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In Apple’s comedy-drama Mr. Corman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt deals with modern anxiety and stress. Photo: Apple TV+

Joseph Gordon-Levitt tackles anxiety, stress and fear in new Apple TV+ comedy-drama Mr. Corman

  • Gordon-Levitt, who was also creator, writer and director, stars in a series that focuses on isolation, despair and missed opportunities
  • But surreal flights of fancy, such as a musical number with Debra Winger, mean the premise is not nearly as grim as it sounds
Apple TV+

“My biggest fear is that humanity will destroy itself soon.” Welcome to the apocalypse, as envisaged by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

It’s a waking nightmare the Hollywood leading man navigates alongside his alter ego, Josh Corman – except that in the latter’s case, annihilation appears only moments away each time he pictures a raging fireball steaming towards Earth. Which, in a comedy-drama series about anxiety, stress and the fear of amounting to nothing very much in life, is a potent image.

Mr. Corman constituted a passion project for its star, who was also series creator, writer and director. But musing on further themes of isolation, despair and missed opportunities, during a video call from Wellington, New Zealand – to where production decamped when Covid-19 closed down Los Angeles – Gordon-Levitt is still, just about, hopeful.

“I remain optimistic,” he says. “I think we can pull together and figure this out, but there are really concerning signals in the news every day and we need to make some important corrections. Fear manifests itself in Josh in the form of the meteor coming to destroy us. The odds of that happening are slim, but there are other ways humanity can destroy itself.”

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That repeated vision of imminent catastrophe isn’t the only flight of fancy to which Corman, a mild-mannered, unfulfilled teacher at a Californian junior school, is given. Other surreal moments in his underwhelming life include his flying sideways through a starry night, becoming an avatar in a street-fighting video game and crooning through a pastel-hued song-and-dance routine with Debra Winger. Undeniably bizarre, such stylised scenes are also among the series’ most revealing.

“I really love those sequences, they’re some of my favourite parts of the show,” says Gordon-Levitt.

Debra Winger (left) and Gordon-Levitt perform a musical number in Mr. Corman. Photo: Apple TV+

“We always wanted sequences that broke from reality [but] necessity is often the mother of invention. The musical number with Debra was always in the script and we planned to shoot it at a gas station. But once the pandemic shut us down we ended up on this new train of thought, where we put green-screen sequences throughout the season. It’s much cooler that way and really gets into the feeling I was looking for, of being inside somebody’s head – like a real person living a real life.

“Those sequences describe feelings we all have sometimes that are larger than life, that you can’t explain,” he adds.

“The show is grounded in realism, but realism doesn’t always deliver those emotions to an audience. So having a mother and son who love each other but have trouble saying it – it communicates the feeling much more strongly for them to launch into a song and dance on the rooftop of a childhood home!”

Splitting up with his fiancée, panic attacks and broken rock-star dreams are further obstacles to Corman’s fulfilment. Nevertheless, he believes himself to be a lucky person – something Gordon-Levitt is also quick to acknowledge.

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“I feel I’ve been successful in my life, I’m very grateful and yeah, I’ve worked hard; but I also think I got a lot of lucky breaks,” he says. “Success, regardless of how you measure it, is always going to be a mixture of what you put in and plain old luck.”

More by judgement than luck, perhaps, did Gordon-Levitt choose his production team for Mr. Corman. “I worked with a number of wonderful collaborators,” he says. “There were four other writers, there was another director, so many people contributed. The scripts were so much better than they would have been if I had been writing alone.

“It was also important that it wasn’t just me and another guy – there were five of us in the writers’ room and three were women. Having a wide variety of perspectives only makes the show stronger.”

Gordon-Levitt in a scene from Mr. Corman. Photo: Apple TV+

Unfettered by the need “to stick to a kind of straight-and-narrow plot” as in a feature film, says Gordon-Levitt, his series allows him to “dive so much more deeply” into his character, self-doubt, insecurity, anxiety and all.

Corman is besieged, but, says his creator, although “those moments can be stressful, they can also be funny if you look at them with a certain sense of humour – and that’s the show”.

Mr. Corman series one is now streaming on Apple TV+