DALLAS — Joseph Gordon-Levitt has some fond memories of Texas. Austin, to be exact.
He recently filmed the upcoming graphic-novel fantasy Sin City sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, there, and five years prior he spent time in the Lone Star capital for the 2008 Iraq war drama Stop-Loss with fellow young actors Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish and Channing Tatum.
But he’s a bit hazy on some of the specifics. “I spent the most time in Austin when I was working on Stop-Loss, and we were an unruly bunch,” he says with a grin. “But I don’t remember the names of any particular places, any place that had booze.”
Gordon-Levitt was back in Texas recently, but it wasn’t as an actor or barfly. He was here to talk about Don Jon, the kinetic romantic comedy (opening Friday) that’s also his calling card as a feature-film director and writer.
Starring Gordon-Levitt as a gym-going, Mark Wahlberg-loving, online-porn watching Jersey goofball — nicknamed Don Jon — who falls head over dumbbells for the hottest yet sweetest girl in the club (Scarlett Johansson), it’s a surprisingly confident and self-assured debut about a young guy who finds it hard to relate to fully-clothed, flesh-and-blood women.
“I wanted to tell a story about how people sometimes are treated more like things than people,” Gordon-Levitt, 32, said, during a recent stay at the Crescent Hotel in Dallas. “Maybe it was because I grew up working as an actor in TV and movies, and actors are sometimes treated more like things. But I don’t think it’s just actors — everyone experiences this. And I was also really curious to talk about how media plays into that. So I thought a story about a relationship between a young man how watches too much pornography and a young woman who watches too many romantic Hollywood movies would be a funny way to get at this question.”
Gordon-Levitt was aware that making a film involving pornography would mean walking a tightrope between good intentions and bad taste. “I certainly wasn’t interested in making a movie about pornography per se,” he says. “I thought it was a really powerful and often funny central symbol.”
Don Jon is the culmination of a career that began in Los Angeles at age 4 when Gordon-Levitt was in a stage version of The Wizard of Oz. He went on to become a child star, appearing the early ‘90s reboot of the “Dark Shadows” TV series, as well as the film Angels in the Outfield. But it was as a regular on the hit late-’90s NBC sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” playing Tommy Solomon, that he became a household name. The show ran for six seasons.
In 2000, Gordon-Levitt left Hollywood behind to study at New York’s Columbia University. “I really wanted to not know what I was going to do because that’s what all my friends were in the middle of,” he recalls. “They were going off to discover what their calling was. I wanted that mystery and that wonder.”
But he soon realized he already knew what his calling was. “That nine months was the longest I’d taken away from acting since I was a little kid,” he says. “I found myself playing with my video camera every day. I’m drawn to it.”
But when he came back to acting, he didn’t really return to Hollywood. He passed on going back to episodic TV or trying to get into mainstream films. Instead, he appeared in what would turn out to be lower-budget indie films like C. Jay Cox’s Latter Days (2003), Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005), Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004), and Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (2008).
In 2005, he and his late brother, Dan, launched HitRecord (hitrecord.org), an online creative collective where he and his friends, as well as other users, can upload their videos, films, music, and art. It’s the inspiration for an upcoming TV show that Gordon-Levitt is hosting on Pivot, the new pop-culture cable channel.
“When I started trying to work again after having quit, I realized that I had to take responsibility for my own creativity,” he explains. “I couldn’t wait around for someone else to hire me and tell me that I could make things. ... Then it grew from there, it became a website, a production company, and now we’re making a TV show.”
In fact, he credits HitRecord with giving him the confidence to direct Don Jon. “I made a lot of little projects, short films and videos for HitRecord, and I’ve been doing that for years,” he says.
By the start of the decade, Gordon-Levitt was becoming well-known enough that Hollywood came knocking in a big way. While he continued to appear in such indie films as (500) Days of Summer (2009) and Hesher (2011), he also vaulted into the big leagues, appearing in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Looper (2012) and Lincoln (2012).
“I have eclectic tastes in movies. I’m attracted to all sorts of different things,” he says of what might seem random choices. “It’s not so much the budget in terms of how I try to vary it but the characters, the filmmakers I’m working for.”
So don’t expect him to leave acting behind, even if Don Jon earns him respect as a director. “I love working with other directors. They are two very different experiences, and they feed different appetites,” he says.
Don Jon has even gotten the slimly built Gordon-Levitt somewhere you might not expect to see him: on the cover of the October issue of Men’s Health magazine.
He got all beefy for the part of Don Jon — working out a couple of hours daily for six months, cutting out carbs and dairy from his diet, eating lots of chicken breasts, and adding 12 pounds to his frame. But it’s not something he has any interest in maintaining.
“Bodybuilding is not my thing,” he says with a laugh. “I like to play basketball with my friends on the weekends or I’ll ride a bike for some exercise but this character is very vain. He’s very concerned with how he looks. He has a very rigid set of expectations of what a man is supposed to look like.”
He had more fun training for his role in Premium Rush (2012), in which he played a Manhattan bike messenger pursued by a killer. “There were four different (stunt) doubles but I rode every day and I rode a lot,” he says. “I did get pretty decent on two wheels.”
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