It’s a tale that’s been told a million times: A child actor arrives in the spotlight, earns a huge amount of success (and money) very young—and then they grow up and everything promptly goes to hell. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt managed to escape the curse and grow into an A-list actor through a series of smart career moves.
Here is his journey:
The TV Role
3rd Rock From the Sun (1996)
As Tommy Solomon, the old alien in a young human’s body, Gordon-Levitt was 15 years old when he starred in the primetime comedy. After five years on the air, the show ended with Tommy leaving to go to college—and, wisely, so did Gordon-Levitt, who studied at Columbia University. Getting perspective from outside Hollywood is key for child actors to avoid becoming a trainwreck. (See also: Claire Danes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jodie Foster.)
The Indie Film
Instead of jumping immediately into the blockbuster summer movie fray, Gordon-Levitt opted to star in the indie film Brick, a high school noir that has become a cult favorite. It proved JGL’s acting chops with clever screenplays, which continues to be a throughline in his career.
When director Christopher Nolan calls, you agree to do the film, even if Gordon-Levitt’s role of Arthur is part of a huge ensemble. It’s a wise move: In Hollywood, relationships are everything, and JGL proves that being one of a director’s favorite actor can pay off with bigger roles down the road. Case in point: he reteamed with Nolan in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
The Leading Man
The Walk (2015)
Finally, JGL takes on his leading man role by playing tightrope walker Philippe Petit. Gordon-Levitt is required to speak French frequently in the movie, and while American actors tackling foreign languages onscreen is generally a recipe for disaster, in The Walk it works because JGL is fluent in French thanks to his studies at Columbia. It’s a film role that speaks to his particular strengths and interests offscreen—another smart choice in a career full of them.