Two great American cities are on the menu for my Zoom discussion with actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dominique Fishback: New Orleans, because that’s the setting for their film “Project Power,” bowing Friday on Netflix, and Chicago, because they’re appearing in separate upcoming projects about two defining moments of one of the most tumultuous times in our city’s history.
We start with New Orleans, which in “Project Power” is a city under siege, due to the influx of a new pill that temporarily bestows superpowers on the recipient and has become an agent of destruction for criminals. Gordon-Levitt’s Frank is a rules-bending cop who loves his city and its people and will do anything to protect them; Fishback’s Robin is a teenager who deals the magic pills but also works as a double-agent partner of sorts with Frank.
“This movie, you can really watch it on two levels,” says Gordon-Levitt. “It’s a fun thrill ride, but underneath that, it asks some pertinent questions about what’s going on in this world right now, and who has power and why, and who doesn’t get enough power. And when you talk about that in the context of New Orleans — New Orleans has an unfortunate and tragic history of not necessarily getting support from the larger structure, from the American government. Now we’re telling the story of this pill getting tested on the people of New Orleans. And not just any people, it’s the least well-represented people in New Orleans.”
In numerous scenes, Gordon-Levitt’s Frank wears the jersey of former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who became a local icon after he famously blocked a punt in the team’s first home game after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and is living with ALS.
“That was the idea of the filmmakers [co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman],” says Gordon-Levitt. “Steve Gleason has really become a hero in [New Orleans]. He’s paralyzed, but he’s managed to overcome that terrible challenge and do a lot of work and help a lot of people. I got to meet him, he came to the set. He can’t talk like you and I can, but he has a machine where he can move his eyes and pick which words to play on a speaker. It just makes you so grateful, we take for granted just being able to talk. … I was proud to wear his name throughout the movie.”
Fishback’s character never knew her father, is caring for her sick mother and is getting mixed up in an increasingly complicated and dangerous world. She’s deeply cynical and carries the weight of the world on her shoulders — but she finds moments of joy and hope in creating and listening to hip-hop music.
“Music — especially hip hop and rap — has always been a part of the language of people who are not always heard or represented,” says Fishback. “She’s a young kid dealing with all this stuff, she’s not doing well in school, her mom is really sick, she doesn’t have her dad, all these things. She has this hurricane inside of her, and the way she expresses that and gets it out is by using rap.”
There’s a bit of father-daughter dynamic to the relationship between Frank and Robin. “When we meet them, they’re kind of in the middle of their friendship already,” says Fishback. “When [Gordon-Levitt] and I met, we decided to improv scenes to figure out their storyline and how they met. So, by [the time filming started], our onset rapport was easy and we were able to trust each other as actors.”
On the horizon for Fishback: a co-starring role in 2021’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a biopic about Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was shot and killed in a pre-dawn raid in his Chicago apartment in 1969.
“ ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is about the assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton in Chicago, while my character, his fiancee, lay in the bed with him when she was eight months pregnant,” says Fishback. “It’s [the story of Hampton’s life] and will be a tool for people who don’t know who Fred is, to learn about him.”
Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt plays prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a dramatization of the trial of antiwar activists charged with conspiracy at the 1968 Democratic Convention. It premieres Oct. 16 on Netflix.
“Fred Hampton is actually in ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ as well,” notes Gordon-Levitt. “Bobby Seale, the head of the Black Panther Party, was being advised by Fred Hampton during that trial. … Seale was literally bound and gagged in an American courtroom. It was a horrible, dark moment in American history and completely anti-American. …
“It really has a lot of parallels as to what’s going on today, where people are standing up, using their voices and trying to make changes in this country … and unfortunately the American government and especially our president are doing horrible, un-American things trying to silence people and prevent people from using their right to assemble and speak.”