Some child actors never successfully make the transition to adult careers. Others leave the industry as kids and return as adults. And then there are the handful of precocious artists who just transition into adulthood as early as possible, and never really stop working. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a perfect example: He started stage acting at age 4, had a major film role by age 7, and was an industry vet by the time he became a regular on the hit series 3rd Rock From The Sun as a teenager. He’s starred in about a dozen films, including Inception, 50/50, Mysterious Skin, (500) Days Of Summer, Premium Rush, Hesher, and two terrific films with Rian Johnson: Brick and Looper. He’s also launched his own production company, HitRECord, essentially an open-source art collective/collaboration project.
Now, at age 32, Gordon-Levitt has written and directed his first film: Don Jon, a flashy, ambitiously smart effort about a shallow but amiable New Jersey Italian-American who’s breezing through a string of one-night stands with beautiful women, and trying to figure out why the encounters aren’t as satisfying as Internet porn. Gordon-Levitt also stars as Jon, a character he says he initially couldn’t relate to, but wanted to explore in order to get at ideas about modern relationships and gender issues. As he toured through Chicago behind Don Jon, The Dissolve sat down with him for a talk about the film’s evolving style and underlying message, plus the dumb things he gets asked to do on these tours.
The Dissolve: In a recent Huffington Post interview, you said Christopher Nolan advised you to think carefully before casting yourself in a movie you were directing. But you were determined to play this part. Why was it so important to you to take the role yourself?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Several people have asked about that, and some people used the word “discouraged.” He never discouraged me from acting in Don Jon, he just asked some good questions, some valid questions. Here’s an anecdote from when we were shooting Don Jon: I’m in the whole thing. There was only half a day where I was just directing and I wasn’t in it. And that was when we were shooting Chan [Channing Tatum] and Annie’s [Anne Hathaway] cameos, the rom-com sendup in the movie. At one point, the producer Ram [Bergman]—Ram produced Looper and Brick—came up to me and said, “So, how are you liking just directing without acting at the same time?” I told him, and I was telling the truth, “I feel less in touch with everything.”
I’m used to being in the scene, and I feel like I can gauge how the scene is going from the vantage point I’m used to. And I feel like I can not only gauge, but also influence the way the scene is playing when I’m in it. And I think it more than anything has to do with what I’m used to. I’ve grown up acting. But a lot of times, if there was an adjustment that I felt a scene needed, I didn’t have to say anything. I could make the adjustment in my own performance, and that would set the tone. Some of these differences are really subtle, and when you try to explicitly articulate them in words, it can be more of a hindrance than a help.
So I really like acting and directing at the same time. Also, I’ve made short films and videos where I was pointing the camera at myself, and putting them on the computer, and cutting them together into little, whatever things—many of which I’m very proud of, some of which I’m not so proud of. [Laughs.]
I think having done that for years, just the practice of it, was really important, because it’s very normal—and I do remember feeling this earlier in life—for actors to see their own faces and hear their own voices and be sort of disconcerted. And I think the reason I’m not disconcerted by that is just sheer repetition, just because I’ve done it a bunch. So I felt able to be objective when watching playback, or when editing the movie.
The Dissolve: Was there anything in this process that did come as a surprise to you, that being an actor or being in short films hadn’t prepared you for?
Gordon-Levitt: To be honest, there really weren’t any big surprises like, “Oh shit! I’m blindsided.” There weren’t. There were certain parts, like things I didn’t think of, that took more effort than you’d imagine. Like scouting locations, for example. It’s not the most exciting part of the job, but it’s super important. If you don’t get it right, it can be really distracting and a problem, but it takes forever. I did have some experience doing that on short films, so it wasn’t shocking. But doing it for a whole feature is different than doing it for a short, and it took a long time to get all of the locations right. Especially ’cause we were shooting in L.A., and the setting is in New Jersey, so a lot of factors went into that. I feel really lucky that I’ve been on so many sets and seen production happen so many times that I felt so prepared.
The Dissolve: Much of Don Jon’s story is told in the way the film transitions between editing styles, based on where the character is mentally at a given point. The whole film is a transition from music-video fast cuts to long slow takes. Did any of the styles you use wind up as a favorite?
Gordon-Levitt: That would depend on the film. Probably the most natural to me is what emerges later in the movie, which is something more organic, and the editing is sparser, and the film breathes more—especially for the length of an entire feature. You can’t keep up that breakneck pace for a whole movie. Well, I guess sometimes that happens, but that can be tiresome, to do that for a whole movie. I think it’s good for a short film, that really, really fast cutty thing, and I think it’s good for part of a feature. I’m really glad that that came across to you, ’cause that is something we spent a lot of time crafting and planning and executing: that evolution of aesthetic.
The Dissolve: The first third of the film in particular feels frenetic, almost to the level of Requiem For A Dream. Did you feel any particular need as a first-time filmmaker to show off a little, to make sure people noticed the style and didn’t find it anonymous?
Gordon-Levitt: I did want the movie to be visually interesting. I don’t know if it’s ’cause I’m a first-time filmmaker. I think I would want it to be visually interesting as a second-time or third-time filmmaker, too. If you’re going to have people come to a movie and sit in a movie theater, I like it when they really put some flair into the visuals. And comedies in particular have a tendency to be… visually conservative, let’s say. I get why that makes sense as a choice, but it’s not my taste. Throughout the whole movie, I really wanted it to be beautiful-looking, and beautiful in different ways. Like you said, in the beginning it’s much more flashy. In the middle, it’s more traditionally glossy. And by the end, it’s more spare and simple. That was definitely an important thing for me. I wanted there to be a real visual style.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked a lot in interviews about how different Jon is as a character from you, in the details of his life and his outlook. How do you approach the character of somebody who’s that mentally different from you?
“Some people asked me to say, ‘Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,’ because I'm doing a movie with Bruce Willis. ‘That's a bummer that that's what you're taking away from this movie. No, I'm not going to say that for you.’”
Gordon-Levitt: Well, you can’t judge your character. And I’ve played a number of roles that are really different from me, whether it’s a soldier in Stop-Loss—I would never be a soldier, me personally. I was brought up to not judge the soldiers themselves, but certainly to judge the military. I was brought up by peace-activist parents, and by the end of Stop-Loss, I had a different outlook. Which isn’t to say that I support what the U.S. did in Iraq any more than I did before, but that’s a more global, intellectual point of view. When you actually break it down to the individual person: “Who’s this guy who’s going off to fight?” That’s something I maybe hadn’t thought of as much before, so I really liked playing the role of a soldier. And I didn’t judge him. I found out, “Why is he doing it? What are his reasons?” He’s got to have reasons—everybody has reasons for what they do.
So same goes for Jon. I could easily judge him for being a womanizer and objectifying the women in his life, and everything else in his life. But once I started writing him, I was like, “Okay, I’m not going to judge him, I’m going to figure out who he is, and why he is the way he is, and what are his reasons, and how does he see it.” And you have to [love your character] sort of like a mom just loves their kid—I’m not the first one to say that, I’m quoting someone, I forget who.
The Dissolve: It seems particularly appropriate here as a concept, since as the writer, you know he’s growing as a person. Where he starts the film isn’t where he’ll always be.
Gordon-Levitt: That was important to me, yeah.
The Dissolve: But what’s your process of figuring out the reasoning behind someone you don’t instinctively understand?You’ve said you hadn’t seen Jersey Shore before writing this.
Gordon-Levitt: I had not, no. Well, Jon’s lifestyle is very different. In Jersey Shore, they live in mansions and stuff. I set the movie in New Jersey ’cause I grew up in the suburbs of L.A., and New Jersey is sort of a suburb of New York. And I wanted this movie to be set in a more middle-income suburban environment, not in the affluence where a lot of romantic comedies are set, in like Manhattan, or London, or San Francisco, things like that. And that’s a classic American character, that’s really as classic as the cowboy: the tough guy. You know, Rocky, or Saturday Night Fever, or any other number of other examples.
The Dissolve: The film started out as Don Jon’s Addiction, but you changed it because you didn’t want people to approach this as a movie about addiction. Why was that important to you?
Gordon-Levitt: Because I think it’s a symbol for what the movie is really about. Like, a comparison I’ve made before—in The Maltese Falcon, everyone’s talking about the bird the whole time, and it’s not really about the bird. It’s not a movie about a bird. There’s lots of scenes with the bird, and the last shot of the movie is a lit-up statue of a bird. But when I titled it Addiction originally, I thought that was a kind of cool, symbolic way to talk about how this guy is stuck in a certain mentality. I wasn’t really interested in making a movie about porn addiction—I thought his addictive habits toward pornography were a really great symbol for the fact that he doesn’t connect with anything in his life, whether it’s women, his family, his spirituality, or his body, everything is this object for his own consumption. So I think because the topic of pornography addiction is quite sensational, that title was misleading people, and focusing on that more than I really intended. Furthermore, it’s just too long. It’s hard to say. [Laughs.] You want a nice memorable title.
The Dissolve: Did that solipsism, that one-way relationship where everything in his life exists only to please him, contribute to the choice to have him do so much voiceover narration? It’s like he’s establishing the same one-way relationship with the audience, where he’s pre-packaging how he wants everyone to relate to him.
Gordon-Levitt: And he’s an unreliable narrator. He’s telling you his perception of how things are going—I don’t think he’s always right. And I would hope that an audience would have that sort of more two-way connection to the movie, that they’re not just taking his word for it in those voiceover sequences. But they’re saying, “He’s enumerating the reasons why porn is better than sex, and he thinks these are the reasons why, but I’m not sure he’s right about that.” He’s saying, “Well, it’s because she’s always in a hurry when she goes down on me, or ’cause she never wants to do it from behind.” Those aren’t really the reasons; that’s his perception of it. But I would say the reason, for him, that he’s finding pornography more satisfying than sex is because he’s used to that one-way street. And when it comes to actually, “Oh, now there’s a person in the room,” he tries to put that same one-way street onto her, but it will never work, because she’s a person. She’s not an image on a screen. If you try to map one-way sexuality onto a person, it’s gonna fail every time. So that’s why he’s dissatisfied with real sex.
The Dissolve: You’ve spoken a lot about how you want Don Jon to be a conversation-starter about male/female relationships, gender roles, and feminism. Now that people are seeing the movie and you’re doing interviews, are you getting the right questions? Have you started the conversation you wanted to start?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, I would say so. People are asking about how media influences the way we see gender, and the way we see love and sex, or the role media plays in general. Surely, some questions are, to me, more interesting than other questions. Some people want to talk about the more superficial, sensational, headline-grabbing things, but that’s always going to happen. That happens with every movie I’m in. There are some people that want to talk about more simplistic takes on what the movie is. Some people asked me to say, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” because I’m doing a movie with Bruce Willis. “That’s a bummer that that’s what you’re taking away from this movie. No, I’m not going to say that for you.” I don’t know; you can’t win them all, I guess. But in general, the conversations I’ve been having with people who have just watched the movie are really interesting to me. I feel like I’m having an interesting conversation with you. [Laughs.] I hope it seems that way to you.
The Dissolve: Do you know what’s next? Do you have another directorial project or writing project you want to do?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah! I’m in the middle of directing a TV show right now called HitRECord On TV. This is the HitRECord project I’ve been working on for years, and now we’re getting to do it on a much grander scale than we’ve ever done it before, and it’s really exciting. And we’re making it right now! So anybody who wants to come to the site and contribute to one of the projects that is going on, we are making the TV show. So writers, or filmmakers, or musicians, or visual artists are invited.