Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on “Don Jon”, Porn Clips and Scarlett Johansson


Joseph Gordon-Levitt introduces his film Don Jon to the screening audience at SXSW
(photo credit: Getty)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from his teen years on 3rd Rock from the Sun. He’s gone on to memorable roles in Mysterious Skin, 50/50, 500 Days of Summer, Inception, Looper and most recently Lincoln and could probably now have his pick of leading man roles in mainstream Hollywood movies. But the risk-taking 32-year old star has taken a slight detour to develop some new skill sets: screenwriting and directing.

His forthcoming film, Don Jon (formerly Don Jon’s Addiction) is a hybrid of Shame and Jersey Shore. JGL stars as the title character who has an addiction to perfect bronze skin, hair gel, and working out. He also has an addiction to online porn. He loves it. He can’t get enough of it. Even after he has sex with a delightfully skanky girl he picks up at a club, he sneaks away to have a post-coital masturbatory session with his online porn – which he actually enjoys more than sex. When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), things start to change in his world of online smut and inability to connect with women.

The film made its debut at Sundance, but recently screened again at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. We had the opportunity to talk to Joseph Gordon-Levitt about playing a buffed East Coast womanizer, being a first-time director, and porn, of course.

Where did you come up with the idea for this movie? What’s a nice boy from California doing playing Don Jon?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I wanted to tell a story about what I feel like is always getting in the way of love and that’s how we objectify each other and how media contributes to that. I thought a story about a guy who watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be a really funny way at getting at those questions. Then I was thinking about the guy: “Okay, who is he and why is watching too much pornography?” I thought that if he’s just watching it because he can’t find a partner, that wouldn’t really get at the theme.

If he were a ladies man, but still had this habit of this always going back to the objectification of pornography, that would really bring it out. I thought, “Well, all right, who’s the classic ladies man?” and that’s when I thought of the literary character of Don Juan. Then I thought, “What would be sort of a contemporary Don Juan?” It was while I was in Vancouver working on the comedy, 50/50 with Seth Rogen that I thought, “What if I did it like that and made it funny?” I thought, “All right. What’s that version of Don Juan?” My first idea was this machismo, east coast guy with a gym body and shiny hair and all that. It made me laugh instantly and that was it. I just loved the idea. I thought, “Man, I could play that. It’d be really interesting.” I love playing characters that are really different from myself. I love challenging myself that way. I love finding a new way to talk and a new way to walk. I love wearing clothes that I wouldn’t normally wear. I love all that. This character fits the bill.


JGL in Don Jon

When did you decide that it was time to transition from acting to directing?

JGL: When you’re an actor there’s certain parts of the process that you just have nothing to do with. Where the camera goes or how it’s cut or the music – things like that. I was always really interested in being a part of that. I think a real turning point though was my 21st birthday. I bought myself my first copy of Final Cut Pro. I started teaching myself how to edit and I loved it. I loved it so much I dropped out of college. I would stay up all night just making little videos, pointing the camera on myself, putting them on the computer and cutting together little short videos and stuff. It’s so much fun to me. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. Ever since then, I’ve been pretty intent on making a movie. I made a ton of little short films and videos over the years – hundreds of them – and now I got to make a big one.

How was your first experience as a director?

JGL: I loved it. I’ve been on so many sets. I’ve seen so many directors do it. I made so many little things on my own. I think that was really key – spending the time to shoot these little videos and cut them together. A short film is very different than a feature film and you’ll run into challenges making a feature film that you’ll never run into making a short film. A lot of it’s the same – like the way to cut something together, how to make sound and image work together to tell a story. I think it’s just been a matter of practice. Yes, I’ve been really fortunate to work with a bunch of really great directors who were really supportive. The year before I shot Don Jon I worked with Rian Johnson on Looper and then Christopher Nolan on Dark Knight Rises and then Steven Spielberg on Lincoln – in one year. All three of those guys were really inspiring and I learned a lot by watching them. That’s, I think, been the best education. That and, like I said, just making things on my own.

In the movie, Jon is addicted to watching porn online. How did you not make the porn overwhelm his character and the story?

JGL: It’s a kind of media that’s really prominent in our culture today. This is a movie that talks a lot about how different kinds of media influence our perspective on things and our expectations of things. How, rather than engaging in the present moment and with individual people, we often have a tendency to compare people to these expectations that we’ve learned from different kinds of media. Whether it’s pornography or Hollywood romantic movies or commercials or magazines. There’s all kinds of media in the movie.

Is that a viewpoint that stems from your work in romantic comedies?

JGL: For sure. Having grown up being on TV and in movies, it really put my focus on how media impacts our perspectives, cultures, and lives. This is a comedy about how it impacts our love lives and, in that way, I think it is a really personal movie.

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