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‘Don Jon’ satisfies Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s urge to take risks

For his directorial feature debut, “Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt opted to address pornography addiction.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

For his directorial feature debut, “Don Jon,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt opted to address pornography addiction.

Shortly after Joseph Gordon-Levitt screened his directorial feature debut, the then-titled “Don Jon’s Addiction,” at the Sundance International Film Festival, Hollywood trade publication Variety posted a glowing review — but said that only a guy as likable as Gordon-Levitt could pull off what he created.

The movie is about a tough, “Jersey Shore” type of guy who has a pornography addiction, which means that as director and star, Gordon-Levitt bombards the audience with images of real porn and masturbation scenes. Gordon-Levitt’s thuggy, club-going Jon opens his laptop over and over so that he can watch an X-rated video, take care of business, and then toss a tissue into a wastebasket. It’s not a pretty sight.

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But it’s difficult to be truly offended by the face behind the laptop. After all, it belongs to the same Gordon-Levitt who inspired giggles as a youngster on the sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” had teen dreams in “10 Things I Hate About You,” wallowed in unrequited obsession for Zooey Deschanel in “(500) Days of Summer,” and channeled the spirit of Bruce Willis in the action film “Looper.”

Gordon-Levitt is the guy who does everything — and earnestly. At 32, he’s a sextuple threat, producing, directing, writing, acting, and occasionally dancing and singing. And now, in the thick of promoting his own film, retitled simply “Don Jon,” he’s also producing a variety television show on Pivot, a cable network aimed at millennials.

Gordon-Levitt, who spoke to the Globe when he was in town to screen “Don Jon” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in August, understands that he picked an ambitious topic for his feature film directing debut, but he said that he wanted to take a risk. To him, pornography addiction was a metaphor for how our culture turns people into things. That’s something he’s dealt with since he was a kid.

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“I grew up working as an actor, and certainly actors get treated like objects on a shelf in our culture,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s just actors, I think it’s something everybody experiences.”

He admits that the material is risqué — the clips that Jon watches are real, from porn sites (he was actually paid for product placement by the companies), but he said the commercial release is less of a hard R than the version audiences saw at Sundance. He said Relativity, the studio that acquired the film, has been encouraging (any cuts were the director’s own doing, based on viewer feedback) and even before the studio was on board, Gordon-Levitt’s inner circle — including his “Looper” and “Brick” director, Rian Johnson, who read an early draft as a friend — was supportive of the theme.

“I think the people who I work with know me well enough to know that if I took the time to write an entire feature script that I have my mind pretty made up,” he said.

Gordon-Levitt had directed shorts before this project, and said he started jotting down some notes for “Don Jon” as far back as 2008. It was in 2010, when he was working on the cancer dramedy “50/50” with Seth Rogen that he decided he could make a sad, upsetting movie about porn addiction that could also be a comedy.

“That movie really inspired me because it’s a comedy and it’s not a ‘yuck, yuck’ comedy; it’s based in character, and the laughs come from an emotional connection to the people in the story,” he said. “I think ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is the same way, and that’s the kind of comedy I wanted to make. When I started seeing the character in the story in that tone, that’s when I really kind of locked into it and started writing it more often. It’s just something that I would do in my spare time and just a little bit at a time. I don’t think I ever spent an entire day on it. It was always just a few hours here, a few hours there.”

Gordon-Levitt hosting his hitRECord television show. t

Gordon-Levitt hosting his hitRECord television show.

Gordon-Levitt will admit that he had specific people in mind when he wrote his characters. He created Barbara, Jon’s real-life obsession — who has her own addiction (romantic comedies) — for Scarlett Johansson, who joined the cast early on. She plays a Jersey beauty who has expectations that Jon might not be able to meet.

“We had a really great long discussion about how the media portrays men and women and love and sex. And I think she was intrigued by the material. This is a young woman who is a very smart person, who’s a very talented artist, and, of course, what do most people talk about? [Her] looks. She’s very good looking, but there’s a lot more to her than that. So I think she was keen to sort of satirize what the movie satirizes. I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t liked the script, because I was always picturing her doing it.”

Julianne Moore signed on to play Jon’s unlikely friend, Brie Larson was cast as his technology-addicted sister, and Gordon-Levitt sought out Tony Danza — who starred with him in 1994’s “Angels in the Outfield” — to play his fast-talking, testosterone-fueled father. Danza said he was a bit shocked by the script, but mostly, he was just proud.

“It’s very brave and very provocative,” Danza said by phone. “What impressed me so much about the script is that it makes you laugh and then has something to say.”

Danza was not surprised that Gordon-Levitt had managed to write a movie while starring in other features, that he planned to direct it, and that he was conceiving a television show while preparing the film for release. Gordon-Levitt was like this at 12, during the filming of “Angels,” Danza said. He likes to tell a story about asking that 12-year-old to in-line skate with him on their day off. Gordon-Levitt said no.

Gordon-Levitt goes looking for love (with Scarlett Johansson) in “Don Jon.”

Daniel McFadden/Relativity Media

Gordon-Levitt goes looking for love (with Scarlett Johansson) in “Don Jon.”

“He’d say, ‘Today I’m following the director,’ ” Danza said, adding, “If he was following the director when he was 12, I have a feeling he was following Spielberg [last year, too].” (Stephen Spielberg directed Gordon-Levitt in “Lincoln.”)

Now that “Don Jon” is rolling out theatrically (it opens in Boston on Friday), Gordon-Levitt has immersed himself in his television show, put on by his production company hitRECord, which solicits work from performers and artists and then pays them for their creations. It’s a risky model — as Danza mentions, it’s tough to pull off a variety show in this culture — but, as with “Don Jon,” people want to see what Gordon-Levitt is up to.

“The TV show is definitely the biggest challenge we’ve tackled so far, and the community is really rising to it and it’s exciting,” said the proud creator. “And I think once the show is on the air, and people see where all this work goes, hopefully if we get to keep doing it, it will grow even more and sort of snowball like that.”

Gordon-Levitt has brought some friends into the project. Danza said he recently recorded a musical number for the series. In the sketch, he said, Gordon-Levitt not only dances, he does a standing back flip.

Danza exhaled, while considering the multi-tasking of his younger friend. “If you saw the amount of work he did . . . I think he was there until early morning.”

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.
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