Premium Rush: Interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Shannon, Dania Ramirez, and Jamie Chung and directed by David Koepp, “Premium Rush” arrives in theaters on August 24, 2012.
Dodging speeding cars, crazed cabbies, and eight million cranky pedestrians is all in a day’s work for Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the best of New York’s agile and aggressive bicycle messengers. It takes a special breed to ride the fixie – super lightweight, single-gear bikes with no brakes and riders who are equal part skilled cyclists and nutcases who risk becoming a smear on the pavement every time they head into traffic. But a guy who’s used to putting his life on the line is about to get more than even he is used to when his last envelope of the day – a routine “premium rush” run – turns into a life or death chase through the streets of Manhattan.
The hero of the story is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a young bike messenger who is the best at what he does. “Wilee is the fastest bike messenger in New York City,” the actor explains. Wilee rides the fixie – one gear and no stopping. “He rides with no brakes, which is a good metaphor for who he is and how he is. He’s the type of person who lives in the present and goes for it.”
For the actor, the excitement of the film came in the way the characters and plot unfold through the action and pacing. “David is a real storyteller – a classic storyteller,” says Gordon-Levitt. “He makes the action exciting, not by making it huge, but by crafting the story and the characters just right. It makes the movie really dynamic.”
“The whole movie is on the bike,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I trained for six weeks or so, five days a week, leading up to shooting. I had to be in good enough shape to spend 12 hours a day doing those scenes. I knew I wouldn’t be able to say, ‘Oh, I’m tired,’ while a 500-person film crew was waiting for me to catch my breath.”
But even though he took his role and the preparation it required seriously, it wasn’t strictly business for him. “I just loved the idea of riding a bike in New York City all summer,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of different movies and it’s always really fulfilling, but this job in particular was fun. Not just satisfying – big-smile-on-my-face fun.”
Gordon-Levitt was also attracted to the project by his character – one who is very clearly living for today and not worried about tomorrow. “He has a very present-oriented personality – he’s not so much about the future or anything other than right here, right now. And I think as the movie goes on, it reveals the merits of that way of present living, but also, in Wilee’s relationship with Vanessa, its flaws.”
For the role of Vanessa, Wilee’s fellow bike messenger and on-again, off-again girlfriend, Koepp cast Dania Ramirez. Gordon-Levitt and Ramirez trained together in Los Angeles before filming began. Everyone on the film, from the prop department to wardrobe to the stunt team to the actors, spent time with real bike messengers to learn as much as they could. Ramirez says, “What you don’t get to see when you see them individually on the street is that they are a really tight-knit group. It’s not just about riding a bike – it’s really about this underground, really cool culture.”
For the character of Manny, the rival messenger with the expensive bike, Koepp cast actor Wolé Parks. “Manny gets a lot of flak in this movie,” says Parks. “He’s definitely a little cocky. But I see him as a guy who’s had to work for a lot and that’s made him the man he is today.” And not only does he work – but he works it, making a move on Wilee’s sometime girlfriend, Vanessa. “Manny is a guy who likes to mark his territory,” Parks explains.
One role in particular called for an expert: as he was casting for a bike cop who chases Wilee, Koepp realized that most of the scenes involve the character crashing and eating pavement. To take the falls as the bike cop, Koepp cast stuntman Christopher Place. “I did a lot of crashing and rolling right into the lens with my face,” he says. For Place, it was difficult work, but it was also a chance for some of the glamour that stuntmen rarely see (and a well-deserved credit in the main titles). “I don’t think many stuntmen get a prominent role in a film, like this one, so I loved it,” he says.
“For the messengers, the bike is like their babies,” says Ramirez. “They talk about their bikes like it’s a relative. Same thing with the helmet – every sticker means something.”
“When you ride a lot – and I’ve only experienced this to a small degree – you do start to feel like the bike is an extension of your body,” says Gordon-Levitt. “It’s less like a vehicle you’re riding on top of and more like something that becomes a part of you. When you’re riding in New York, you have to be one hundred percent focused on the riding. You can’t think about anything else, because at any given time there are 100 things coming at you. Wilee’s strength is that he doesn’t get tied up by indecision.”
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