A '3rd Rock' TV alien has become an alienated youth off-Broadway

"A year ago, I was thinking, I'm probably done with acting. I had had it," admits Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the 20-year-old-star of NBC's recently cancelled "3rd Rock From the Sun."

The lanky young actor is stretched out on a small sofa in the downstairs lounge of the off-Broadway SoHo Playhouse, where he is now appearing in Austin Pendleton's provocative drama "Uncle Bob," which has been extended through July 1. "This [play] absolutely reassured me that I won't be leaving acting," he states with conviction.

Gordon-Levitt portrays Josh, whom playwright Pendleton describes as "a bright, lost, young person, who is in chaos." In the story, Josh leaves Ohio to be with his married uncle, who is dying of AIDS.

"There are so many layers," Gordon-Levitt says. "With '3rd Rock,' it was simple: Tommy [Solomon] was a very wide alien in a kid's body. That's it. But here, there are tons of aspects to [Josh]. He's all over the map, all sorts of extremes that seem to contradict - he's smart and sensitive and perceptive, and even perhaps a good guy, but he's also homophobic and closed-minded...."

Gordon-Levitt started acting at age 6, gathering numerous credits on TV shows such as "Roseanne," "China Beach," Family Ties," and "L.A. Law," and in feature films including "A River Runs Through It" and "Ten Things I Hate About You." And he'll be heard as the voice of Jim Hawkins in the 2002 Disney animated feature, "Treasure Planet."

"My intention was never to do 'bubble gum,' even when I was 13. But that's what happened," he explains, tracing the path of his career.

Gordon-Levitt became interested in stage acting while working in community theater in his native Los Angeles. "It wasn't professional at all, but I did get to play Nathan Detroit - and Peter Pan!"

His first movie role, in 1992, was shaped by director Robert Redford.

"On the set of 'A River Runs Through It,' those people were there not just for the paycheck, and that made a big impression on me. And this was the first director I worked with who really understood ... actors, because he was an actor."

Working on "3rd Rock" also exposed Gordon-Levitt to some acting lessons. He recalls how Jane Curtin "could play subtle to the camera, and big to the studio audience, and blend it perfectly," he says. The whole cast were veterans of theater - Kristin Johnston, who played Sally, is returning to stage in "The Women," at the off-Broadway Roundabout Theatre.

At the start of last year's shooting for "3rd Rock," Gordon-Levitt felt he was ready to walk away from it. "When people see you on a sitcom, they assume you're a 'sitcom actor,' " he muses.

So when the opportunity to tackle a tough, gritty dramatic role in a two-character play off-Broadway presented itself, he jumped at the chance. George Morfogen, familiar to HBO audiences as Bob Rebadow in HBO's "Oz," also stars in the play as the title character.

Gordon-Levitt is reveling in the complexity of his character.

"In any work you do in television, and almost any work you do in film, especially in America, your character is a monolithic plot device," he says. "Their objective is to universalize - this is the good guy, this is the bad guy.... That's not how life is, and that's what I like most about this play.

"I learn something every night," he says. "I don't think I could be doing anything [I'd like any] better."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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