"I always found it uncomfortable when people would come up to me and say, 'Oh, I saw you on TV. You're on TV.' That just really felt awkward to me," Gordon-Levitt, 34, told ABC News' "Nightline."
Gordon-Levitt, who plays French tightrope walker Philippe Petit in the new film "The Walk," fell in love with acting as a child, and his portrayal of a man/child alien on "Third Rock From the Sun" made him a reluctant star.
"I privately wished that we could go on set and do the work that I loved, but then burn the film afterward so that people wouldn't see it or recognize," Gordon-Levitt said.
Even today, Gordon-Levitt keeps his private life out of the spotlight and says very little publicly about his new baby with his wife technology entrepreneur Tasha McCauley. Being a new parent has made him feel more optimistic, he said.
"I look at my son and I say he's awesome. He's gonna grow up and he's going to do such incredible things. But here's the thing -- and this is why I feel private -- I don't want him to feel the pressure of me having been on TV and saying that," Gordon-Levitt explained.
In fact, Gordon-Levitt himself had actually quit acting and went to Columbia University to study French Literature.
He eventually returned, taking roles in indie films like "50/50" and "500 Days of Summer" and writing and directing the critically acclaimed "Don Jon."
“When people now come up to me and they say … ‘I saw “50/50” and that meant a lot to me because, you know, a friend of mine had, you know, dealt with cancer,’ or ‘I saw “500 Days of Summer,” and it helped me deal with getting dumped,’ or whatever it is, if people connect to something that I've done, that's very meaningful to me. And that's different than I felt when I was a child,” he said.
But Gordon-Levitt said his most meaningful project is the crowd-sourcing production company HitRecord, which he co-created with his late brother Dan. Anyone around the world can contribute to artistic content they create, and it's morphed into a TV show now in its second season.
"We open up our collaborative process to the world. And we use the internet and anybody can join our community and come, you know, make our short films, our books, our music. We made a TV show," he said.
"I think my parents never emphasized fame. They never emphasized, ‘Ooh, look, isn't this exciting? Everyone knows your name. You're gonna make so much money,’ you know. I think if you chase after, you know, fame and money, it's sort of a recipe for unhappiness," said Gordon-Levitt.
"But if instead -- like [Petit] -- you're really just driven by what it is that you're doing. You know, he didn't make any money doing the walk. That's not why he did it."