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Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Porn, Media, and Why Life Is Always Better Than Movies

Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t want to talk about porn.

Not that he’s coy or repentant about the benumbing barrage of Pornhub clips in his debut film, “Don Jon.” After all, the first-time feature director wrote the script about Jon Martello, a preening “guido” whose weekly hookups can’t wean him from his online addiction.

Gordon-Levitt has counted how long it took to come up with his story (four years) and how much muscle he packed on to play the self-involved Jersey bartender (12 pounds). But how many minutes of online porn he had to watch for the movie, he won’t say.

It’s just that ultimately, porn’s not the point.

Telling a Really Screwed-Up Love Story
“I really wanted to tell a story [about] how all kinds of media gives us unrealistic expectations for all kinds of things in our lives, but especially love and sex,” Gordon-Levitt says in a one-on-one interview with Yahoo Movies. “I think that mainstream media is just as guilty as pornography, you know, whether it’s a TV show or a movie or a clip of pornography or a commercial or, you know, a pop song on the radio. A lot of it is kind of the same message. You take a person, and it’s usually a woman, and reduce her to a thing, just a sex object.”

To see the actor, still looking boyish at 32 in a long-sleeved light blue shirt and jeans, it’s hard to believe he’s been at this for 25 years. Gordon-Levitt has proven to be endlessly facile as an actor, a musician, and a “Saturday Night Live” host. He’s the classic entertainer whose talents span ukulele playing, French fluency, and professional clowning (he trained under Russian great Slava Polunin). While he has credited his mother for steeping him in the values of the feminist movement, as an actor with blockbuster fame, he’s been thrust into the awkward position of being seen as something other than what he is.

“To be honest, I’ve been experiencing this recently,” Gordon-Levitt says of fans who come up to him, delighted but wistful. “People say to me, ‘If I could only find someone like you were in that movie.’ It’s flattering, but it’s a little startling for me because real life is not a movie. And no matter how great the movie, even the best movies ever are not as rich and detailed and nuanced — and therefore beautiful — as real life is.”

Then again, Gordon-Levitt knows that the medium is the message. What better way to provoke an honest discussion about objectification than screwing with the screwball romantic comedy formula? So, alongside “Don Jon’s” eye-opening porn clips are clips from music videos, fashion catwalks, and jiggle commercials, including a lascivious fast-food pitch with a topless supermodel, a drippy codfish burger, and the tagline “More than just a piece of meat.”

When Things Get in the Way
Another message comes through, about a life not fully lived. Don Jon eats dinner with his family, attends Mass, and goes clubbing with his best buds. And yet the football game’s on, loud, during family meals. He cheerfully lays out his sins in a darkened confessional booth (“I had sexual intercourse out of wedlock seven times”). His sport of choice is bodybuilding. Even his bouts of road rage are solitary. Disengagement is the byproduct when people objectify each other.

“Rather than connecting with the person who’s right in front of you, you’re busy comparing them to these expectations that you’ve learned, you’re trying to check the boxes on your wish list,” he says. “Jon is doing this in every facet of his life. It’s not just in his love life.”

While a timely message for media-saturated millennials, this is what Gordon-Levitt calls an age-old quandary. “Are you going to be present in the moment or are you going to sort of attach yourself to sort of your ideas of what life is supposed to be?” he asks. “I actually think that new technology and mass media have the potential to be an instrument of unprecedented connection and engagement, but it can also deliver these messages of sort of disconnection and objectification.”

Like Grandfather, Like Grandson?
Dismantling the American dream factory is a herculean task, but Gordon-Levitt has long gravitated toward genre-bending roles, from an abused teen hustler in “Mysterious Skin” to a blithe-to-embittered romantic in “500 Days of Summer.” For a first work, “Don Jon” carries a sure-handedness one might expect coming from someone who is, say, the grandson of a classic Hollywood director.

Except Gordon-Levitt has never seen any of his grandfather’s works. Michael Gordon started off directing noir (“The Lady Gambles”) and classical drama (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) until the Hollywood blacklist that targeted suspected Communists briefly derailed his career. He was then steered to westerns and romantic comedies: Gordon directed the classic “Pillow Talk” that first paired Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

“He died when I was young and I didn’t really know him,” says Gordon-Levitt, who admits he needs to catch up on his grandfather’s filmography. “I’m disappointed that I never got to know him, and so I’ve been sort of waiting for the right moment to dive in. And maybe that moment’s sooner than later now.”

Heroes, Next Projects
The former child star readily names one of his greatest inspirations: “Robert Redford is a friend of mine who’s a brilliant actor and maneuvered his career to start Sundance … American independent cinema was hardly a thing before Sundance, and now it’s a big part of the movie industry.”

Often referred to by his initials, JGL may only have one directorial feature under his belt, but if anyone’s going to be elected most enthused to change the game, Gordon-Levitt fits the bill. Coming fast on the heels of the wide release of “Don Jon” is “HitRECord on TV,” an online collaborative take on the variety show on the new millennial network Pivot. He launched the production company with his late brother, Dan, and credits getting his director training wheels there.

But first things first. He’s out promoting “Don Jon” and monitoring social media for feedback. And yes, he will say one thing about cutting those porn clips, each less than a second long, “painstakingly cut” and stylized sequences to get inside Don Jon’s chauvinistic head.

“It was a long and tedious process,” he concedes, “but I think the end result works really well and gets a lot of laughs from audiences and really makes the impression that I had hoped it would make.”

Wasn’t the salacious discourse you hoped for? That’s just what the actor-director would want.

Don Jon,” also starring Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore, makes its move into theaters on Friday, September 27.

Watch ‘Don Jon’ Theatrical Trailer 2:

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