Exclusive Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Talks About Becoming Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was seven years old, but with his promotion of DIY filmmaking with hitRECord in recent years, it was only a matter of time before he would write and direct a feature film himself.

What may surprise many is the movie JGL chose to make, because Don Jon has him playing the title character, a womanizing gym rat and chronic masturbator of Italian descent who might feel more familiar to those who have watched MTV’s “Jersey Shore” than to fans of the actor’s previous work. But Don Jon is way more than just a stereotype done for easy laughs, as the film follows Don Jon’s attempts to have a steady girlfriend, played by super-sexy Scarlett Johansson, a harder job than it sounds but one that teaches him a valuable life lesson. Besides having some great scenes with Julianne Moore, JGL also has many hilarious moments with the family he assembled around Don Jon, played by Tony Danza, Glenne Headly and Brie Larson.

Back in March, ComingSoon.net sat down with Gordon-Levitt at the SXSW Film Festival where the movie was continuing its run of festivals that kicked off at Sundance months earlier and continued into the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks back. Having spoken to Gordon-Levitt many times over the years, from a time he was still quite young, at least to acting in films, we’ve always found him to be an actor who really has it together when talking about his films and that was even more the case when he wrote and directed the movie himself.

ComingSoon.net: The movie turned out great, man.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt:
Thanks, dude.

CS: Whenever an actor directs a movie, everyone gets really cynical. They’re like, “Oh, he’s directing a movie.” Every once in a while you’ll get a Ben Affleck but most other guys go back to acting and never direct again.
Gordon-Levitt:
Well, I’m glad you liked it.

CS: Yeah, I did. I remember we talked for “Looper” and we talked about you directing something but I knew nothing about the movie or the character, so I went into it very fresh and thought it was cool.
Gordon-Levitt:
That’s good. Thanks.

CS: Over the years, you must have read a lot of really great scripts because you’ve been in a lot of good movies, so when you started writing your own screenplay, did you automatically know certain beats and things that would work?
Gordon-Levitt:
The hard part was structuring it out, because that’s what I don’t have as much experience doing, but once I had the structure down, then actually writing the scenes, for me, came very easy because I’ve spent my whole life looking at a few hundred pages of dialogue and being like, “Ah, this part’s good, but this part’s going to be really hard to pull off to make it sound good,” you know? So, when I was writing, I just made sure that there weren’t any of those bits. (Laughs)

CS: Did it take a long time to write this? Was it something you’d been grinding away at over a couple of years?
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah, yeah. The idea of it had a long gestation period of several years since I was thinking of different versions of how to do it, what kind of movie could it be. I knew I wanted to tell this story about how people objectify each other and how the media impacts that, but how exactly to tell that story could take any number of shapes. It was actually while I was working on “50/50″ with Seth Rogen and his whole posse that I thought of doing it as a character-based comedy. Then I thought of, “Well, alright, what kind of version of ‘Don Juan’ would that be?” My first thought was this sort of East Coast machismo guy with the gym body and shiny hair and stuff and that made me laugh. When it made me laugh, I was like, “Well, that’s a good sign.” Just the idea of playing that character really intrigued me and made me laugh. You know, I love playing characters that are really different from myself and different from other characters that I’ve played. I like actors that are chameleons, who really disappear into their roles, so playing this character seemed like a really great challenge to me. Then, it was probably another year and a half before I had a first draft.

CS: It’s funny you mentioned Seth because he’s been part of that Judd Apatow crew with all these actors who follow the adage that if you want a good role for yourself, you need to write it.
Gordon-Levitt:
I was just talking to Seth about this. Which is not my experience. You know, I came up as an actor auditioning, going on tons of auditions. I was just talking to Seth about this. He was like, (does his Seth impression) “I went on tons of auditions. I never got anything. They never gave me anything.”

CS: It’s hard, because producers and studios always have a very specific idea of what they want, whereas if you write your own thing, you can say what you want.
Gordon-Levitt:
Well, exactly, and I don’t think people would probably normally cast me for this part. If it was written and I was just an actor, I wouldn’t be on the list of the guys for this part, which is part of why I wanted to do that, you know?

CS: Actually, jumping ahead, I wanted to ask about Tony Danza, because it’s amazing that he’s not been acting in more stuff.
Gordon-Levitt:
He’s so good.

CS: He is so good.
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah.

CS: When you thought of who could be Don Jon’s father, did he kind of jump into your mind?
Gordon-Levitt:
He was my first choice, yeah. I loved working with him. What’s funny about Tony, though, is he’s so naturally likeable. The instant you see Tony on screen and you smile. He’s just got that spirit. I like it when actors, like I said, play something different, so I thought him playing this guy who’s sort of a mean dude, who’s sort of emotionally unavailable, ignores his family, sort of objectifies women as badly as his son does, if not worse. That was my one kinda consistent note to him on set was, “Now I’m still liking you here. You have to get worse.”

CS: That’s similar with your character a little bit too, because at the very beginning it’s very dark and you’re like, “Oh, this guy’s going to be…” but he becomes more likeable as it goes along.
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah, well that’s the coming of age story, yeah.

CS: It’s totally a coming-of-age story, which is interesting, and it’s also sot of a love story, but it’s more about him loving himself than anyone else.
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah, it’s about a guy that objectifies everything, especially women, but even his own body, his car, his apartment, his friends, his family, his church. Everything is an object at a distance, and has to live up to certain standards that he has. By the end of the movie, hopefully, he’s sort of being more present and sort of kinda got a little bit of that be here now thing, or at least beginning to open up to that. He’s certainly not all the way there by the end, and I didn’t want to get him all the way there by the end because that kind of transition is not something that happens quickly. That takes a lifetime.

CS: It’s interesting to have Julianne Moore as the person who gets him there, so when you were developing this, did it take a long time to figure out how to get him there? You must have known that you needed to get this character some place…
Gordon-Levitt:
I did, yeah.

CS: You didn’t want to just have a character that masturbated the entire movie.
Gordon-Levitt:
Well, it’s interesting because traditionally, the “Don Juan” stories are tragedies. Like, the Moliere “Don Juan” story is called “The Tragedy of Don Juan,” and he dies at the end–he’s destroyed by his own shortcomings. I didn’t want to do that. I find that I like movies that have a balance of light and darkness, and movies that are all dark try my patience. Equally movies that are all light also try my patience, but a nice balance. And I’m an optimist. If I was going to make a movie, I wanted to put something out in the world that I thought was a positive thing, so I wanted him to grow, or at least begin to grow and change. As far as Julie’s character Ester, like I said, the fundamental quality of Jon is that he objectifies everything. Everything’s at a distance. So, I wanted to put a character in the story that’s sort of the opposite of that, that she engages with everything in the present moment. She’s always present. She can’t help but always be present.

CS: I know people like that.
Gordon-Levitt:
I do, too! So I thought putting those two characters together would be really funny because they’re sort of opposites in that way.

CS: There are many layers to the humor, first in the character of Don Jon, then when you bring in Scarlett who is a sex symbol and playing off that with her character. How did you end up with Scarlett? Did you already know her beforehand?
Gordon-Levitt:
I did not know her beforehand, but I always was thinking of her for this part, while the whole time I was writing it, I was picturing her doing it. What she ended up doing is way better than anything and more interesting than what I was envisioning. She brought all those details, the gum and the nails and the hair and just, the way she walks and the way she talks, all of that was her. I remember our first conversation. Like I said, I wanted her to play the part, but we didn’t know each other, so I arranged to have a meeting with her and I flew myself to Albuquerque where she was shooting “The Avengers.” We sat down and talked and I told her like, “I wrote this for you and here’s what I want this movie to be like and here’s the reason why I want to tell this story.” I think it was really appealing to her that this was a movie that was making fun of how we as a culture objectify people, especially women, because she’s obviously a woman that is severely objectified all the time. Here’s a person who is really smart, she’s really talented, she’s done all sorts of great things, and yet, what do most people talk about? Her outer appearance. But there’s so much more to her than that – why is that what we always talk about? But, it is. I think it was really appealing to her to sort of make fun of that and play a character who’s actually buying into that and sort of leveraging her conventional beauty for her own agenda and sort of getting to poke fun at a character like that.

CS: I remember interviewing her before she became this big sex symbol. I think that Michael Bay movie might have been the big turning point. You had Ram producing this and Nate Johnson doing the music, both of whom worked on “Looper.” You’ve worked with so many people over the course of your career so did you have a chance to cherry pick who you wanted in your crew for this one?
Gordon-Levitt:
Absolutely. You know, Nathan did the music, Ram produced it. Even Renetta, our script supervisor, she was the script supervisor on “(500) Days of Summer.” Or, Thomas, the director of photography, he and I knew each other through Marc Webb, and Marc Webb directed “(500) Days of Summer” and had shot a bunch of music videos with Thomas. In fact, Thomas shot this one little short film that Marc and Zooey (Deschanel) and I made, Thomas shot that. A lot of the actors, Tony (Danza), Rob Brown – I guess those are the two, who I knew. Absolutely. I mean, the camera department. Dale was the camera operator on “Looper.” Wade pulled focus on “Brick,” etc. The sound guys, the sound department, Pawel and John, those guys recorded sound on “Looper.” Yes, I gave you more detail than what you’re asking for, but…

CS: You have a bank of people who you’ve worked before and you can work with again.
Gordon-Levitt:
That made it lovely, because I had the support of people around me and people knew that I cared a lot about what I was doing and were happy to be there supporting me. That’s a huge part of the success of any movie, I really think, is the vibe of the crew. If people are there with good spirits and enjoying working hard, it makes all the difference in the world and we had a great crew on this movie.

CS: Was it made more like an indie movie? I don’t think it could be more indie than “Brick”…
Gordon-Levitt:
Not as indie as “Brick,” but more indie than say “Hesher” or “(500) Days of Summer,” yeah.

CS: Do you have any idea what you want to do next as far as directing?
Gordon-Levitt:
I don’t know. I don’t know. I look forward to it.

CS: Or is this going to be a tough act to follow like it was for Rian Johnson after “Brick”?
Gordon-Levitt:
Oh no. I mean, I have a million different ideas, I just haven’t singled one out. I can’t wait to do it again. It’ll probably be a little while though. I’d like to do some other things too, because directing a movie just is all encompassing. It’s your whole life. You can’t do anything else. Right now I’m getting back into my hitRECord stuff. hitRECord actually really blossomed over the last year, and because there are more people working on it and I could sorta delegate and trust people to take care of it, I was less involved last year than I normally am on hitRECord.

CS: You also had four movies, back-to-back.
Gordon-Levitt:
And was making this one.

CS: When did you actually shoot it?
Gordon-Levitt:
May, June 2012.

CS: Oh, so you had it done right before promoting “The Dark Knight Rises”?
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah, we went and did press for “Dark Knight” right in the thick of editing on “Don Jon,” yeah.

CS: Are you done shooting the “Sin City” sequel already?
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah, done with that already. Yeah, did that last month, had a ball doing that. I loved doing that. Robert Rodriguez is a guy whose movies I’ve liked for a long time and he just has creativity pouring out of him.

CS: I don’t know about the story. Is this a brand new thing that Frank wrote?
Gordon-Levitt:
Yes, this isn’t from one of the books.

CS: Yeah, did he draw it out first?
Gordon-Levitt:
No, he did not draw it. That’s interesting. They wanted to have a movie where fans of the books would still be able to look forward to something new and unexpected, so they added a story.

CS: Oh, interesting, I got the impression he was going to write and draw a new story since it’s been so long since the first movie.
Gordon-Levitt:
Yeah, no, it’s funny because I remember being really intrigued by that and was looking forward to like, “Wow, that’d be so interesting to have the actual comics to refer to as an actor. But no, it didn’t.

CS: Did you do any scenes with Bruce Willis or anyone else with cameos in your thing or was it just your own thing?
Gordon-Levitt:
I saw Bruce, yeah. Mickey and I have a scene together, Jessica. It’s awesome. I was so stoked.

CS: It’s still very firmly in that world?
Gordon-Levitt:
Oh yeah, very much so, yeah.

Don Jon will be available on Blu-ray and DVD next month.

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