Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Don Jon, HitRECord, and Tony Danza
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars and directs Don Jon, a comedy about a porn-obsessed gym rat on a quest for love, which hits theaters Sept. 27. The trailer has certainly been cut to entice—who doesn’t love a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch sing-a-long? But the fact is that many will cough up money to see it because there are few actors of Gordon-Levitt's generation with his charm and affability.
Not that he hasn’t also built a pretty respectable roster of film and TV work. His versatile career spans crowd-pleasing comedies like Third Rock From The Sun and 10 Things I Hate About You to the cerebral territory of Brick and Inception.
Washington City Paper sat down on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington with JGL, who noted with a sigh that he hadn't seen much of the city or the anniversary events since he arrived. The people who manage his schedule had pretty much ushered one reporter after another into a room every 20 minutes the whole day at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown.
Sitting cross-legged in the chair across from me, he answers with a combination of practiced diplomacy and genuine spontaneity.
Joseph Gordon Levitt: Shall we?
Washington City Paper: This is madness.
JGL: Is it madness?
WCP: So hopefully my questions are not the same ones you’ve been asked over and over a billion times.
JGL: I’m used to it.
WCP: I put a little thought into them so—
JGL: Good, good. Well I’ve put a little thought into the movie.
WCP: Great, well, my first question is actually—I read that you first had the idea of this movie five years ago.
WCP: Essentially, since it’s about, kind of, what we expect from romantic love, romantic connection—in the last five years, how did your own feelings about romantic love change?
JGL: Oh—well, I don’t know. I think the ideas that I had in 2008 are fundamentally similar to what I believe. What I was trying to make come across in this movie, which is that the important thing is to find what’s unique about yourself, find what’s unique about someone else. And embrace everything in the moment, as opposed to constantly comparing yourself and your lover and your relationship to a static set of expectations. And that’s the core of the movie. I still find that, whether it was five years ago, when I was 27—I’m sure I’d say the same thing.
WCP: Had you just been watching a lot of Jersey Shore? Or, how did you decide that this was the kind of protagonist that you wanted to go through that journey?
JGL: Yeah, I think—I had not seen Jersey Shore. I’ve seen it since. I couldn’t watch very much of it. You know, I think this is a pretty classic American character, when you talk about Rocky or Saturday Night Fever, many of [Martin] Scorsese’s movies. And Jersey Shore is actually quite different. They’re in this mansion. [Ed. note: Whether the Jersey Shore house qualifies as a "mansion" is debatable.] I grew up in the suburbs of L.A., in the Valley, and New Jersey is sort of the same way. So I wanted to set it in an average, suburban middle-income environment. As opposed to many romantic comedies which are set in Manhattan, or very affluent, cosmopolitan settings.
WCP: That’s great. I think the Saturday Night Fever connection is especially apparent at the dinner table. And on that note, I really enjoyed Tony Danza as your dad.
JGL: I do too.
WCP: You first met him on Angels in the Outfield. Which was one of my favorite movies as a kid—
JGL: Oh good!
WCP: But anyway, he’s great. But I wanted to see what your relationship with Tony Danza is like. If you had a father-son rapport, since you’ve known each other for so long.
JGL: Yeah. He’s become a really good friend of mine. I love the guy, and what’s funny about him is he’s so good at heart. Such a sweet guy. And yet the character he plays, Jon Senior, in the movie, is you know—has a short temper and yells at his family and is a lecherous—
WCP: A bit of a cad.
JGL: Yeah. A bit of a cad. That’s well-put. And it doesn’t come naturally to him, you know. He’s just naturally so likeable. So that was my constant reminder. He was just—the note to him was, "No, I still liked you in that. Be a little more of a cad."
WCP: Be a little more douchey.
WCP: I’m writing for the alternative weekly here, so you can say douchey.
JGL: OK then.
WCP: So feel free to say whatever you want.
JGL: All right, I’ll say he was a little bit of a dick then. Or you can say cad. Cad’s good.
WCP: It’s a great word.
JGL: I’ve heard it before. It’s like in, you know, what—F. Scott Fitzgerald books or something.
WCP: I think it’s more of a British—British-ism.
JGL: You’re right, you’re right.
WCP: I like to use hoity-toity language sometimes. So, yeah, this is a comedy. But there are some elements of, when I walked out I was like, it’s weird—there are some elements of even Shame—of kind of the sex addiction. You know, the problem of the addiction to porn ties into the serious issue of sex addiction. So I was wondering if you did any research about, you know, actual addicts? People who struggle with addiction to porn. Because there is a serious side to it.
JGL: I did not do any research like that. I don’t really think it’s a movie about porn addiction. You know, that’s a central issue, sure. But to me it’s much more about—the more serious stuff—the more sincere moments in the movie have to do with people connecting with each other. And I don’t think you have to do any research to do that. So yeah, I’ve since seen Shame. I hadn’t seen Shame when this was filming.
WCP: It’s not a fun movie to watch.
JGL: Well, it’s just so different from Don Jon. I think [Michael] Fassbender’s a fantastic actor. I think he’s as strong as anyone working today. But Shame is a jarring, morose art film. Don Jon is a mainstream comedy.
WCP: Yes, certainly the tone is very different. On that note though, I did note that there were some, kind of, in terms of director influences, there was some Darren Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dream.
JGL: I love Aronofsky.
WCP: So besides that, were there any directors that you were specifically—that you drew from? Their style or their tone?
JGL: Sure. Well, the Coen brothers are some of my favorites. And I feel like they find such a nice balance between presenting characters that you care about and feel like they’re heartfelt human beings, but they’re not works of realism. The Coen brothers don’t do [John] Cassavetes realism. Everything is a little snappier than that. And that was a balance I was trying to strike. They’re characters that—you can care about them, they feel like human beings, but it’s got a bit of a heightened comic taste. So yeah, [Quentin] Tarantino’s another one that rides that line really well. Who else? And then someone I’ve been fortunate enough to work for Rian Johnson, [who] has a great knack for riding that balance between—he doesn’t exactly do comedies per se, but I think his dialogue does have a bit of a heightened thing to it, and yet his characters still feel real. The same with [Christopher] Nolan’s movies.
WCP: Yeah, I’m gonna ask you a question about Nolan right after this.
WCP: Apparently he advised you not to star in and direct at the same time?
JGL: You know there’s this thing got printed and everyone’s been asking about it. It’s really not true. It just goes to show you, people love to print negativity.
JGL: He did ask me that question. Which is very different. He was never discouraging. He was nothing but encouraging. But he did ask me some really valid questions. "Are you sure you want to do this?" That’s a good question and one you should be asking and answering yourself.
WCP: Yeah, well, I was not as interested in the sort of "Ooh you went against something that the Great Nolan said" but more kind of what your thought process was. Why you did decide to take on so much for your first project. I mean a lot of directors write, direct and star in—Orson Welles, for instance. I’m sure you’ve gotten many comparisons.
JGL: (Laughs) Not many, but I’ll take it. Thanks.
WCP: What was it that made you want to kind of do the whole thing?
JGL: Yeah, well, I thought I’d be the best to play the part. Which isn’t to say that other actors couldn’t have done a great job. No, I—the truth is, an actor’s performance is the result of work by a lot more people than just the actor. When you see that character portrayed up on screen, there is the work certainly of the actor, but there’s the work of the editor, there’s the work of what the camera was doing. What the music was doing, all of the above. And so I had this story in my head and this character, and I had ideas of what I wanted the editing to do and what I wanted the music to do and what I wanted the camera to do. And so I felt like I want to direct it and make all those elements come together and play nicely with the performance. And, you know, could I have directed another actor to do that? Maybe. I mean, of course I could. It would just be a different movie. I feel most comfortable when I’m in the scene. That’s what I’m used to, that’s what I’ve been doing for my whole life. And there was actually a day—I’m in most every scene of the movie, because it’s a movie that’s told in the perspective of one person, but there was one half-a-day where I wasn’t in it, and that was the day when Chan[ning Tatum] and Annie [Hathaway] came and we shot our spoof of romantic comedies, and we had a blast. But at one point, the producer … came up to me and just said, "So, how are you enjoying directing without acting at the same time? What’s the difference? How are you liking it?"
JGL: And I answered him honestly at the time. Like, "I feel a little out of touch. I feel I’m not used to this and um, I feel better able to gauge what’s going on from within the scene." And clearly just because that’s what I’m used to.
WCP: It’s a comfort zone.
JGL: Yeah. It was the right move. I’ve also—this isn’t the first time I’ve made movies. It’s the first time I’ve made a feature-length movie.
JGL: But I’ve made a ton of little videos and films and stuff I’ve been in. So I was used to it. And I think that’s really quite different than, um, than an actor who hasn’t done that before. Acting and directing in a movie.
WCP: What are some of the differences—I guess, you have done so many short films and, you know, HitRECord is so much about the short films—so I guess it’s not a question of which one you prefer, but can you talk about taking on a full-length feature film and what surprised you? Ways that it differs from doing a short film, storytelling wise?
JGL: Yeah. It’s really different. What’s funny is, so in 2007/2008...I made a 24-minute short film, and we shot it on film. And we did it in a more traditional way. It was based on an Elmore Leonard short story and I hired Carla Gugino and Eric Stoltz, friends of mine, had a crew and shot this whole thing and put it together. And I’m proud of it. It played at Sundance. When I was done with that, I’d spent—not full-time, but I’d spent two years working on this 24-minute thing. It was like, “Oh GOD so much time on this one thing, I just wanna make lots of little things now!” And that’s when we launched HitRECord as a professional production company, in 2010. And I’ve worked for a while just making lots and lots of little things. And it’s really fun. Because you make something and then you finish it, and then you move on to the next one. And you’re not spending years with this one story in your head. And there are ups and downs to both. But then, so, after we’d been doing HitRECord as a professional production company for awhile, we screened short films at Sundance and we published books and we put out records. Throughout that time, I was sort of craving—I want to spend a lot of time on one thing again. And that’s when I was writing the script. And then I spent all of last year shooting and making Don Jon. And when it was done, all I wanted to do was make little short films again, like God, I just spend so much time on this one thing. And so now we’re making this TV show on HitRECord. It’s a variety show making tons of little things, and it’s so fun. So I guess I like both. And doing one makes me crave the other. Um, and I guess the difference is — it’s really a question of time. How long you get to spend on one thing. And there’s certainly a value to just spending tons of time on this one thing, and watching it over and over again and getting into every little intricate detail. There’s also value to being like, “We’re just gonna make it! We’re gonna make it and we’ll attend to as many details as we can but then we’re gonna finish it and do something else.” And I think that actually sometimes those ones that you don’t necessarily attend to every intricate detail achieve some kind of grace that—it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that maybe there are some details out of place.
JGL: You just, with the momentum of just getting to do it, there’s some kind of virtue in that. I don’t know. I like both.
WCP: OK. So I take it that you’re not necessarily a perfectionist. You don’t take a look at the work you’ve spent so much time on and—
JGL: With Don Jon, I got the chance to be a perfectionist.
WCP: Is it painful sometimes to see the final product?
JGL: No. When I watch Don Jon now, I love it. It’s so satisfying. To, like, have all these things, all these little details—and, having had a chance to attend to every one of them. And honestly I—that’s not to say that I don’t see room for improvement in any of them. There’s always that with anything that you make. But when I watch it now, I’m really satisfied because I had these ideas, I wanted to execute these things and I did them. And we did it until it was right. And that’s really satisfying. But it was an idea I had five years ago. So there’s a different satisfaction with making things with HitRECord. It’s like, "That’s an idea I had two weeks ago and there it is, on the screen."
WCP: So, one of the other things you address in the movie is the objectification of women, obviously. And it’s done in a way that’s fairly satirical. And because it’s a comedy—I think in some ways, the Scarlett Johanssen character is less deep than the Julianne Moore. There’s that distinction. But so, when you were creating these women characters, which has proved especially difficult for a lot of directors and writers—especially male writers—to be very difficult to get inside women’s heads and not go full stereotype. So, how did you, I guess, how did you take care to make sure not to go overboard?
JGL: Oh, I’m glad to hear that you found them grounded and human?
JGL: I’m glad to hear that. Thank you. That was something I cared about a lot. I noticed it often in movies, especially comedies, especially comedies with a male protagonist...that yeah, the female characters get categorized either into the angel or the bitch.
WCP: The Madonna/whore.
WCP: Especially the sister, too. That actress is so great.
JGL: Brie. Yeah, Brie Larsen.
WCP: In United States of Tara, she’s awesome. [In Don Jon,] you had enough there that you saw a spectrum. But as you were writing—what did you consult? Did you go through, did you ask your woman friends..?
JGL: [Laughs] "Hey woman friend! Does this sound like a woman to you? Would you say this?"
WCP: "Is this female-y enough?"
JGL: I think it’s the same with every character, that you have to put yourself in the shoes of that character. And do so respectfully. Even if you’re writing someone with a whole lot of flaws, you have to have a respect for that person and a love for that person. And when I say "that person," I mean the character. And say, "What if I were that person?" And I guess oftentimes secondary characters in movies don’t do that. They more serve a function to forward a plot, and they don’t get treated as whole people. And maybe the writer isn’t putting themselves directly into the shoes of them and doesn’t really take an interest in making that character a well-rounded human being because that’s not the purpose in the story. But Don Jon, the whole—the takeaway of the movie’s gonna come from the characters. Like Hal Ashby comedies or Mike Nichols comedies or a couple comedies I’ve been in—50/50 or 500 Days of Summer. The humor isn’t coming from jokes. The humor is coming from an emotional connection to the character like you know what that’s like. So I knew it was going to be really important—and I wanted to anyway—to have the characters be, you know, feel like human beings. So when you’re writing, you have to write them, love them. You have to respect them. It’s like a mom loves her kid, no matter who the kid is and what shortcomings he or she has. You have to treat it like that. I’ve heard someone say that before. I did not...
WCP: I think a lot of writers think of their characters as kind of like their children. That, "man you just fucked up but…”
JGL: "But I love you still." Yeah. And also, the other thing I will say is, and this is very important—Scarlett and Julie as actors brought so much to those characters. And it’s not that we necessarily deviated from the script so much, but what’s on the page only goes so far. The heart and the nuance and that—[dramatic voice] the humanity!—What you’re responding to, I think is due to them as actors probably moreso than to me as a writer. They just added so much texture and honesty to those characters.
WCP: Nice. Um, so I guess—let me see how much time we have. OK. Probably not much. Ok, one more HitRECord question then I have some more random ones if we have time. With HitRECord, it seems like there’s a whole network of artists that no one has ever heard of, but they get the chance to get some exposure through the website. But, I guess, I was wondering about your—what you view as your place and your responsibility as, sort of, the very visible part of that community of artists? You have a thriving film career; you have a lot of other stuff going on. So what do you see as your responsibility as the face of that community of more struggling artists?
JGL: Sure. Well, we call me "the director." It’s modeled after a traditional film set, where tons of artists are contributing. So whether it’s me directing Don Jon or Chris [Nolan] directing The Dark Knight Rises, filmmaking is a collaborative art. And even though I wrote and directed it, and acted in it, the movie would not be what it is without Lauren, who edited it, and Megan, who was a production designer, and Thomas, who was the [director of photography] and … plenty of other people. So that’s how it is on the HitRECord project. I’m directing this TV show. I’m the one who’s deciding what it’s gonna be and what you’re gonna see. But there are tons of other artists whose work is going into it—the difference being that on a traditional film set, I hire those people and then we all work together. On HitRECord, anybody can contribute. And so the order is different. I’m not sure if that answers your question. You’re asking as far as me having a higher profile than the other artists?
JGL: I think that’s part of what the modus operandi has always been with HitRECord. Ok, can I take some of this spotlight on me and shine it on these projects that I’m doing with people who aren’t normally in the spotlight, even though maybe they deserve to be? Because where the spotlight shines is sometimes merited and sometimes not, in our media.
WCP: That’s for sure. You have a lot of experience in the spotlight. You’ve been acting for so long. Do you ever kind of get used to the surreal nature of—I mean, like, I cannot imagine giving 10 interviews in a day.
WCP: And so, um, does that get better? What ways have you found—or, is it always just kind of bizarre?
JGL: Um, press is particularly bizarre.
WCP: Well, we are, yes.
JGL: I meant the action of press. And I don’t mean to lump you or any individual into a category, because it really does differ. This is more like a conversation, what you and I are having. And that’s—that’s a relief. That’s not the norm when it comes to this, like—"I’m on a press tour right now and I’m going from city to city." You know, candidly? Not my favorite part of the job. It’s nice when I sometimes get to talk to a writer who’s being thoughtful and, uh, doing it that way. But again, a lot of it’s not that way. A lot of it’s focused on things that I wish they didn’t focus on. You know, celebrity culture and all that stuff.
JGL: Yeah. I think a lot of that stuff is pretty unhealthy and I don’t wanna participate in it. At the same time, Hollywood has been selling movies that way for nearly a hundred years. So I’m certainly culpable to one degree or another. Uh, and is that surreal? I guess so, yeah. Do I get used to it? Not exactly. I mean, I guess I’ve gotten more used to it than when I started doing it. I remember the first time I did a bunch of press—speaking of Angels in the Outfield...and I hated it, hated it. To the point where my mom was concerned and was like, "You don’t have to do this. Are you sure you wanna do this? Maybe we shouldn’t. You can act in theater. I know you love doing this but are you sure you wanna do it in movies and TV because this is gonna go along with it and you clearly really don’t like it." You know, I really love movies. I love sets. And it’s something that I do…
WCP: Yes. I’m sorry; I got the little signal.
JGL: You got the wrap-up?
As for what advice Danny Glover gave JGL on the set of Angels in the Outfield, the world will never know now.