Addicted to love
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from 3rd Rock from the Sun, as his new film shows
When Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned 21 in 2002, he bought a computer and editing software. He'd been acting for a decade by this point - including a five-season run as the long-haired smart-mouth teenager on sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun - and was desperate to direct.
"I wanted to give it a try, making a feature film," the former child star says. "I really thought I could do this." It has taken 11 years, but this month sees the culmination of that dream with the release of Don Jon, which he directs as well as wrote the script for and stars in.
It arrives on the back of a remarkable run for Gordon-Levitt, now 32, that's seen him work twice for Christopher Nolan, in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, take the lead in cult time-travel hit Looper, and feature in Steven Spielberg's period biopic Lincoln.
Not that Don Jon is anywhere near as heavyweight. Returning to his romantic-comedy roots, this is more like the Gordon-Levitt we know from his two Golden Globe-nominated roles in (500) Days of Summer and 50/50 - a mix of spiky and sad.
In person, Gordon-Levitt doesn't come across as a gag-a-minute; at times, he can be wary, as buttoned-down as the blue checked shirt he's wearing when we meet. But then this is the actor who opened his 2009 stint hosting Saturday Night Live with the classic Singin' in the Rain musical number Make 'Em Laugh. There's comedy in him, all right. You just need to know how to find it.
In Don Jon, he plays the title role - a New Jersey ladies' man (hence the pun on epic seducer Don Juan of literature) who is hooked on pornography. As he's swift to show, he has no problem picking up women but his relationship with porn is what really drives him. Then he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who spends her nights gorging on rom-coms - and takes a very dim view of his predilection for skin flicks.
Aside from achieving the impossible - telling a sweet-natured romance built around porn - Gordon-Levitt wanted to tell a contemporary love story. "I thought a story about a relationship between a young man who watches too much pornography and a woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would really be a funny way to get at this question of how [the] media impacts our lives, and our love lives, in particular."
Extending this idea, he sees the fantasy wish-fulfilment of adult movies and Hollywood as uncomfortably close. "I think they're similar. They both create equally unrealistic expectations and desires towards the opposite sex. So it's a comparison I wanted to make."
He reinforces his point by including fast-food commercials and mainstream magazines featuring explicit images in the background. "Everywhere in our media," Gordon-Levitt says, "sex is used to sell things."
Curiously, his family is made up of media animals: his father, Dennis Levitt, was a former news director for the Pacifica Radio station; his maternal grandfather, Michael Gordon, was a Hollywood film director whose credits included the 1959 Rock Hudson/Doris Day classic, Pillow Talk. So when Gordon-Levitt that he has been "much more heavily influenced by romantic movies than pornography - that's my personal upbringing", you can believe him.
Gordon-Levitt seems particularly pleased with the reaction of his mother, Jane, who once ran for Congress in California during the 1970s for the Peace and Freedom Party. "She really 'got' why I made the movie, and 'got' what I was trying to say. A lot of what's in the movie is stuff she taught me. She was active in the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s, and brought me up to not objectify women. She particularly made me aware of how women are objectified in [the] media, in movies and television."
Yet Gordon-Levitt was immersed in that world from a very young age. Shortly after playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz - he was four - he starred in commercials. By seven, he was a TV regular - including a 1991 stint on the revival of gothic soap opera series Dark Shadows. There was a small role in Robert Redford's A River Runs through It, when he was 11, and a Disney film, Angels in the Outfield.
When he hit university age, Gordon-Levitt ducked out of the business, enrolling at Columbia University where he studied history, literature and French poetry. Then it was on to new ambitions and a new direction, in films such as Gregg Araki's 2004 tale of sexual abuse, Mysterious Skin, and Rian Johnson's cult high school noir, Brick, the next year, which saw him form one of the most important relationships of his career: it was Johnson who cast him in last year's superlative Looper, as a time-travelling assassin.
So when it came to Don Jon, Johnson proved invaluable. "He was the first guy I showed the script to. The first time I had a complete first draft, I asked him to read it first. When he got back to me and said, 'I think you have something here, this is good', that really encouraged me. That was a huge turning point."
There were other mentors - not least Christopher Nolan. "I told him I was going to direct a movie while we were shooting The Dark Knight Rises, and he was encouraging."
Having the likes of Johnson and Nolan as friends are the sort of contacts most aspiring filmmakers can only dream of. "I feel very lucky," Gordon-Levitt admits. "I think luck plays a part but I've been doing this for a really long time - 25 years now. I work really hard. I've spent almost all of my time working. It's what I would do with my time off if I had time off. To me, when I say work I don't mean it as a chore. I love to work. And I think those who are best at their work really blend work and play."
Comparable to his polymath peer James Franco, Gordon-Levitt is not just about acting. In 2005, he formed HitRecord, a production company that allows him to interact over the internet with other artists, on books, films and music. "It started as something that I did in my spare time because I just love making things," he says. Indeed, even before Don Jon, he was using that computer and editing software he got when he was 21 to cut together two short films he made, including the Elmore Leonard adaptation, Sparks.
Next he's on screen in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the sequel to the 2005 adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels. But he won't be returning to Nolan's Dark Knight universe. With the recent casting of Ben Affleck in the upcoming Batman vs Superman film, that's put an end to the chatter that Gordon-Levitt would play the role, after the hint dropped at the end of Nolan's film that his character, John Robin Blake, might pick up the Dark Knight's cowl. "I'm not involved," he says. There's too much else going on right now.
Don Jon opens on Thursday