One of Hollywood's coolest kids, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, makes his feature film-directing debut with this month's Don Jon, which screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival earlier in September.
He also wrote and stars in the comedy as a porn-addicted, church-going gym rat who falls for a hopeless romantic played by Scarlett Johansson and cast his Angels in the Outfield (1994) co-star Tony Danza as his undershirt-wearing, pasta-loving papa. Julianne Moore also shows up as an unlikely force of good in his life and Brie Larson has what amounts to a cameo but boy is it funny.
We spoke with the 32-year-old about the subtle, funny and meaningful messages behind his very personal comedy. (Watch our interview with JGL and ScarJo here.)
You've already directed several short films but Don Jon is your first full-length feature. How was this movie born?
"Well, I wanted to tell a story about how sometimes people treat other people like things, instead of people. In a way, that's a very personal story because sometimes I feel like I get treated like a thing more than like a person. But I don't think it's unique to me and I don’t think it's unique to actors, I think everybody experiences this where instead of being treated like a person, we are pigeonholed into expectations that people have of us and they don’t let us be a living, changing, present thing."
And you think these expectations come from the media?
"That's one of the ways the story is really personal to me. I grew up working in television and movies, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about how media impacts our perspectives on things. So I thought a story about a relationship between a young man who watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be a funny way to, sort of, get at some of these questions."
But you're conscious that as a Hollywood actor you participate in those expectations? That when you're on the cover of GQ you send a message to people?
"Very, very conscious of that and that, I think, is part of why I wanted to make this movie, I care a lot about what the work that I do says and what it means to people…. I think that sometimes there are mixed messages in media and I think there are lots of aspects of Hollywood show business that are unhealthy. Overall I still love movies as a form of art and I feel very good dedicating myself and my life to making movies and media and trying to communicate with people through that work. But it is complicated, because movies are all tied up in something that, like I said, I think is kind of unhealthy."
Scarlett Johansson and Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon (Courtesy of Remstar)
"Like the ideas of celebrity and that it’s important to be rich and famous, and that that's more important than what you do or who you are. So I think Don Jon is kind of taking some of those things and making fun of them and making a comedy. I think that, oftentimes, the best way to make any kind of statement is through humour, and if you do it right then it doesn'’t feel like a statement and it’s just entertaining and it's just funny."
It's such a different character than the romantic you played in (500) Days of Summer. With which one do you more closely identify?
"That's a really interesting question. I actually think that Tom from (500) Days of Summer and Jon from Don Jon are more similar than they seem. Certainly on the outside they have very different styles and they look very different, but both of them, at the start of the movie, are very selfish young men and they both have their fantasy and their expectation of what love is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to be. And Tom in (500) Days of Summer, he projects all of these expectations onto Summer and he does so very selfishly. It seems romantic because the story is from his point of view and in his point of view it is very romantic. But if you actually pay attention to what he’s doing, he’s not listening to anything that Summer says.
"And Jon kind of does the same thing, he’s selfish and he and Barbara, the Scarlett character, are both kind of doing to each other the same thing, they're projecting their own expectations, their own fantasies of what they think a man is supposed to be, or a woman is supposed to be, or sex is supposed to be, or love is supposed to be instead of being present with each other. They're missing each other."
What was it like directing yourself?
"I think that the reason I was able to do both at once is because I also wrote it, and writing it, I spent years and years coming up with the character and writing the character and spending so much time in that character, in his skin. Because writing is very similar to acting for me — writing is basically just me alone in a room acting out the scene and then when I find a way that I like it, I run back to the keyboard and I write it down…. I spent so much time acting like the character; much, much, much more time than any other acting role…. So because I had spent all that time, I think the acting became kind of easy for me so I could focus on the directing."
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
"Well, there are always more stories to tell…. In 20 years I think everything will be so different, the world will be such a different place. The way that we communicate, the way we tell stories will be so, so different. I think the next 20 years will be a bigger change than the last 100 years or 200 years. And I can't wait; it makes me very excited for what's going to happen."
Mathilde Roy is a Montreal-based freelance writer.