Movie Interviews
5:58 am
Sun September 29, 2013

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, On Life And The Lenses We Look Through

Originally published on Sun September 29, 2013 11:22 am

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's movie Don Jon is about a young, simple guy with a few basic passions: his body, his pad, his cars, his family, his church, his girls, and his porn.

That's right: Jon is addicted to pornography. You could say he's managing that addiction pretty well — until he becomes taken with Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Gordon-Levitt makes his writing and directing debut with the film, out in theaters this past Friday. He's been in the entertainment business for a while now --he started young, with a long TV career that included the hit comedy 3rd Rock from the Sun, and his adult work has encompassed everything from the indie (500) Days of Summer to Inception to The Dark Knight Risesand he tells NPR's Rachel Martin that all along the way, he "paid a lot of attention to the way that media influences how we see the world, and especially when it comes to love and sex and relationships."

"So that's sort of what Don Jon is about," he says. "A boyfriend and a girlfriend; he watches too much pornography, and she watches too many romantic Hollywood movies."


Interview Highlights

On the characters Jon and Barbara

They sort of have these unrealistic expectations for what life can be, based on these two-dimensional images that they've gotten from the different kinds of media that they consume. And I think it leads to some hilarity, and then it also leads to a bit of a coming-of-age story — that the protagonist eventually begins to, sort of, break out of this mold and start actually connecting with people, rather than just comparing them to what he's used to seeing onscreen.

On why he decided to play the lead

I like putting myself in the shoes of somebody who has a different upbringing from me — who has a different perspective from me, who maybe views the world in ways that I would knee-jerk consider wrong — and trying to empathize. You know, my mom and dad brought me up to question dominant cultural gender roles. The character Jon is the opposite of that.

On Esther, the character played by Julianne Moore

Well if Jon and Barbara are sort of all about the front that they put up and all about trying to fit into a mold, Esther is a character who's present and honest to a fault. She can't step out of her present, because she's going through some stuff that makes it too painful for her. So she's just present; she's just honest, she's just on the surface. And when you put a character like that next to a character like Jon, first of all it's going to be funny. And second of all, you know, they both provide something to the other that they both need.

Yeah, it's unexpected, but I find that in my life anyway, that's oftentimes the people I connect with in the most — when I'm honest, the most profound ways — is people I wouldn't necessarily expect to. If you forget the accoutrements, all the labels, all the like, "Well they have this job, they come from this place, they went to this school, they blah-blah-blah-blah-blah ..." If you forget all of that and you're just paying attention to who's standing right in front of you and what they're saying and doing right now, I find oftentimes the people I connect with most are not the people I would expect to.

On the availability of pornography in our culture

Honestly I wouldn't limit it to pornography. I pay a lot of attention to media in general. And I think I wanted to make pornography sort of central in the movie to compare the rest of our media to it. I think that there's not a substantial difference between a lot of main-stream culture and pornography. They're equally simplistic, reductionist.

There's a [sexually explicit] Carl's Jr. commercial that's featured in Don Jon, and we play it pretty much in its entirety. ... That's a real commercial. We didn't change it at all! I think it played on the Super Bowl, if I'm not mistaken.

So that's what I'm saying. ... Whether it's rated X or "approved by the FCC for general viewing audiences," the message is the same. We have a tendency in our culture to take people and treat them like things.

I think, though, that everybody experiences this sometimes. I'm sure you've experienced it, where you're, you know, talking to someone but you can kind of tell that they've already decided what you are, they've put you in a box with a label on it. ... And that's, I guess, what I wanted to bring up and talk about in the movie. And I find that the best way to talk about substantial subject matters, oftentimes, is with humor.

On how the film has affected the way he consumes media

I try to be proactive. I mean, which isn't to say that I don't consume media that in certain ways might be unhealthy, or whatever. It's not like I'm only consuming, you know — I'm not just reading Foucault all day long.

But I think that it's worth recognizing that the media that we all choose to consume, that actually does make a difference. That is us participating in a larger cultural conversation. You know, I think we all sometimes like to think of whatever we watch as, "Ah, it doesn't matter what I watch, it's all just harmless entertainment." And it's not entirely true. Especially if you watch it repeatedly. I think that the stuff we watch does matter and it does work its way into the way that we see the world.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The new movie "Don Jon" is about an ordinary young guy who's passionate about a few things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DON JON")

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys...

(SOUNDBITE OF A SCREAMING MAN)

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) ...my girls, my porn.

MARTIN: Yup, pornography - he's addicted to it. But then, he meets Barbara played by Scarlett Johansson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DON JON")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) All right, I had a few drinks the other night, so I may not have remembered telling you my first name. But I definitely did not tell you my last name.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) I'm telling you...

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) And don't lie to me.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Hey.

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) Look, you don't know me so I'm going to let you off the hook this time. But trust me. In the future you'll be much happier if you always tell me the truth.

GORDON-LEVITT: (as Don Jon) Wait. Wait. Wait. I'll be happier?

JOHANSSON: (as Barbara) What? You don't think I can make you happy if I wanted to?

MARTIN: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars and makes his directing debut in "Don Jon." He also wrote the screenplay. Gordon-Levitt started acting when he was just six years old. And he starred in the hit comedy "3rd Rock from the Sun." He says "Don Jon" gave him a chance to explore some big ideas he'd been mulling over for a long time.

GORDON-LEVITT: I grew up working as an actor in movies and TV. And so I think I've always paid a lot of attention to the way that media influences how we see the world, and especially when it comes to love and sex and relationships. So that's sort of what Don Jon is about, a boyfriend and a girlfriend. He watches too much pornography and she watches too many romantic Hollywood movies. And they sort of have these unrealistic expectations for what life can be, based on these two-dimensional images that they've gotten.

MARTIN: You could have cast someone else in the main role. What was it about this particular character that made you want to keep him for yourself?

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: Well...

MARTIN: 'Cause he's not such a nice guy, Joseph.

GORDON-LEVITT: You're right. You're right. Well, I like putting myself in the shoes of somebody who has a different upbringing from me, who has a different perspective from me, who maybe views the world in ways that I would knee-jerk consider wrong - and trying to empathize. You know, my mom and dad brought me up to question dominant cultural gender roles. The character Jon is the opposite of that.

MARTIN: Yes, he is. You also really nailed the difficulty of some men to emotionally connect with each other. The man-hug in this movie is great.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: I'm glad you noticed that.

MARTIN: One of the more awkward moments.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: Well, Jon and his dad...

MARTIN: The old pop-pop-pop, yeah.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. Good job, big guy.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: I'm glad that's a little detail you picked up on. That's great.

MARTIN: You cast some amazing people in this movie. We already mentioned Scarlett Johansson. Another character, central female character, in the movie is played by Julianne Moore. She stands in such contrast to the other characters in the film; her style, the way she talks. But she and Jon connect in a way he hasn't with anyone else, right?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. Well, if Jon and Barbara are sort of all about the front that they put up, Esther is a character who is present and honest to a fault. When you put a character like that next to a character like Jon, first of all it's going to be funny. And second of all, you know, they both provide something to the other that they both need.

It's a relationship, a friendship that, yeah, it's unexpected. But I find that in my life anyway, that's oftentimes the people I connect with in the most - when I'm honest, the most profound ways is people I wouldn't necessarily expect to.

MARTIN: This film, it is about intimacy. But it's also - it's about sex. It's about pornography and how available that is to us now as a culture. Did you see this around in your world? Did you notice that this was a thing that was happening, that was may be problematic?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yes. But honestly, I wouldn't limit it to pornography. I pay a lot of attention to media in general. And I think I wanted to make pornography sort of central in the movie to compare the rest of our media to it. I think there's not a substantial difference between a lot of mainstream culture and pornography. And there's a Carl's Jr. commercial that's featured in "Don Jon," and we play it pretty much in its entirety.

MARTIN: That's not a real commercial.

GORDON-LEVITT: That is a real commercial!

MARTIN: No.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yes, that's a real commercial. We didn't change it at all.

MARTIN: So, for those who haven't seen the movie, it is an incredibly sexually explicit commercial.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. I think it played on the Super Bowl, if I'm not mistaken. So that's what I'm saying is that whether it's rated X or approved by the FCC for general viewing audiences, the message is the same. We have a tendency in our culture to take people and treat them like things.

I think, though, that everybody experiences this sometimes. I'm sure you've experienced it, where you're, you know, talking to someone but you can kind of tell they're not listening to you, that they've already decided what you are. They've put you in a box with a label on it. I think it's something that happens on a grand scale, on a micro scale. And that's, I guess, what I wanted to bring up and talk about in the movie. And I find that the best way to talk about substantial subject matters oftentimes is with humor.

MARTIN: So has this whole project affected the way that you consume media? Are you more critical? Are you more discerning or less so?

GORDON-LEVITT: Ah. I try to be proactive. I mean, which isn't to say that I don't consume media that in certain ways might be unhealthy or whatever. It's not like I'm only consuming, you know...

MARTIN: I mean, if someone sends you a funny Internet video, you're going to open it.

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. Yeah exactly, I'm not just reading Foucault all day long or something. But I think that it's worth recognizing that the media that we all choose to consume, that actually does make a difference. That is us participating in a larger cultural conversation. You know, I think we all sometimes like to think of whatever we watch as, eh, it doesn't matter what I watch - it's all just harmless entertainment. And it's not entirely true, especially if you watch it repeatedly. I think that the stuff we watch does matter. And it does work its way into the way that we see the world.

MARTIN: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he stars in and directed the new film "Don Jon." He joined us from our studios in New York.

Joe, thanks so much for talking with us. It was great.

GORDON-LEVITT: Thank you, great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.