Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since the age of 6 but until now viewers have never seen him do anything quite like his latest film, Mysterious Skin, which opened in Los Angeles May 27.

In the frank drama about the lasting effects of child abuse, Gordon-Levitt tackles the lead role of Neil. The sexy, shifty, deeply troubled character comes off like a cross between Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy and the iconic roles of James Dean, but with a contemporary edge. His performance has already earned him critical acclaim (from sources as distinguished as The New York Times) and appears to be a major breakthrough in his career.

It’s quite a departure for an actor best known as the wisecracking teen Tommy on NBC sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun." But that’s the point.

"I’ll always be really grateful to [director] Gregg [Araki] for believing that I could do a role like this. I’ve played the nice kid, the smart one, the funny one, even the angry one, but Gregg was the first one to call me sexy," Gordon-Levitt says.

The decision to sign on for such an intense project was an easy one for the young actor.

"I was really just looking to do something good, which sounds obvious, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s not made with the goal of being good," Gordon-Levitt explains. "When I first read this script I said, ‘My god, whoever wrote this really cares about, loves and believes in what they’re writing.’ That’s so rare."

But making the film did have some unique challenges. For one, like many low-budget indie projects, it had an extremely brief shooting schedule: just 24 days. But unlike many other indies, the cast and crew of Mysterious Skin had to achieve a very complicated, multi-layered story told using a precise visual style in that short amount of time. In other words, this was no simple exercise in handheld guerilla filmmaking.

Gordon-Levitt says the credit for pulling the project together under such tight conditions belongs with Araki, who wrote, directed, produced and edited the film.

"[Gregg] could watch the movie in his head while we were making it. He knew every single bit of the movie before we made it. That’s the only reason we were able to do it in such a short amount of time," Gordon-Levitt explains.

Another challenge posed by the project was its frank approach to difficult subject matter, from child abuse to male prostitution. The role not only requires Gordon-Levitt to be sexy for the first time on film but also to engage in several sex scenes that range from humorous to deeply disturbing.

"To me the sex scenes in this movie aren’t just sex scenes," Gordon-Levitt says. "This isn’t, here we have our two actors and we want to see them naked so we’ll bring in the soft lighting and the slow motion and the music, and it has nothing to do with anything. These scenes that have strong sexuality are the story. That’s where the story gets told. It could be dialogue, but it’s physicality and sexuality instead. I didn’t have any qualms about that at all, it’s just a really interesting and exciting way to tell the story."

The film’s raw content caused its distributor, Tartan Films, to release it unrated in the United States.

Gordon-Levitt rejects the idea that the absence of a rating may deter people from seeing the film. "I don’t really give a fuck about the ratings and I don’t think anybody else does either. It never affected me, I don’t think it affects many people," he says.

Besides, Gordon-Levitt lives in New York, where the film is currently playing in theaters, and he’s already received feedback from viewers who were moved by what they saw on screen.

"People have come up to me on the street already having seen it," he says. "It’s such a different thing. People look me in the eye and tell me what they think and feel about the movie. I know how dear and important so many movies are to me, so I’m really proud to be part of something that can stay with somebody like that."

Mysterious Skin is currently in theaters.