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Joseph Gordon-Levitt smiles during the press conference for his new movie Looper during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 6, 2012.

AARON VINCENT ELKAIM/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In the science fiction drama Looper, which kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a hitman who confronts his future self (played by Bruce Willis), and isn't too crazy about what he sees. Here in 2012, though, after a run of films including Inception, 50/50, Premium Rush and The Dark Knight Rises, Gordon-Levitt, 31, is exactly where he wants to be.

"I've been lucky, recently, and I'm very grateful," he said in an interview yesterday. His haircut was hip, his red socks were covered with anime characters, and he radiated a sincere, engaged vibe, kind of like Keanu Reeve's more articulate younger brother. Girls love him – I know several who've watched his romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer about 500 times – and it's easy to see why.

"My whole life, I've wanted to do what I'm getting to do now," he continued. "It took a long time to get here – I've been doing this for 25 years. And there's been stuff along the way that's like, I feel good about this, but it's also a step. For a while it felt like, toward what? But now I can say, toward what I'm doing now."

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He thinks Looper is some of the best work he's ever done, partly because it's so hard to see him in it. Playing a younger Willis required three hours in makeup every day, which was "sort of a pain in the ass," Gordon-Levitt said. "But when I'd look at my face in the mirror and see somebody else, it was enormously inspiring. I like playing characters who are really different from myself. The challenge in this was, how do I become someone so immediately different from myself that audiences, as soon as they see me, don't see me at all?"

To incorporate as much Willis-ness as possible, he watched a lot of Bruce's later films. Not the earlier ones, because he wasn't strictly playing a young Willis – he was trying to create a character for himself that would credibly lead to Willis now. He listened to Willis's voice on his iPod, and Willis even recorded Gordon-Levitt's monologues, so the latter could hear how the former would say the words.

But Gordon-Levitt wasn't sure he was pulling it off until he and Willis shot a loud, verbal fight scene. "At one point in between takes, Bruce – really off-handedly, in his understated way – said, 'You sound like me,'" Gordon-Levitt remembered, grinning. "I was jumping up and down – inside. I kept it cool on the outside. But that was a victorious moment."

Later this year we'll see him become Daniel Day-Lewis's son in Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. And he's also becoming a hyphenate: He's currently editing Don Jon's Addiction, his debut as a writer-director-star. It's a black comedy.

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