something that's clearly not exactly a normal TV show," he told Complex. "They put that trust in me and I'm very grateful that I got to make my show and break a bunch of rules."

He got animated for Pinocchio

When Joseph Gordon-Levitt was cast as Jiminy Cricket in Robert Zemeckis' live-action/CGI retelling of "Pinocchio," it wasn't the actor's first time getting animated. He had previously provided voice work for "Treasure Planet," in which he starred as Jim Hawkings, and he also starred in a cartoon called "Wolfboy and the Everything Factory." 

Of the classic character, Gordon-Levitt said to Hollywood Insider, "Jiminy Cricket is the conscience of Pinocchio. If only we all had a conscience that could actually raise its voice and tell us things in words ... If only we all had a cricket with a nice friendly voice to tell us the answer." While he has provided voices in the past, this time, he had new inspiration for his voice acting: his children. "Director Robert Zemeckis came up with a quintessential kernel of plain-worded wisdom," the actor told Parade. Zemeckis suggested that Gordon-Levitt act out the character as if he were relating the story to his own kids. "So I sound like a dad who's a fan of the old Jiminy Cricket, telling the story to his kids and doing the voices like a goofy dad does," Gordon-Levitt said.

While promoting the film in behind-the-scenes interviews, Gordon-Levitt sported a new look. In the videos, he is wearing his hair much curlier than for most of his career, and the usually clean-shaven actor sports considerable new facial hair. He whittled it down to a mustache on Instagram, asking fans, "Keep it or nah?"