Once an actor reaches a certain level of stardom, there’s pressure to take on blockbusters and franchises to keep his brand burning bright: One for me, one for them. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s approach is more One for me, one for me. He has the lithe energy—and aw-shucks dimples—of an old-time song-and-dance man and enough awkward charm to be christened the Lloyd Dobler of the millennial age, thanks to (500) Days of Summer; his successes also include The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Lincoln. Scattered throughout his filmography, however, is the id of one for me: gay hustler (Mysterious Skin), surly cancer patient (50/50), scruffy stoner (Hesher), ruthless, prosthesis-covered assassin (Looper).
“I’m grateful—I love a lot of the jobs that I’ve done, but I partly measure success as an actor when I can watch the performance and not see myself,” he says over the phone. In his next role, Gordon-Levitt is hiding behind a whole new costume: sheer muscle. Don Jon (out Sept. 27) is the story of a jacked Jersey boy who spends his life charging around in his muscle car, pumping iron while exhaling Hail Marys, scoring “dimes” (women he deems a 10), hitting the confessional, and then doing it all over again. Oh, and watching porn. A lot of porn. The squeals and flashes of white flesh pulse with the techno soundtrack; the day starts with the chime of his MacBook booting up, and then jump-cuts along with Jon’s nasal, Scorsese-ish narration and lockstep life choices: “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls. And my porn.”
Despite his pick-up powers, the “Don” prefers smut to the real deal, even once he takes up with Barbara, played with pitch-perfect Joisey squawk by Scarlett Johansson. It’s interesting to think this story was so close to Gordon-Levitt’s heart—Don Jon is his feature-film screenwriting and directing debut. Yet behind the ribald comedy beats the heart of a … feminist?
“People tend to have these unrealistic expectations of what a man is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to be, what love is supposed to be or what sex is supposed to be,” he says. “While we learn them from lots of places—family, friends, churches—we also learn a lot from the media. I wanted to tell a story about that.” Barbara’s penchant for rom-coms and her own attitudes about gender roles (she doesn’t want Jon cleaning his own house) are perhaps outwardly less perturbing, but just as regressive as Jon’s so-called “one-sided” relationship with the ladies in his life, whether it’s the ciphers on-screen or the nameless women who cycle through his bed.
Rather than lampoon Jersey life, Don Jon skewers the millennial epidemic of people who prefer film to flesh, or fuss over creating that perfect movie-style kiss—the film is simple but heartfelt, especially once Julianne Moore enters as the earth mother ready to school Jon on how to actually relate to women.
“I wanted to create a character that was really different from me; I was always watching to see if any of my own sorts of mannerisms or my own normal self would sneak in, and if they ever did, I’d figure out a way to get them out of there.”
Writing the screenplay wasn’t easy for Gordon-Levitt, who worked on it over several years. “The hardest part is getting started. You have voices in your head telling you to doubt yourself: ‘You don’t need to do this, no one’s going to care about this,’” he says.
The actor had more experience than most first-time directors, however, due to his many years running hitRECord, the popular online collaborative production company that allows users to submit work for others to remix together and that is, arguably, his true passion. In 2014, the hitRECord on TV! variety show will air on the brand-new television network Pivot. “We’re making the stuff together on there every day, and people bring their ideas and do things I never would have expected them to do,” Gordon-Levitt says. “It’s not something that’s the result of market research and profit maximization. If I wanted to make money, this isn’t what I would be doing.”