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JGL/JGL: E.T.s to BJs

Growing up on a hit TV show is presumably not quite like turning tricks in a dead-end Kansas town, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt empathizes with the landlocked frustrations of his Mysterious Skincharacter. "I was born and raised in L.A. and I did 3rd Rock From the Sun all my teenage years" says the 24-year-old actor. "That life was pretty small. I guess that was my Kansas. The smartest thing I ever did was quit acting and go to college for a while." He moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia—though not before shooting 2001's psych-ward indie Manic, which he says heralded a "new phase."

Four years on, that phase is turning into a full-scale reinvention, as evidenced by lead roles in two Sundance favorites: Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (now at Film Forum) and the wiseacre high school noir Brick (opening in the fall). "In their own way, these films are all true to the teenage experience," says Gordon-Levitt. "They're not forcing any grandiose, coming-of-age violin moments." Certainly not Araki's movie, in which his damaged twink hustler is still reeling from his first love . . . with a pedophile Little League coach: "The character's only association with a positive self-image is 'I'm sexy.' Movies often deal with sex in a shallow way. Mysterious Skin presents a very sexy character, but it's about why that came to be and the consequences of being this simplistically sexual being."

For a young up-and-comer, of course, there are worse things than being redefined as a sex object. "I'm not usually cast in sexy roles," says the actor still best known as information officer Tommy Solomon. "It did something to the way I saw myself and my body." Was it uncomfortable being so thoroughly eroticized by Araki's ogling camera? He laughs. "No, man, it's fucking great. I'll thank Gregg for it the rest of my life."

 
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