Q&A

Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Don Jon, Online Porn Through Feminist Eyes, and Scarlett Johansson as Jersey Girl


Ever since he broke out as a child star on TV's 3rd Rock From the Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gone nowhere but up (see a timeline of his career). After making a successful leap to the big screen, the 32-year-old shifted from cult fare like Brick and Mysterious Skin to leading-man roles in mainstream favorites like Looper and (500) Days of Summer. Proving he's got talent and vision behind the camera too, Gordon-Levitt launched his collaborative production company hitRECord (which will debut its own variety show on Pivot in January), and now he's enjoying serious kudos for Don Jon—his feature debut as director, writer, and star.

In the tongue-in-cheek dramedy (in theaters now) Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, whose GTL-style routine, à la Jersey Shore, involves an unhealthy addiction to online porn. Co-starring Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, and Julianne Moore, Don Jon has the rhythmic zeal of a debut filmmaker itching to expand his talents, and even if Gordon-Levitt can't relate to Jon's insatiable taste for streaming sex, he certainly shares his lust for life.

Below are nine things we learned about the man, including how he got his feminist mom's stamp of approval for Don Jon, how ScarJo was cast, and how it never hurts to rub shoulders with legends.

Seth Rogen is partly to thank for the movie's comedic tone.

"I didn't know this was going to be a comedy," Gordon-Levitt says. "I had the original idea in broad strokes, and I was trying to figure out what it would be. I hadn't landed on anything that I liked until I was working on [the 2011 film] 50/50, when I was up in Vancouver filming with Seth Rogen and his whole gang. I really like the movies that [Rogen] makes, and with 50/50, it's a comedy, but it's a character-based comedy, where the humor is derived from the characters' feelings. When I was in the middle of that I thought, "Oh, what if I approach this concept with this tone?" That's when it really took off in my mind and I really started writing."

As writer and director, he had to get past his defeatist self-doubt.

"It was tough at the very beginning, when I was alone," Gordon-Levitt says. "I think anytime you set out to make something, you're confronted by those voices in your head that say, "You don't need to do this. Someone else could do this better. You should probably just quit right now." And certainly, I've met those voices, too. I think the only reason I did finish the script was I was having a lot of fun doing it. And then once I had a draft I started showing it to people, and I got some positive feedback. Those voices of doubt started going away and being replaced by voices of real people."

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When it comes to warped views, Don Jon puts porn and rom-coms on a level playing field.

"I think I was largely responding to the way people seem to be reacting to all kinds of media," Gordon-Levitt says of his approach. "I thought a story about a young man who watches too much pornography, and a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be a good way of bringing to light the way that we can all sometimes relate to all kinds of media, whether it's a pornography clip or a commercial for a hamburger."

He doesn't share his character's defining traits...or his vices.

In the film, Jon insists there are only a few things in the world he truly cares about, including his "body," his "pad," his "ride," his "family," his "church," his "boys," his "girls," and, of course, his "porn." When asked how he relates to each of Jon's playboy essentials, Gordon-Levitt shoots down comparisons, both plainly and coyly. "Me and this character are very different," he says. "I don't care very much about cars, I don't like bodybuilding, etc. etc..."

But he does identify with the classic character, Don Juan.

"As cliché as it may sound, I think we all have a certain amount of Don Juan," Gordon-Levitt says. "There's a reason this is a classic figure throughout the ages. We all have a little bit of that archetype—that Don Juan-ness. It's that part of us that's really selfish. It wants what it wants and doesn't care about the consequences or what anybody else thinks or feels. It's very tempting to behave that way because it's easy. I'm as culpable as anyone. So I wanted to build the character around that concept. We had to flesh that out. What does he do day-to-day? What are his parents like? Would he go to church? He probably cares about his body a lot because he wants to look good, so he probably goes to the gym a lot. All those questions became very fun and interesting to me."

Scarlett Johansson's SNL skits helped land her the role of Jersey-girl vixen Barbara Sugarman.

"I was absolutely impressed by Scarlett's multiple turns on SNL," Gordon-Levitt says, referencing his co-star's work in skits like "Marble Columns" and "Porcelain Fountains," which seem like broad boot camp for her full embodiment of Jersey girl Barbara. "She's an extraordinary actress and she can balance that comedy with sincerity. That's a hard balance to strike, and she can do it masterfully."

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Don Jon is a feminist film in disguise, and an homage to Gordon-Levitt's mom.

"You see a woman on a screen, and you reduce her to a thing—a sex object," Gordon-Levitt says. "And that's something I've been aware of my whole life. My mom was very active in the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s, and she was always very keen to let my brother and me know that this is a very common thing that happens in the media. So in a lot of ways Don Jon is an homage to my mom. It's me writing a comedy about the wisdom that she wanted to instill in me. And she really loves the movie. She was one of the first ones to read the script and it's been great getting to talk with her about it."

The guy took tips from some of the best in the biz.

"I was really fortunate the year before Don Jon," Gordon-Levitt sys. "I worked with Rian Johnson [on Looper], Christopher Nolan [on The Dark Knight Rises], and Steven Spielberg [on Lincoln]. These are three very different filmmakers, but one thing I noticed is that all three have the ability to balance a thorough plan with a sense of spontaneity. That's what you really need on a movie set. All day long, you have to decide whether to stick to your guns or go off on a new trail. And all three of those guys were very good at balancing that. If you're too married to your plan, you'll end up with something stale, but if you don't stick to your plan enough and you're too seduced by whimsical notions and new ideas, you can lose your train of thought and end up with something that doesn't have a solid through-line. So I always tried to keep that front of mind.

He wanted to draw attention to the fact that onscreen fiction is simplistic and never as beautiful as real life.

"Don Jon is a movie about how we can have unrealistic expectations of each other and how media can contribute to that," Gordon-Levitt says. "As an actor in TV and movies for my whole life, and in the past few years especially, I've been hearing a lot of people say, "I wish my life was like that movie," or "I wish I had someone like you in that movie." And when I hear that, I frankly get a little startled. Because real life is not as simple as it is on screen—it's a lot more beautiful. There are details and nuances you could never possibly capture in a movie, or on a TV show, or in a pornography clip, or on a commercial, or in a pop song. So we wanted to kind of poke fun at that—comparing your real life to these expectations.

—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.

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Also on Details.com:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt Career Timeline Photo Gallery (The Early Years)
The 14 Most Brilliant Porn Parodies of All Time
Actress Brie Larson on Starring in Short Term 12 and Don Jon

Photos courtesy of Voltage Picures; HitRecord Films.
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