Many is the child actor who has tasted success and then faded into obscurity. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt has managed to make the transition to adult roles look easy and is carving out an impressive career on screen and behind the camera. Now Don Jon, the 32-year-old’s first feature as a writer, director and actor, opens here next week.
Born in Los Angeles to middle-class, left-leaning Jewish parents with political and film industry ties, he fell in love with acting as a boy, appearing in his first commercial at the age of six. Although small film roles followed, he first achieved household recognition portraying Tommy Solomon, an aged alien masquerading as a human boy, in the sitcom Third Rock from the Sun. At 19, he felt secure enough to step away from the industry, enrolling at New York’s Columbia University to study history, literature and French poetry. Gordon-Levitt knew that he would probably continue acting, but “worked really hard at convincing myself that the future could be anything”, he recalls. “That I could be a physicist. That I could be a journalist. That I might go live in Africa. Who knows?”
Being away from home and the LA bubble made him “a less selfish little kid. I started to realise: ‘Oh wow, there’s a whole world here and I’m a part of it, whether I like it or not, and every one of us on the planet has a measure of responsibility to contribute and to do our best to leave a positive footprint. And in trying to figure out how I was going to do that, I came back to acting and storytelling.”
For a year, he struggled to find work. But cast as a sexually-abused rent boy in Greg Araki’s acclaimed drama, Mysterious Skin, he announced his willingness to take risks. Since then, he has moved smoothly between small independent features, including the left-field romantic comedy 500 (Days of Summer) and time-bending thriller Looper, and blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. Daniel Day-Lewis asked for him specifically to play his son in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. And he could have added Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to his CV, had he not needed the time to work on Don Jon.
The movie is the logical next step from the short films he has been making for years. Even so, no one foresaw that he would cast himself as a buff Italian porn addict who falls for a Jewish woman (Scarlett Johansson), who is under the spell of Hollywood romantic movies. The inclusion of numerous, cleverly edited clips from actual blue movies “helped pay for a significant chunk of the budget”, adds Gordon-Levitt grinning, describing them as product placement. But the film, he insists, is about love — not pornography — and the impact of media.
Neither character can see the other clearly because of the fantasies they’ve absorbed from Hollywood and the adult entertainment industry. Their relationship suffers as a consequence.
Gordon-Levitt says he knows what it feels like to be “weirdly objectified” as an actor. “But everyone is. Men, women, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, everyone gets objectified. So I think it’s a universal subject and gets right at the core of the human experience.”
Growing up, he was taught “that everyone deserves to be respected as a person” by his parents, founding members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Gordon-Levitt’s connection to Judaism seems more cultural than religious. “I’m not sure what it means to be Jewish but one thing is certain. One of our most prominent loves is reading and learning, which I really enjoy.”
His maternal grandfather, the director Michael Gordon, was one of the many Jews in Hollywood silenced — temporarily, in his case — by the McCarthy witchhunts. Gordon-Levitt did not know him well but says that, through his mother, he learned to value “human expression as the most beautiful thing in the world and as a privilege”.
Perhaps connected, he was also raised to be “sceptical of large institutional power and sceptical, probably more than anything, of big money. It’s money that’s really calling the shots and looking out for its own self-interest and brushing aside the well-being of people.”
Of course, it is what you do with money that counts. While in college, he donated generously to the American Green Party and he gave money to Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. He has attacked the mainstream media for failing to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement sufficiently, and personally shot hours of footage in Zuccotti Park, the movement’s birthplace.
Fully engaged in his life and work, it seems as though Gordon-Levitt rarely stands still. And when it comes to his acting choices, change is key.
“A diverse set of challenges, that’s what it’s about, right? Otherwise you’re just repeating your same list and routine and you’re going to get bored.”