In some ways, Looper, the new science fiction brain-scrambler starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a younger version of co-star Bruce Willis, is a lot like The Avengers, albeit with significantly less superheroes. The Avengers works so well because writer-director Joss Whedon focused as much on the characters' relationships and inner workings as he did the high-flying CGI action and expensive money-shots. It's no surprise, considering that Whedon's background consists of character-driven TV shows, where massive budgets aren't a factor.

Looper, meanwhile, comes from writer-director Rian Johnson, who first grabbed the industry's attention with 2006's indie noir exercise Brick, a $40,000 mood piece driven by dialogue and acting. So when it came to tackle such lofty tasks as executing time travel and a creative futuristic world for Looper, Johnson stuck to what he knows best: stories centered on intimate human interactions. As a result, Looper is the most emotionally resonant sci-fi film in years.

Keeping his indie frame of mind intact, Johnson off-set bigger names like Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels with Brick co-star, and longtime friend, Noah Segan when casting the Looper role of "Kid Blue." Written specifically for Segan, Kid Blue is a lackey for Abe (Daniels), his ruthless employer. Kid Blue's mission: hunt down and kill Gordon-Levitt's character, Joe, once Joe fails to kill his older self (Willis) after 55-year-old Joe is sent back through time to get offed.

Got all of that? Trust, Looper spells its rules out clearly, but, again, it's not about the scientific ins and outs. And the emphasis on multifaceted people struggling to find themselves in a heightened world cuts right to the core of Kid Blue; younger and smaller than his thuggish peers, he's a go-getter who dreams of being the heroic cowboy but can't help disappointing Abe.

Playing the character with acute vulnerability, Segan more than holds his own alongside the likes of Gordon-Levitt and Daniels, capitalizing on the chops he's already displayed in memorable lo-fi horror flicks like Deadgirl (2008) and Undocumented (2010). Complex recently caught up with the ascendant actor to discuss his bond with Johnson, Looper's substance-over-style approach, and why making movies is the ultimate form of time travel.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Since its opening night premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Looper has been receiving an overwhelming amount of acclaim and positive reviews. How has the response been on your end?
Well, more than people liking the movie, I like it. [Laughs.] The people who made the movie like it, so once it's done there's not much you can do other than hope everyone else likes it.

But what's been blowing my mind has been how deeply people are reading into the movie's world, and the concept, and the philosophy. When people start coloring in the spaces, and filling in things about the world that the movie only hints at, you start thinking, Man, these people are really making it their own. They're owning this thing, they're getting into Looper the way we used to get into the movie we grew up loving, like The Terminator or the bigger franchise movies like Star Wars and Star Trek.

Looper is such an intimate story at its heart, even though there are these really big ideas and visuals happening around that story. That's something that people can immediately connect to and get excited about on a more personal level.
Yeah, and that's a credit to Rian being a filmmaker who's most interested in characters, relationships, and the very specific intentions that his characters have. Everything is very personal, and his characters are very personal. Even somebody like me, who's a part of the supporting cast; we all have personal motives, as opposed to something that's just there to further along the good guy or the bad guy.

There's a great benefit to Rian coming from this indie world that I also come from, and Joe also comes from, whether it's Brick, or in Joe's case a lot of great indie movies, or in my case a lot of genre movies and left-of-center stuff. With Looper, we were like kids in a candy shop. [Laughs.]

We'd never been in this kind of environment, except for Joe, who had come off a couple big movies, but for the most part we had never been in an environment where we'd have an opportunity to have hover-bikes, build crazy big guns, and get beat up by Bruce Willis. We're used to making these movies where it's in the words, it's in the attitude, it's in the performance. Movies where we didn't have the candy, but, here, we had the candy, so here we go! We got some candy and we put it to good use.

Being that Rian comes from the indie world and Looper is a huge project with big ideas in need of big finances, were there any difficulties in getting the film off the ground, at least that you could see as his close friend?
The thing is, everybody wanted to work, and wants to work, with Rian, and for good reason. He's the best filmmaker I know personally; he's a brilliant guy, and he writes brilliant scripts. His scripts are directly reflective of the sort of person he is, this very detail-oriented, conscientious, and thoughtful person. So you meet the guy, you know he wrote the script, and, no matter who you are, if you're some bum like me or you're Bruce Willis, you want to work with him. You see that. That's what a good artist wants.

You say 'time travel' and it's done. Looper is about investigating these relationships, as opposed to the science of time travel. ... We didn't treat it like a physics experiment.

Frankly, I think they didn't have a ton of trouble attracting people like Bruce and Emily [Blunt]. The script is phenomenal, and once you meet Rian and not only is he as smart as his script but he's also the warmest, most generous, funniest guy in the world. So he has that going for him.

In my case, Rian had written the role of Kid Blue for me, and even named it after me; my nickname is Kid Blue. He had put together this movie, and Joe is, obviously, very successful and well-known nowadays. We still have friendships coming back from Brick, but he's a big movie star now, and then you have people like Bruce, Emily, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, and Piper Perabo, who are these really well-known people. And, of course, there were a lot of really well-known people interested in the role of Kid Blue; Rian wrote an amazing role. But he, Joe, and Ram [Bergman, one of the producers] went to bat for me. We worked real hard to prove that I could handle being in a big movie with these big movie stars.

In what ways did you have to prove that to everyone?
Because we're so close, I think Rian was very careful in protecting me from the reality of it, which is, you can't blame the people who are putting up the bread—they want to put butts in seats. The other people who wanted to play Kid Blue were great actors, and because they're interested in working with Rian there's no reason not to hire them, obviously. Rian did a very good job of insulating me away from a lot of those conversations. He was just a great diplomat in explaining that he thought I was the right guy for the gig.

We did a lot of rehearsals, but the rehearsals weren't these big screen tests or anything like that. It was more about being able to go back to the financial partners and saying, "Look, this kid's got something, and we believe in him." Then having Joe say that and Ram say that. They sort of rallied behind me.

Did you and Rian have a friendship prior to making Brick, or is that when you two first met?
No, that's when we first met. I met Rian very much the old-fashioned way. It was one of my first auditions for a movie, and, unlike a lot of young filmmakers and young actors who don't have a ton of experience, Rian actually took meetings and sat down to have a proverbial cup of coffee with me. We immediately realized that we liked each other, and then I auditioned for him. I think I was the first guy cast in Brick, actually, about nine months before he made the movie.

That created a very solid foundation for a friendship. By the time we started making the movie and there were all these other great people, whether it was Joe or the rest of the cast, there was already a sense of, OK, this is how it's got to be—we've got to be friends, we've got to be tight and on the same page.

Subsequently, Joe, Rian, and I are all neighbors. We live in the same neighborhood; Rian and I share a great passion for photography, so we built a dark-room together that we find a lot of time to spend in. We just all remained tight since Brick.

So you must have seen the evolution of Looper from back when it just a burgeoning idea, no?
Before we shot Brick, about eight years ago, I read a two-page short story called "Looper"; it was written as a short story, it wasn't written as a screenplay. He says that he wrote a short film, too, but I've never read that, though I think Joe has. It was definitely something that was kicking around, and this two-page short story is somewhere in his personal archives now. It was this first-person account of what it's like for a guy to chase his older self. It was very concise, and I remember reading it and thinking, Man, this is a really cool idea. And then just leaving it at that.

Then, he makes Brick and he makes The Brothers Bloom, and years pass. We wouldn't talk about it. A few years ago, he revisited it and started talking about it again. You never know with Rian; his process is very cerebral. He does most of the work in his head, and by the time he gets to the actual screenwriting process it's very quick. When he says, "I'm sitting down and writing a script," you'll see a script in, like, six weeks. You'll see a draft. Once Looper came out of his head and notebooks and doodles, he sent it to me, I read it, and, there it was, on page 12: "Kid Blue." I called him up and said, "What's the deal with that?" And he said, "That's you, man."

Are there elements of you in the character of Kid Blue?
He knows that I have this great affinity for westerns and cowboys, and obviously that's a big part of the role: This guy fancies himself as a cowboy in the future, with his gun-spinning skills, fake accent, and all that. I think that that was inspired by what he knew about me and what I liked. It's interesting, first impressions are very important. We try not to put a lot of importance on first impressions, but in reality they make a big impact, consciously and subconsciously.

There are a lot of parallels between the role I played in Brick and the role I play in Looper, in that both roles, Dode and Kid Blue, are foils for the main character. They're these sort of mutant versions of the main characters. Dode loves Emily, and he loves Emily arguably more than Brendan [Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character] loves Emily, but he's completely incapable of handling himself; he doesn't have the cool, calm, collected demeanor or the brains that Brendan does, so he fails, even though there's a certain diligence. And that diligence carries over to Kid Blue, where you have this sympathy for this guy, hopefully, even though he's not doing the nicest things in the world. He really believes in what he's doing.

So, I think, in somewhere deep, Rian sees me in that way, I guess, or at least sees I have the ability to bring that certain pathos and vulnerability out of a character. Of course, nobody walks around thinking that they're a pathetic, vulnerable guy. [Laughs.] I don't think I'm that way; I handle my shit. I've got my shit together, but there's something about that. It's funny, we've talked about that connection between Dode and Kid Blue, and I've come to the conclusion that Kid Blue is Dode's grandson. [Laughs.]

And what did Rian say about that?
He laughed. [Laughs.] Knowing Rian, he's so cool, man; he's such a cool, understated guy that there may even be some truth to that, but he'd never own up to it. He'd just let it be and let me run wild with my conclusions and guesses. It's helpful for me. It's very nice to be able to look at a guy who's powerful and dangerous and find ways to also make him seem vulnerable. That's what actors like; actors like to have these conflicted characters—that's how you get drama.

Most of your character's vulnerability comes in the presence of Jeff Daniels, who plays Kid Blue's no-bullshit boss. You have a few scenes with Jeff Daniels where it's just the two of you going toe-to-toe. How were those experiences?
It was unbelievable. Jeff is about as good of an actor as you'll find in this business—he's one of the best actors alive. He's a theater cat, man; he runs his own theater company, and he's got his shit together. He shows up to set and comes very correct and very prepared. He's very aware of the process, because he's a pro—he's been doing this forever.

We had a couple scenes together where I'm really emotional. There's this really complicated father figure type of thing that I'm doing with him, and I'm very upset. It's funny, he was very stoic and doing his thing all day, and we got to one of the more intense scenes one day, and he very kindly said, "Listen, when the camera's on me, man, you don't have to go whole-hog. You don't have to let your flag fly. I've got it. My role is that I'm more together, and I can handle that. Save your tears." [Laughs.] And I said, "You know, that's not really where I'm at, buddy. I appreciate it but I'm just ready to do this. I don't care where the camera is, I've been preparing for this scene for a long time now. I don't care if I'm going to have tears in my eyes all day." I'd like to think that was where he finally said, "OK, wait a minute, this kid's got his thing going on—he is gonna go toe-to-toe with me. We are gonna do this dance, and it's gonna be serious."

In fact, that night, after that day of intensity and unrelenting emotional weight, he was leaving the set with his fedora and scarf on—he looked very classy. I was standing outside my trailer, smoking my cigarette, and he looked back at me and said, "Good work today, kid. I think we're in a good one." And I'll never forget that.

At one point, his character dismissively talks about how the subject of time travel can "fry your brain like an egg," and, later into the movie, Bruce Willis says, bluntly, "I don't want to talk about this time travel shit." It's clear that Looper is a film made by people who aren't as concerned with explaining the mechanics of time travel as they are with telling a compelling story with strong characters. Why do you think that was such an important point to get across?
I think that Rian had a very specific story he wanted to tell, and, of course, a big part of that story was this concept of the old and the young, the before and the after, and this thing that in real life, outside of movies, we can't do, which is reflect on the past, present, and future. These are things that interested Rian, and he said, "OK, how do you do that? You do it with time travel." But you say it and it's done. Looper is about investigating these relationships, as opposed to the science of time travel.

If you make a good movie that people like, that's time travel. People are going to be watching it and enjoying it long after you're dead and gone.

How he measured that out so perfectly is just another example of Rian being a masterful filmmaker. We did pay attention to all of that, though; there was a diagram made by Zack, Rian's cousin who does a lot of artwork for his film, and it's this beautiful timeline that diverges a few times when the timeline in the film diverges. Like, for instance, when Bruce comes back to the apartment diverges the timeline from when he goes to China. So we did have an idea of where we were.

But the other thing is, with the exception of Bruce and Joe, for the rest of the movie's characters, we didn't need to know about time travel. It doesn't change anything for my character. Once we started unlocking that, we realized, Wait a minute, none of this stuff is affecting us or why we're doing it, so let's sit on it and let people watch a movie and not a science project.

It's also a testament to the movie's effectiveness that, as you're watching it and getting pulled into the story and the lives of these characters, the issue of time travel basically falls by the wayside. It's not a major concern anymore.
Yeah, and that's the idea. You get into that drama and the last thing you want anybody caring about is the science. That speaks a lot to Rian really, really trying to maintain a sense of, "What's this movie about? Who is this movie about? What's the story here?" He was able to commit to that and get all of us to commit to that, so we could just shoot it like any other movie and not treat it like a physics experiment.

On your end, you normally work in the smaller-scale, independent genre movie world, yet what's cool about Looper, for you specifically, is that, at its heart, the film is essentially a smaller-scale indie genre movie. It just so happens that the budget is reasonably larger and a major company like Sony came in and picked up the distribution rights. Did making Looper feel any different for you personally?
No, this was, in my experience, no different than the experience we had in making Brick, except we had Bruce Willis on-board. [Laughs.] The costumes were fancier. We were shooting in myriad more locations. There were a few perks of having some money and having this high-concept thing, but, no, it was just like making a movie with my buddies.

There was no more or less margin of error—there is no margin of error. Really, that speaks more to Brick than it does to Looper. People say, "Hey, man, you've got these big movie stars and a lot of money on the line, it's a big opportunity. There's no margin for error." We didn't have a margin for error with Brick; we didn't have a margin for error when we had $40,000 and only three weeks to shoot it.

So that philosophy was just maintained. It's the same philosophy we had originally. In my experience, whether you're working on a $100,000 movie or a multi-million-dollar movie, there's no room for failure, the script's got to be tight, and you have to show up knowing your lines and ready to know what you're doing. If you do, then everybody has a good time. Everybody makes what they want to make, and you live forever. Talk about time travel, man—if you make a good movie that people like, that's time travel. People are going to be watching it and enjoying it long after you're dead and gone.

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Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)