Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks 'Don Jon' sex, ‘proud’ gay kiss and the harm in thinking he’s the ‘perfect man’
Who doesn’t see Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the “perfect man”? The one man who knows him best: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
And neither should you, he says.
After playing a gay hustler in Mysterious Skin, a Mormon homophobe in Latter Days and Batman’s cool sidekick in The Dark Knight Rises, the actor takes on a porn-obsessed womanizer in his latest film Don Jon, a sex comedy he wrote, directed and stars in that contends there’s more to a person than meets the eye.
Surely, plenty of Gordon-Levitt meets the eye in Don Jon: that chest, those arms and all the near nakedness of the New Jersey lothario he plays. Yeah, it’s easy to see why people might think he’s pretty perfect.
In our interview, Gordon-Levitt discusses the dangers of believing he’s the ideal mate, contributing to the gay rights movement and what he’s really doing during those masturbation scenes in Don Jon.
Let’s talk about this intense, seductive look on your face during those masturbation scenes. What were you actually thinking about? And were you really watching porn?
Nah, I wasn’t really looking at porn. But I was pretending I was looking at porn.
I’ve never pretended to watch porn.
(Laughs) I have now!
There’s a bit of sex in the movie – and you’re always the one having it. How do you direct yourself in a sex scene?
See, the sex scenes – with one exception – are very, very highly stylized and they’re not so much scenes that play out in real time; they’re more like narrated storybook versions of a look inside the mind of this guy, and so shooting them is like putting together a puzzle. They’re made of lots of little pieces. When you put the puzzle together it seems like a sex scene, but when you’re shooting it, it’s not like that at all.
This is a movie that has sex at its core, and we see plenty of boobs but never any Joseph Gordon-Levitt bits. Was it a conscious decision for you to avoid being completely naked?
Yeah, because that would just be distracting. It’s really not the point of the movie. This is not a movie of brutal realism; it’s a comedy and it’s a story. It’s sort of a parable, so there would really be no reason to have any nudity. The only nudity that’s in the movie are these clips from real pornography videos, but they’re all very edited and cropped and they’re all very quick and sort of sanitized to fit into a Hollywood movie, if you want to call this movie a Hollywood movie. It’s sort of an atypical one, but it’s a movie about mainstream culture, so I wanted it to become part of mainstream culture. I always intended it to be that way. I think, in that way, it’s self-referential and it wouldn’t be as strong or effective or as complete a film if it were outside of those Hollywood filmmaking traditions.
How much did you want to get away with in this movie, and how much did you actually get away with?
What’s in the movie is exactly what I wanted it to be. I wrote it exactly that way. I don’t think it’s all that sexually explicit; there are some very modified and stylized clips from pornography videos because that’s a central symbol in the movie, but there aren’t really any realistic sex scenes. It’s not a movie that’s about shocking you with anything graphic.
This film demonstrates what you’ve discussed in the past: that the media – the films we watch, the music we listen to, and so on – can really screw with our minds. When choosing films, do you think about how much influence you have on the people who watch them?
I do, yeah. It’s always a balance between trying to keep an eye on my own self-fulfillment so that I’m always doing what’s inspiring to me, but also thinking about what this will mean to people who see it. I know for me, the movies and TV shows that I watch, and the songs or the books or the articles, are a big part of how I make sense of the world. I feel fortunate to be a part of that cultural conversation. And I try to be something positive.
The way in which media affects romantic relationships is also explored in another film of yours, (500) Days of Summer, in which you embody more of the traditional female archetype. What parallels do you see between that film and Don Jon?
Yeah, there’s definitely a real parallel between (500) Days of Summer and Don Jon in that both male protagonists are quite selfish at the beginning of the story. Both of them in their own ways are very much objectifying the opposite sex. With Jon, his ideas of what women are supposed to be, or what love or sex are supposed to be, are sort of preset, and he’s not paying attention to the actual people in front of him. Then, they’re similar also in that they’re both coming-of-age stories, and by the end you see them both beginning to break out of their old ways and grow up a bit.
You seem like the complete opposite of a meathead, so how did you get in the mind and body of Don Jon?
Yeah, I worked out a ton. And I ate a ton of chicken! You know, I think we all know guys like that, and we all have some of Jon and some of Barbara (his love interest in Don Jon, played by Scarlett Johansson) within us. I know that I have some of both. They’re both at extreme ends of the spectrum of cultural norms: what a man is supposed to be and what a woman is supposed to be. But I think we all have that tendency in a way. It’s easier to just oversimplify ourselves and our identities and our lives, and especially our loves lives. It’s very seductive to think that it just ought to be simple – and in real life, it’s not.
You use the word “faggot” at one point in the film, and even though it feels appropriate to the character, was there ever a discussion or any hesitation to use a word that many in the gay community find offensive?
Like you said, that character would say that at that point. It’s at a moment when he’s sort of feeling threatened. His buddy just said that there was a hotter girl at the club than his girl, and so in that moment of insecurity he uses that word. I think that’s usually where that sort of hateful language comes from: out of people’s insecurity.
When it comes to directing, what did you learn from Gregg Araki on Mysterious Skin that you fell back on during the filming of Don Jon?
I remember working with Gregg and being very struck by the fact that he could watch the movie in his head while we were making it. It allowed him to be very decisive and specific because he knew how the whole movie was gonna cut together already, whereas oftentimes films are made and you just shoot lots of angles and cut it together later. With Don Jon, we took more of the approach that’s closer to what Gregg did. I already had in mind how I wanted the thing to be cut together while we were shooting. Another filmmaker who is like that is Rian Johnson (Looper). Another one is Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises). These are the guys who are thinking that far ahead. Gregg really stood out in that regard.
You first really reached a gay audience with Mysterious Skin. How aware are you of having a gay following?
I don’t spend much time distinguishing people into categories like that, so to be honest, I can’t say it’s really something I think about any more than I think about, “Oh, how many black people are watching my movies?” and “How many Catholics are watching my movies?” I don’t really think about it in that way.
If you were gay, you might realize how many gay people adore you.
Well, that’s very nice to hear! I’m glad to hear it.
With Don Jon and your new beefy body, are you prepared for the extra attention you might get from the gay community?
(Laughs) I hadn’t thought of it. My body’s not like that anymore. I was working out every day to play that character, but bodybuilding isn’t really my thing. I’ve lost most of the weight.
How do you reflect on your kiss with Topher Grace during a 1998 episode of That ’70s Show – the first gay kiss on North American primetime TV?
Yeah, proud moment!
When you look back on that moment, how far do you think we’ve come since that landmark kiss?
I was actually just talking about this with a good friend of mine who’s gay. We were saying there really has been a change. I mean, that was more than 10 years ago that we shot that episode, and a lot has changed. I do think that television and movies have played a big part in it. It’s certainly not solely responsible, but that has been a part of it becoming a more normal and accepted part of our culture – that some people are gay and that’s just how it is, especially for people who are not used to that or close-minded toward that. There’s been a pretty big change, and we’re certainly not all the way open-minded – I mean, there was a civil rights movement in the ’60s and there’s still plenty of racism in the world – but we’ve come a long way. I certainly am proud to have made that small contribution of whatever kind to that progress.
BuzzFeed recently named off 42 things that prove you’re the perfect man. Included on that list: the forearms, your chic style, that you look great in women’s underwear. Even the 3rd Rock from the Sun pigtails got a mention.
(Laughs) That’s exactly the kind of oversimplified fantasy shit that I’m making fun of in Don Jon.
So you don’t like being the “perfect man,” then?
To be honest, I understand it’s all in good fun and that’s fine, of course. We all have our media that we consume that we can admit is not the most healthy or positive, and sometimes I eat French fries and sometimes I’ll smoke cigarettes. We all do things that we know are bad for us. But I think it’s worth pointing out that stuff like that, it’s not harmless, especially if you consume a lot of that kind of media.
I think it does seep into your brain and into your identity and will absolutely interfere in your ability to be happy – and that’s exactly what Don Jon is about. It’s a young man who watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies, and neither one of them can be satisfied in their relationship because they’re too busy comparing real life to these simplistic fantasies that they’ve seen on screen.
Real life is so much more beautiful and rich and nuanced than those oversimplified fantasies, but you won’t feel that beauty if you’re too busy comparing it to the 42 reasons why your favorite actor is the perfect man. There’s no such thing as a perfect man. Every human being is a unique person.
There’s been talk of you starring in a remake of Guys and Dolls with Channing Tatum. Should we expect to see you in it?
It’s one possibility. Chan and I really like the idea of doing a musical together, and we’re working on making that happen. We don’t know exactly how it will happen or what it’ll be or how long it’ll take, but we’re determined to do it.
I must say that every gay man also likes that idea.
(Laughs) I’ll keep that in mind!