Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
By Aaron Hicklin
Photography by Kai Z Feng | Styling by Grant Woolhead
Watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s short movie Pictures of Assholes is deeply instructive. In a virtuoso example of table-turning, the young actor channels his camera on the paparazzi that are hounding him and a friend in New York City. When Gordon-Levitt politely asks their names, they bristle with injury and insult, responding with “Asshole” and “Asshole Jr.” Gordon-Levitt is undeterred, politely interrogating them as they pile insult on insult. Finally, the younger paparazzo comes clean about their motive: “We saw a young star with another guy, and it’s implied that there’s something going on,” he says coyly. “The whole gay thing — it intrigues people.”
Contrary to many celebrity-paparazzi encounters, no punches are thrown, no voices raised. Gordon-Levitt does not even bother refuting the gay innuendo (“That would be really tacky—they would win if I had to clarify,” he says). Instead, the video—which has been viewed more than 1,000,000 times on YouTube — wraps up with a polite handshake as the men separate. For budding Justin Biebers everywhere, it’s a textbook example of how to disarm your enemy without making a fool of yourself.
Pictures of Assholes, now almost a decade old, tells us a lot about Gordon-Levitt’s feistiness and creativity, but most of all it illuminates his complicated relationship with his own celebrity. Many people — like those entitled paparazzi — have mistaken his ambivalence to fame as the hallmark of a spoilsport; in a world in which celebrity is currency, the famous person who doesn’t want to play ball, who insists on boundaries, can feel like a slap in the face. But for Gordon-Levitt, it’s always been about self-preservation.
“It comes from a really young age,” he concedes. “It can be really awkward and difficult to be thought of as this thing on TV. Before understanding it or being able to analyze it, I just knew it made me really anxious.” Regularly recognized in his teens as “that kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun,” his reflexive response was denial. “I wouldn’t just say ‘No,’ ” he recalls. “I was way more convincing than that. I would first act confused, and then I would try to understand what they were saying. I would play the part.”
Gordon-Levitt is a little more sanguine about his fame today. He even manages a gracious smile when a woman approaches our table at a café in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, to press a folded scrap of paper in to his hand. “I almost never lie anymore,” he says. “I’ve learned that it’s not useful at all, and it actually just exacerbates the situation.” He’s also learned to distinguish between people who connect to him through his craft — “love that” — and those who are interested only in his celebrity — “a word that makes my skin crawl.”
Obviously, then, we are here today to talk about the former, starting with his new movie, Don Jon, which Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed, and stars in, and which might as well be subtitled Pictures of Assholes 2. Although very different from the guerilla style of that earlier film and leavened with whip-smart dialogue and funny, energetic performances from Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, and a mesmerizing Julianne Moore, it’s fueled by a similar critique of a society that struggles to see beyond arbitrary labels.
Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello Jr., a New Jersey knucklehead and porn addict struggling to make real life match the expectations set by his X-rated pastime. Even a bombshell like Johansson’s Barbara Sugarman can’t manage that — but then she has her own issues, trying to turn Jon into a cipher for her own hopelessly romantic ideals. Both are on a merry-go-round of perpetual disappointment.
Gay men steeped in a culture of Grindr and Xtube will undoubtedly find parallels to their lives in Jon’s compulsion, but Don Jon is only superficially about porn. “I wasn’t interested in making a movie about pornography,” Gordon-Levitt says. “I was interested in making a movie about how people treat each other like things, and all kinds of media can contribute to that.” In that sense, Don Jon can be viewed as an allegory for the way Gordon-Levitt has sometimes felt defined by his own celebrity. “I’ve been working as an actor since I was a little kid, and I’ve always been fascinated, and a little horrified, by the way people relate to images they see on screen,” he says. “Sometimes I feel I am seen as a thing more than a person, and I don’t think that’s unique to actors. I think everyone is subject to that kind of pigeonholing.”
Before our meeting, I had been warned by an editor at another magazine that Gordon-Levitt could be a diffident, reluctant subject, but it turns out not to be true. He is thoughtful and considered, and takes his work seriously. You get the feeling there is another, more playful Gordon-Levitt lurking beneath the surface — the one who likes to pal around with the boisterous Channing Tatum and turn stalker on the paparazzi — but it’s not a version he wheels out for just anyone, and that’s fine.
“He is not an emotional lightweight by any stretch of the imagination, which I think is delightful to find in someone in Hollywood,” says Moore. She recalls being sent the script with a warning that it was about porn. “I took a deep breath and said, ‘Okaaaay,’ and started to read it. I was on a plane next to my husband, and I looked up and said, ‘This isn’t about porn!’ I thought it was going to be salacious, provocative, prurient, whatever, and it’s none of those things. It’s an amazing meditation on what it means to be alive, and to be truly intimate, and to live without any expectation of who you think you should be.”
It’s also a movie about grief. Moore’s character, Esther, is a widow whose loss is all too palpable. “For those of us who’ve experienced extreme and sudden loss, I feel like it’s sometimes offensive how it’s depicted in movies, because there’s always an expectation that by the end of the movie everyone will be healing,” says Moore, whose own mother died unexpectedly four years ago. She describes Don Jon as “the most honest depiction of grief in a film ever.” There’s good reason for that. Gordon-Levitt’s older brother, Dan, died in 2010, apparently of a drug overdose, and it’s clear that his absence is keenly felt.
When the subject of his brother comes up, Gordon-Levitt talks about him freely and tenderly, crediting Dan as the guiding spirit behind hitRECord, a website the two brothers launched in 2005, initially as a space to host their own projects and then as a place for anyone and everyone to contribute creatively.
“He was so overwhelmingly positive and warm,” says Gordon-Levitt. “One of my favorite things about hitRECord is how positive it is, especially compared to most of what goes on on the Internet, which can be snarky and cynical. I credit Dan with that. He couldn’t help but get swept up in it, and it makes me so happy that the momentum continues today. I’m on the site every day, and the fact there’s this warmth to it, it reminds me of him every time.”