WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Since writer-director Rian Johnson and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt first unveiled Looper at WonderCon last March, the filmmaker and his cast have carefully and pointedly kept a major feature of the time-warping sci-fi thriller under wraps. But now that audiences have had a chance to see Looper for themselves this weekend (click here for EW’s B+ review), many of the film’s key players are finally willing to talk about this top secret element for the first time — and using words like “spooky,” “brilliant,” and “extraordinary” to do it.
First, though, some quick backstory. The movie’s main character, Joe (Gordon-Levitt), is part of a class of mob assassins called Loopers, who kill victims sent back from the future — until one day they kill their future self, and “close their loop.” The film’s cast and director have spoken at length about the tricky make-up process Gordon-Levitt underwent to look more like the actor playing his future self, Bruce Willis. And they’ve given a detailed look at the process of making the movie — click here for Johnson’s exclusive tour of his stunning behind-the-scenes photographs from the film’s Lousiana-based production.
But when it comes to Emily Blunt’s character Sara, the cast and director have stayed silent. Up until now, the most anyone, including Blunt, has been willing to say about the her character is that Joe’s dogged pursuit of Older Joe brings them in contact with Sara, a single mother living on a remote Kansas farm. So why has everyone been so reluctant to say anything more about Sara or her place in the film’s story? (Obviously, if you haven’t seen Looper yet, MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. If you plan on seeing the film, do yourself a favor and stop reading now until you have.)
It turns out, it wasn’t Blunt’s character the filmmakers were trying to keep a secret. It was her character’s young son.
Throughout Looper, Willis’ Older Joe keeps referring to a mysterious figure called the Rainmaker, who in the future has taken control of all organized crime seemingly out of nowhere, beginning a reign of terror that includes systematically closing all the Loopers’ loops with brutal efficiency. Older Joe, in fact, is determined to find this figure in the past and kill him before he had a chance to seize power, which leads him and Younger Joe, inevitably, to Sara, her farm, and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon) — an unnervingly bright, and lethally powerful, young boy — who indeed turns out to be the Rainmaker.
Even though Cid’s very presence in the movie has been virtually nonexistent in its trailers, TV ads, and posters, it turns out the character is the linchpin of the entire story: The third act rests on the audience’s ability to believe that the character has the potential to become a ferocious crime lord — as well as the promise that he can be saved. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of any actor, let alone one whose contemporaries are barely out of kindergarten. “What this character needed in this kid was an intensity, an unspoken, unbridled intensity,” says Blunt. “And that’s very hard to find in a little boy.”
It’s safe to say the filmmakers found the right boy in the Atlanta-based Gagnon, who was only five years old when Johnson found him through a standard audition sweep of child actors. Even though Gagnon’s only other role at that point was a small part in the 2010 horror thriller The Crazies, says Johnson, “from the very first audition, you were just like, whoa, who is this kid?”
The final choices for the role came down to Gagnon and two other boys, who all read with Blunt at a hotel in New Orleans (where the film largely shot). “I don’t know what happened, but when I read with [Gagnon], it’s like the air shifted in the room,” says Blunt. “I said [to Rian], ‘Just do it, cast him, please, cast him now.’ He was kind of spooky, you know, in the most interesting way.”
What made Gagnon stand out was his ability to treat his acting as acting, rather than emotional mimicry. “As adults, we can sometimes have a mistaken notion that with all kids, you have to kind of trick them into giving a performance,” says Johnson. “I’ve been in that situation before, where you wave a shiny object at a kid in order to get them to look this way or that, basically. One of the big things is we all had to adjust with Pierce to just treating him like a fellow actor.”
“I remember, at some point I gave him a piece of ‘little kid’ direction,” Johnson continues. “I said, ‘Now make a sad face when you say this line,’ or something terrible like that, something that you would never in a million years say to a real actor. And he just looked back at me with this blank stare, and said, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ I felt all the gears in my head re-adjust — oh, wow, I’m working with an actor here. He’s actually engaged in the scene. That’s absolutely extraordinary and kind of uncanny to watch in a five-year-old child.”
His costars agree. “It might sound weird ’cause he’s five years old to call him brilliant,” says Gordon-Levitt, “but I actually firmly believe that kids can be the best actors of all of us. They’re less removed from that pure, uninhibited place that we all start at.”
Blunt adds with a laugh, “Working with him, to be honest, I just did my best to keep up with him. He’s that good.”
Both Blunt and Johnson give a great deal of credit for Gagnon’s performance to the thoughtful way his mother treated him on set. “She would just kneel down next to him and be like, ‘Pierce, you understand that in this scene, it’s because of this, this, and this?’” says Blunt. “Rather than it being ‘Pierce, you need to be angry, or you need to be sad,’ she would give him a backstory to be able to do the scene.” Adds Johnson, “I stepped back and left it to her to give him enough information so that he knew emotionally where he was at in each of the scenes, without taking it to some of the more R-rated places, I guess, that you could get to if you were completely frank with him.”
That measured approach was especially important when it came time to shoot the climactic moment when Cid uses his mind to literally explode a Mob henchman played by Garret Dillahunt — revealing just how powerful the kid’s telekinetic abilities really are. “All that he needed to know is that he was really angry at this guy, and he was yelling at him, screaming at him,” says Johnson. “And by the way, that was probably the most fun that he had on the set. When it came time to scream and bellow, he was just in hog heaven. The second the cameras cut, he would get this big goofy smile on his face and look around at everybody.”
Indeed, although Johnson was always conscious that a film set is “a very adult place,” he prided himself on maintaining an environment where Gagnon felt comfortable to just be a five-year-old kid when the cameras weren’t rolling. “They’d shout cut, and he’d go [in a Southern accent] ‘Miss Emily, do you want to go play Angry Birds?’” Blunt says. “I was like, ‘Sure!’ That’s how it would go. Like, he’s a polite little Southern kid who’d say ‘Miss Emily,’ ‘Mr. Rian,’ and ‘Mr. Joe.’”
Being that young also meant that Gagnon wasn’t prepared for the shock of saying goodbye to everyone once filming was completed. “He was in a really bad spot,” says Blunt. “It’s just so sad. I think it’s really hard to have this Neverland like experience on set and then have to say goodbye.” Johnson’s perspective, however, is a little more sanguine. “That happens to all of us that work on movie sets,” he says, chuckling. “It’s just that we have these nonsense adult barriers up where we’re not allowed to show how sad we are that it’s coming to an end. And Pierce had a healthy human reaction to that, which is to cry. The rest of us, I think, put our guard up and become so jaded against that. It was really affecting and heartbreaking to see him react to it properly.”
As for Gagnon’s future, the actor already played a key role in the final season of the CW’s One Tree Hill, but one really only need to look at the career trajectory of another of Gagnon’s costars in Looper to see how far he could go. “I started acting when I was six years old,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I couldn’t help being reminded of what it used to be like when I was working at that age. He clearly loved what he was doing, and he was so good at it and worked really hard. It’s just incredible. I’m actually honored to be in his first movie. I very much predict he will go off to be a great actor.” With any luck, we’ll even be allowed to know he’s in his next movie before we see it.