... but what he really wanted to do was direct.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a familiar and widely liked face, a fact adjacent to his being a good actor. His mug has been in America's homes and on various-size screens for most of his 32 years.
He was in "A River Runs Through It" before he was a teenager. He did six seasons on "3rd Rock from the Sun." Director Christopher Nolan cast him in a supporting role in "Inception" (a hit) and in "The "Dark Knight Rises" (also a hit) as the ur-Robin. The playfully fragmented romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer" clicked with audiences; so did the more recent science-fiction action movie "Looper." Many of his commercially unsuccessful pictures, such as the highly enjoyable "Premium Rush," tend to work in other ways. He serves material shrewdly and well.
And for several years now, culminating in this week's release of the dark comedy "Don Jon," he has been exploring all sorts of filmmaking avenues beyond acting. Gordon-Levitt plays a modern-day Don Juan type, a gym rat spending a significant portion of his time in the shadowy company of online porn. He meets a goddess, Barbara Sugarman, played by Scarlett Johansson, whose soft spot for movie-style romance (and some rigid gender-based relationship expectations) doesn't quite sync up with Jon's proclivities.
It's an interesting, wittily acted film. Gordon-Levitt, in town recently to sell it, told me he began writing the "Don Jon" script as a maybe, an exercise.
"I was having enough fun writing it in my spare time I didn't mind all the doubting voices in my head," he said. His "Brick" and "Looper" director, Rian Johnson, was the first to see a rough draft.
"When he said, 'You have something here; this feels like a movie,' that was everything to me," Gordon-Levitt recalled. "Writers work alone. And when you do anything alone, you have certain self-doubts, voices in your head, saying you can't do this, you don't really have to do this. So to have someone else confirm what I'd been writing was worth the trouble … that was great."
It was fun, he said, fashioning for himself a role allowing him to stretch a little.
"The shiny hair and the gym body, it just made me laugh, the idea of getting to play that guy," he said.
By design, he said, "Don Jon" moves at different kinetic speeds in each of its loosely defined three acts.
"The camera's very kinetic at the start, a lot of cuts, when we're meeting Jon," he said. Act 2 represents "more of a traditional romance, which means more graceful dolly moves, and the music becomes fully orchestrated." Act 3, focusing on Jon's coming of age thanks to the presence of the Julianne Moore character, has its own texture.
"It becomes sparse visually, mostly with a hand-held camera, and the editing's more restrained. That's what we were trying, anyway, not going for three different-looking movies in one, but tailoring things for the way the story goes."
He wrote the script as a response to what he calls a "sexified media" onslaught.
"All that sex, which of course is a viable sales technique when it comes to advertising, has a real impact on our identities and expectations about what love is supposed to be, what sex is supposed to be. And I think that's worth making fun of. Often the best way to say something seriously and sincerely is to get people to laugh about it first."
Next up: a cable TV show, created and hosted by Gordon-Levitt, based on the ongoing online collaborative project called hitRECord. (For an explanation, go to hitrecord.org.) He started it in 2005 as an "informal hobby," but it has grown to spawn some artful short films (one co-starring Gordon-Levitt and his pal Channing Tatum) and everything under the digital sun. The Pivot cable network, funded by Participant Media, is underwriting the half-hour variety show iteration of the project.
They sold it, he said, a few months ago at the Sundance Film Festival, where "Don Jon" premiered. In most respects Gordon-Levitt considers himself both "fortunate" and "persistent." He has a reliable nose for intriguing material. A small independent film in which he starred, "The Lockout," failed to find a niche audience back in 2007, but he loved doing it.
"And I know Mr. Nolan saw that one, and that was the reason he got interested in me for 'Inception.' One thing leads to another," he said, smiling.
Movies on TV: Future shock! On Friday, Michael wraps up his Turner Classic Movies "Friday Night Spotlight" September run with "The Time Machine" at 7 p.m.; "World Without End" at 9 p.m.; "The Omega Man" at 10:30 p.m.; and "A Boy and His Dog" at 12:30 a.m. Go to tcm.com for details.