Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Hesher
(Credit: Merrick Morton, courtesy of Wrekin Hill Entertainment)

There’s a large tattoo of a middle finger that covers Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s entire back. And drawn on the front of his torso? A frowning stick figure shooting his brains out. The morbid yet temporary inkwork was specifically designed for his titular character in Hesher, the feature debut of director-writer Spencer Susser. In the film, the Inception star plays a porno-loving, pyromaniac/drifter who unexpectedly becomes the uninvited houseguest of a widower (“The Office”’s Rainn Wilson) and his 13-year-old son (newcomer Devin Brochu).

After playing such memorable and unique roles in films like Mysterious Skin (a sexually abused hustler), Brick (a high-school detective) and The Lookout (a bank-robbing janitor), Gordon-Levitt was excited to jump on this project and add another eccentric character to his ever-expanding resume.

“Hesher, on the surface, is really exciting and fun,” he explains, “but what really got me about the character is that there’s more to it than that. He’s quite a thinker, and even though he doesn’t pay attention to the standard conventions of morality, I think he’s quite an ethical guy.”

There’s definitely nothing conventional about the long-haired squatter. Whether he’s setting cars on fire, rolling a casket down the street or climbing a telephone pole in his underwear (In fact, most scenes feature JGL in different states of undress during which those aforementioned tattoos are revealed.), Hesher – both the man and the film – manages to remain unpredictable and uninhibited.

“He’s the ultimate badass,” says Wilson, who plays the grief stricken Paul, the father who grows distant from his son after his wife dies in a car accident. The role proves to be a welcome departure from his comedic machinations on the NBC sitcom.

For the young Brochu, who plays Paul’s son T.J., the dark and very mature subject matter of the movie was part of a role most actors his age don’t get to play. Helping him out with the entire process, Joe – as his costars call him – was able to shell out some advice to the young actor. After all, he had been around the same age when he started acting.

“Devin is a great actor. I’m so proud of him,” Gordon-Levitt says. “A lot of people assume that kids can’t be good actors, and I couldn’t disagree more strongly. He [Devin] is an example of that, a consummate professional.”

Also co-starring in the movie (and serving as first-time producer) is newly anointed Oscar winner Natalie Portman, who plays Nicole, a supermarket cashier who befriends T.J. and is soon pulled into Hesher’s antics. For Gordon-Levitt, the chance to work with someone he has admired ever since he was a child actor was something he couldn’t miss.

“She could’ve done some big Hollywood moneymaker and gotten rich,” he points out. “The fact that she chose to use her power to get a little movie made that, without her help, might not have gotten made – I really admire her for that.”

Another piece of the movie puzzle that easily fell into place was the music, an element that helped inspire the character of Hesher himself. Gordon-Levitt remembers his early discussions with Susser: “We talked a lot about Cliff Burton, who’s the old bassist from Metallica.”

Says Susser, “I don’t think Hesher looks up to anybody. He doesn’t care what people think. He’s very independent and an original thinker, so he doesn’t really have any idols. But if there was one person that he did look up to, it would be Cliff Burton.”

Other inspirations included beatnik gods Dean Moriarty and Neal Cassady, but it was the late heavy metal figure who eventually helped shape the idea of Hesher because Susser had originally written the band’s music into the script. But would Metallica, a group infamous for prohibiting anyone from using their music in anything, give their blessing?

“Finally, when I had a cut of the film, I wrote Metallica a letter,” Susser recalls. “I sent them the film, and they liked the movie. I couldn’t believe it! No one could believe it!”

Gordon-Levitt could believe it. For him, Hesher marks the beginning of what will surely be a busy decade. His plate is already full for the next two years, most notably with Looper, opposite Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt, and of course, the ginormously anticipated The Dark Knight Rises. But right now he’s also trying to focus on overseeing HitRECord, the production company and Web site (hitrecord.org) he launched in 2010, a collaborative global community of artists that creates, shares and distributes all kinds of projects (ever the sly self-promoter, he wears a HitRECord T-shirt during this very interview).

If there’s one reason why people should see his current film, what is it? His answer somewhat reflects the sensibilities behind his company’s current mission statement: “I like movies where some people love it or some people hate it … Hesher will divide people. I think some people probably won’t be able to get around some of its crude appearances, but for brave souls who are hardcore enough for it, I think it’s everything I’d want in a story. It’s funny and heartfelt and doesn’t shy away from some of the bigger questions.”

If you ask me, I think those tattoos said it all.