Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks family dining habits, debut directing and watching smut
You play a muscle-bound New Jersey porn addict in Don Jon. Was the inspiration Jersey Shore?
Well, no. I’d actually never seen that show when I wrote the movie. I’ve seen it since, because everyone keeps saying [about the similarities], but I can only ever get through one episode. It’s about how we treat each other like things, rather than people. Media can contribute to that, and that’s a personal story for me because I grew up working in TV and movies. So having this Don Jon character who watches lots of pornography and [Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson] this princess type who watches lots of romantic Hollywood movies seemed like a funny way of talking about these things.
Are you into porn yourself?
I don’t think I’m particularly for or against it. I watched it. Has it had some kind of effect on me? Probably, but I don’t think it’s had any more of an effect on me than images from all over the media. Commercials, especially – there’s a [very lewd] commercial in Don Jon, and that’s a real commercial – we didn’t shoot that.
Were you itching for a chance to direct?
Sure. I had the story in my head and I really wanted to tell it. I felt like while I was writing it I could already picture what we could do with the camera and the editing and the music.
So, when you were a young actor doing 3rd Rock From The Sun did you have a career plan?
When I was doing 3rd Rock in particular, in the Nineties, there was this great spike in independent movies in the US, brought on by Tarantino. I really wanted to be a part of that. My first movie that got into Sundance was Manic in 2001, and then there was Mysterious Skin was Brick. I think that was a lot of what I had my eye on.
Do you think that indie film-making has died a death now?
What you can do with so little money is way more than what you ever used to be able to do. For a few thousand bucks off the shelf, you can get a camera that looks great on a big screen. You can cut that footage on your little laptop and make a movie.
Who do you look to for directing advice?
Rian Johnson, who made Brick and Looper. He was the first guy I showed the first draft of my script to. When you’re writing alone, you might think it’s great, but then you need to know if anybody else will.
What did you listen to when you wrote it?
While writing I wouldn’t have music on. I have to write alone because, for me, writing isn’t at a desk – I’m up and about. The process is kind of closer to acting. I just sort of talk to myself and then when I get it sounding the way I like, I get back to the keyboard and write it down.
How was it working with Scarlett Johansson? Did you have to dial her performance up, or tone her down at all?
No, she was nailing it. She grew up in New York and I never asked her to adjust that at all. There are redeeming qualities about Barbara, and that’s down to Scarlett. Barbara is a character who is very much confined and defined by her gender, and so is Jon. They’re mirror images in that way. It’s a satire.
Tony Danza plays Jon’s dad, he’s another macho type…
We have a warm friendship, Tony and I. I love it when I’m watching a movie and an actor surprises me. Tony is such a naturally likeable presence on screen – you see him and can’t help but smile. So I like the idea of him playing this character who is selfish and short-tempered and has these flaws, but you still like him because he’s so charming.
Did your family eat dinner in front of the TV?
No! I did grow up watching sports – especially basketball – with my family, but no. I think my family are good listeners, whereas Jon’s family don’t listen to a word that anyone is saying.
Do you eat dinner in front of the TV now?
I work all the time. I’d say it’s accurate to call me a workaholic. It’s been years since I’ve taken very much time away from work, and I think I probably ought to soon. Directing a movie was so fascinating. This year I’ve been working on a Hit Record television show.
The Hit Record project is a variety show. Will it be a bit Muppets-y?
Yeah, we do one segment with puppets. But every half-hour show we do lots of little pieces with films and songs and cartoons and short documentaries and conversations. I host it and I’m directing it. Every episode has a theme and it’s all made collaboratively, so people are contributing today – right now.
Can we expect any starring cameos, such as in Don Jon when your friend Anne Hathaway pops up?
A little bit – not a ton, but definitely some. It’s a great mixture of people who are established professionals and people who aren’t, but great artists nonetheless. Speaking of Tony, he and I do a song and dance in one episode. I think it is pretty unique.
Don Jon is at cinemas nationwide from 15 November