Joseph Gordon-Levitt :: Manhattan Bike Boy in ’Premium Rush’
In a very short time Joseph Gordon-Levitt has quickly become an action hero. His villain turn as Cobra Commander in "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" was a twist; but then he stole the show by climbing the walls (literally) in "Inception." Earlier this summer he was an ambitious, honest cop that reveals his name as Robin John Blake (as in Batman’s sidekick) in "The Dark Knight Rises." In the fall he’ll star as a young Bruce Willis in the upcoming thriller "Looper."
This week, "Premium Rush" stars Gordon-Levitt as a New York bike messenger who picks up a package that has deadly bad guys and competing messengers after him. His character is even named Wilee (like the cartoon coyote). The film keeps Gordon-Levitt moving, but he doesn’t take credit for the most daredevil stunts.
"The character of Wilee was played by five of us - me and four other guys," Gordon-Levitt explained at a recent junket for the film. "Everyone had their own specialties. One was an actual bike messenger, his name is Austin, and he is arguably the fastest bike messenger in the world. He races and competes and he happens to look a lot like me, so he ended up doubling me. One was a Hollywood stuntman who would get hit by cars. Another was a guy who was really good at doing tricks on a track bike.
"And then there’s Dan MacAskill, who is really good at bike riding in trails. In the chase towards the end of the movie he’s on a different bike that’s the kind conducive to jumping and stuff. If you look up on YouTube Daniel MacAskill, (you can see) he does insane things on his bike. I think it’s more exciting watching real human beings do crazy things than watching computer-generated footage."
Took a fall
The film’s end credits reveal that Gordon-Levitt did take at least one fall, slicing open his arm. "There was a bit of an accident," he admitted. "I should start off by saying that everyone on the set, Dave [Koepp], the director, and everyone on down, was very safety conscious. But it was a perfect storm of a lot of things all going wrong at once. To make a long story short, a diplomat broke through our lockup. (A closed-off street in Manhattan.) You know in New York City you have the United Nations so there’s diplomats driving around with [diplomatic plates.] They can break the law. And he broke through our cones and the cops and double-parked right in the middle of where we were filming. Basically I ended up going through the rear window of a taxi cab and getting 31 stitches."
Though the accident happened late in the day’s shooting, Gordon-Levitt was back the next morning. "Everyone was worried, of course - really, really upset and worried that it happened. I’m flooded with adrenaline right when it happened. You don’t feel any pain right when your arm breaks open so I was just like, ’Whoa, my God, Jesus. Sorry, no, I’m okay, I’m sorry.’ Dave ran up and was like, ’Are you okay?’ He was terrified. I was like, ’You’ve got to record this, man. Look at this. This is crazy.’ So I convinced him to take out his phone and record some video. I was stoked that he actually put it in the movie."
Every scene on a bike required a healthy stretch of road to complete. A single take could traverse seven city blocks.
"We were locking down big swaths of the street. Normally you lock up a location to shoot in New York City, that’s a street corner or outside a doorway or something like that. But we’re locking up 6th Avenue between 32nd Street and 39th Street because we do a whole scene, so it takes seven blocks of distance to get through the whole scene. It was very impressive. We had a really skilled crew of people."
Most of the film’s dialogue happens on bicycles as well, as messengers communicate via cell phone headsets as they ride. "It’s not a film where you take a long pause. You’ve got to learn your lines real good because you can’t do that bullsh*t move where you pretend like you’re thinking of what to say when actually you’re trying to just think of a line that you didn’t learn well enough. And Dave Koepp writes in a really crisp fashion. He writes great dialogue and so it’s snappy."
Though the stunt doubles did the most dangerous tricks, "Premium Rush" was still the most intense movie Gordon-Levitt ever shot. "Just as far as the physical challenge, I would say this is the hardest one. ’Inception’ would come in with a close second, but I was on a bike every day all day. The whole movie’s on a bike. ’Inception’ has some cool action sequences, but this is the entire movie."
Grounded in the bike culture
The film is a high concept chase movie, but it is grounded in a real subculture of the city. Bike messengers do weave through the streets in and out of traffic, vehicular or pedestrian, and they are represented in the film.
"I also found the bike culture, not just bike messengers, to be a really cool community of people. They are really thoughtful and think a lot about the environment. They are also people that are really into local commerce, alternative energy.
"Riding a bike instead of a car is really healthy for you, it’s really healthy for the planet. It’s such a positive thing. I found a lot of the people that I met that are really into bikes are quite aware of that. But this is a Hollywood movie. It’s a popcorn chase movie. It’s not a documentary about bike culture, but I’m glad that it glorifies bicycles. I think they’re a really positive healthy thing."
For many scenes, Wilee is riding a bike through traffic on New York City streets. Traffic was controlled by the production within their crew of drivers, but Gordon-Levitt was still pedaling between real cars.
"I thought a cool kernel of wisdom that I learned, that multiple people told me, was: ’If you want to avoid hitting something, don’t look at it. Look at where you’re going.’ If you’re trying to thread a needle and get between two things, two cars say, as soon as you start looking at where you don’t want to go, you’ll hit them. You have to just have the confidence to stay straight and go forward. I think there’s something allegorical with that and just life in general. That’s part of the movie too is that Wilee, the character I play, he is that confident guy that has no hesitation, will make a split second decision and there’s a lot of virtue in that."
Wilee lives in the moment. That’s what makes him the best messenger. In the time he has your package, it is the only item in his life. However, his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), another messenger, would prefer a boyfriend with some sense of commitment.
"Just like I said, he’s a guy that lives very much in the present. There is a really strong upside to that, especially because I think maybe nowadays more than ever, we’re a culture that’s sort of obsessed with the future and making plans and what am I going to be. What’s going to happen not just next week but five years from now. Am I going to fit and what’s my track? All that stuff. But Wilee is a character who’s very much turned his back on that way of thinking. And I think that’s admirable, but I also think it’s cool that the movie shows the other side to that way of thinking through Dania’s character. There’s also a complication -- that’s where you get the love story. There’s a downside to not having any consideration for your future."
Biking in LA
The cast spent six weeks training on bikes. By the time filming began, the real bicyclists felt confident that the filmmakers would represent them well, but it took some time to gain their trust.
"They have a right to be skeptical. And like I said, it’s not a documentary about bike culture but it’s a Hollywood chase movie that does glorify the hell out of bicycles. And I think it’ll be a rockin’ good time for anybody who loves to ride bikes or who’s never been on a bike."
Training began in Los Angeles, before moving to the film’s location in New York. Just riding a bike in two different cities illustrated the vast differences to bicyclists across the country.
"New York drivers are just more used to it because Manhattan is a city that’s more conducive to riding a bike. You have to be a pretty good cyclist if you’re going use a bike as your main mode of transportation in L.A. It’s rare but in New York you can really do it and a lot of people do do it. But there is. There is a real bike culture here in L.A., even in L.A., which is so car-centric. There is definitely a thriving bike culture. I see people going by all the time and I’m like, ’Oh wow, check out this kid.’"
L.A. is also notorious for a tricky public transportation system. It is so spread out, even bus stops and subway stations can require a drive. Bikes can help you avoid automobiles altogether.
"If you’re talking about L.A. and transportation, the subway system of L.A. is a little questionable because what are you going to do, drive to your subway stop and then once you get off the train, how are you going to get to where you’re going? But if you combine the L.A. subway system with a bike, it actually becomes a much more viable mode of transportation."
"Premium Rush" opens Friday.
Watch the trailer for "Premium Rush":