Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Writer, Director, Object of Teenage Lust

The actor told TIME about making his first feature

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Daniel McFadden / Relativity Media

During his six seasons on the spacey sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, which ran between 1996 and 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was often asked to appear in teen magazines. They were requests that might make some stars happy, but something felt sordid about the whole thing—and, in this week’s issue of TIME, the actor explains how he put that experience to good use in his first go at writing and directing a feature film. The movie—Don Jon, out Sept. 27 and starring Gordon-Levitt opposite Scarlett Johansson, as a man and woman hooked on porn (him) and romance (her)—turns a satirical eye to the role of mass media and pornography in our culture.

Read the full story here and check out an excerpt from that conversation below

TIME: As someone who’s made a movie about the way that fiction influences our real lives, how does that affect making your own fiction,  a whole movie that also has that ability to influence people?

JGL: I wanted the movie itself to be guilty of some of these same things and lure the audience down the same road, especially the second act of the movie where the conventional romance is moving right along. It uses all those same devices, the beautiful dolly shots and the sweeping string section, the gorgeous lighting and all that stuff. I like it when movies sort of are, I guess, self-culpable. Godard does this a lot. That’s actually one of the references I brought up to Scarlett early on: Brigitte Bardot in Contempt. The movie is constantly seducing you with her beauty and her sex appeal and then suddenly slapping you across the face and saying ‘look at what you’re doing, look at how you’re relating to this woman on the screen.’

So you’re a cynic about love, since all those romantic clichés are totally taken apart…

I don’t think it’s cynical. I think it’s rather idealistic. If you’re comparing your lover to this checklist, that’s not romantic. That’s consumerism. What’s romantic is finding the nuances and the details that are unlike anybody else—I can talk to her in a way, or she does this thing that’s completely unique—that’s where the most sexy stuff comes from, I think. You’ll miss all those details and nuances if you’re too busy comparing your reality to these more two-dimensional fantasies that you see on screen.

Does the source of the fantasy, whether it’s a rom-com or pornography, does that matter?

What I’ve been saying is no. I think whether it’s rated X or approved for general viewing audiences, the message is the same: you’re taking a person—in our culture it’s usually a woman—and reducing her to a thing, to an object for your consumption. I think plenty of mainstream media is equally guilty of that as pornography. That’s why I wanted to put pornography at the center of this movie, to compare the rest of our media to pornography. I’ve been [getting questions] like, ‘So, a movie about pornography!’ ‘So, how much pornography do you watch?’ and that’s kind of really missing the point.

But you had to expect that…

It’s to be expected. I’m not mad about it.

Did the idea start with the pornography angle?

The first germ of the story was probably me feeling like a bit of an object myself and thinking about how media contributes to that. When I was on TV when I was a teenager, they always wanted me to be in teen magazines. I really didn’t want to be in teen magazines but it’s a strong promotional tool for a television show. I remember even then making the argument to people who didn’t get it, or who were maybe even freaked out that this 14-year-old was comparing teen magazines to pornography, I remember making that comparison back then.

Do you see the way our culture objectifies people improving in the future?

I think that it’s valid to be optimistic, especially if you zoom out a little bit and compare the way that love and sex works now compared to 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago. I think we’re a lot healthier than we used to be. We’re far from perfect.

So, I have to ask you about the persistent rumors that you’ll return to the Batman universe. Do you have any plans to actually do it?

No, I don’t. I love [The Dark Knight Rises]. I love all three of those movies and I’m delighted to be in it. I thought it was a really great ending to a trilogy. So.

And what about Guys and Dolls with you and Channing Tatum?

Chan and I really want to make a musical together and we’ve been talking about what it could be. That’s been one of the ideas that we’ve been playing with, but it’s super early in the process and who knows what we’ll ultimately end up doing.

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