At 34, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a list of show business credits longer than those of most people in Hollywood twice his age. He started acting in commercials at six and soon appeared on programs such as Family Ties and Murder, She Wrote. By the age of 16, with a regular role as a goofy teenage alien on the enormously successful sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, Gordon-Levitt was poised to begin, you know, robbing 7-Elevens and checking in and out of fancy Malibu rehab centers.
Instead, he transitioned into a remarkable grown-up career that made us forget he was ever a child star. After reinventing himself in indie films including (500) Days of Summer and Brick, Gordon-Levitt teamed with director Christopher Nolan in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, which put him squarely on the A-list. He then played a young Bruce Willis in Looper and Honest Abe’s son in Spielberg’s Lincoln. In 2013, Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed and starred in Don Jon, an audacious comedy about a guy who jerks off too much. Critics loved it.
This might just be Gordon-Levitt’s biggest year yet. He plays high-wire artist Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk in October, reunites with his 50/50 co-star and pal Seth Rogen in the R-rated comedy The Night Before in November and, in 2016, takes the lead in Oliver Stone’s film Snowden, about the CIA informant.
Joseph Leonard Gordon-Levitt grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles in a family of liberal idealists. His father, Dennis Levitt, oversaw the news department at progressive Pacifica Radio, and his mother, Jane Gordon, once ran for Congress on the Peace and Freedom ticket. Joe’s older brother, Dan, known as Burning Dan for his fire-spinning performances at the Burning Man festival, died in 2010 at the age of 36. Gordon-Levitt has always insisted his brother’s death, initially reported as a drug overdose, was an accident. Dan’s spirit lives on at HitRECord, an online collaborative production company the brothers co-founded shortly before his death. The company has paid out more than a million dollars since 2010 to artists, writers and musicians whose work it features online, in books and through other media. HitRECord on TV recently wrapped season two on the Pivot network.
Contributing writer David Hochman, who last interviewed Dr. Sanjay Gupta, spent time with Gordon-Levitt in a downtown Los Angeles hotel featured in both The Dark Knight Rises and (500) Days of Summer. Hochman says his subject was tough to read at first. “Like a lot of former child actors, Joe can be guarded. It’s from a lifetime of being poked and prodded by the media, which he hates. But he quickly kicked back and opened up about his work, his political leanings, even his favorite herbal brain candy. I walked away thinking, Here’s a guy who’s far greater than the sum of his IMDb credits.”
You have three big movies coming up. Your two biopics— The Walk and Snowden—are already generating Oscar buzz, and there is also the bromantic comedy The Night Before. Let’s begin with re-creating Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers 41 years ago. That’s actually you on the wire in many of those scenes. How are you with heights?
I had some fear, definitely. But it’s mostly a matter of acclimation. At first, when you’re learning, you’re just a few feet off the ground. But even going up 12 feet, which is about the highest we got, your brain goes, “Fuck this! Something’s wrong!” I had a safety line attached to me and mats under me, as well as a balancing pole, which really helps, but still, I was shaky and tight. When you first see a high wire, you’re like, How could this ever work? Eventually you loosen up, which isn’t to say it’s easy. I knew if I fell I would be okay physically. But, man, compared with Philippe being 110 floors up and 1,300 feet above lower Manhattan without a fucking safety net? I still can’t believe the dude pulled that off.
Petit himself taught you how to balance on a high wire. What was that like?
Philippe is now 66, but he still doesn’t do anything small. Working with him was eight days of beautiful intensity. He and his partner, Kathy, live in upstate New York, and they organized a whole space in an unused warehouse for a workshop that was just him and me. Tightrope, juggling, magic, more tightrope. He was 24 when he did the walk, but you can still sense the fire of the young man inside.
To be honest, he drove me crazy at times. He’s someone who doesn’t relax until he’s accomplished whatever’s in his head. Philippe’s an absolutist. There are upsides and downsides to that way of thinking, and I suspect I saw a little too much of myself in him. I understand what it means to work and work on something and look up and go, “Fuck, I’ve been doing this for 18 hours straight.” Having said that, getting to the moment in the movie when I take that first step off the tower and go out there—I felt completely enthralled by the sheer will of that act. It was one of the more perfect and exhilarating moments I’ve ever gotten to play as an actor.
Is it safe to say this is that rare movie that’s actually worth the added price of 3-D?
Yeah, I’ve never been a big fan of 3-D. Oftentimes in movies it seems little more than a gimmick to charge extra money. But 3-D, and in particular IMAX 3-D, was at the very origin of this project. When you think about Robert Zemeckis and his movies, whether it’s Back to the Future, Forrest Gump or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he has always been way, way ahead on technology. In scene after scene in this movie, he wanted us to make sure the effects necessitated that the audience wear the glasses. He wanted the heights to feel dizzying. When you see my foot on the wire in the foreground and you’re looking down, that had to be terrifying. Everything needed to look better with glasses on than with glasses off, or it wasn’t worth doing. You really get to experience the scale of those magnificent towers.
How much did your emotions around 9/11 come into play?
When we first walked into the replica of the lobby they’d built, we all got seriously choked up. It’s a very emotional space in so many people’s memories, and in mine personally. I remember that lobby vividly, and the front entrance, because I’d gone to the World Trade Center right when I moved to New York in the fall of 2000. I was a freshman at Columbia University, and it was an exciting time. But then, a year later, the buildings came down.
Do you remember where you were when it happened?
I had a nine A.M. literature class, and the professor was lecturing on Titus Andronicus. I walked out and ran into a guy I knew who told me what had happened. We looked out toward downtown and saw the billow of smoke in the sky.
It was a tragedy not only for what happened that day but for everything that ever happened there. The towers were iconic symbols of New York City. One of the things I appreciate about this movie is that it celebrates a beautiful memory about the towers, a poetic one rather than a dark one. Philippe inspired people in this country when they really needed it. Remember, his walk took place on August 7, 1974, when America was right in the throes of civil rights, women’s rights, and—people forget this—Nixon resigned the presidency the very next day. It was a remarkable week in American history.
Ironic, given your accent in the movie is French.
Yeah, I studied French in high school and college. I love French movies, so I really worked on the accent. If you don’t speak French, you’ll think it sounds perfect. If you’re a native speaker, you might think, Well, the guy gave it a pretty darn good try.
It was the mannerisms that probably took more work. I mean, in Lincoln I play the president’s son Robert, but nobody knows how he moved or what he sounded like. Then I played a version of Bruce Willis in Looper. That’s not exactly a biopic, but I did study Bruce and listened to recordings of his voice so I could get it right. When someone is alive and known to people, it raises the stakes in terms of the technical side. It comes down to repetition and practice, repetition and practice. It’s a little like learning a high-wire act.
By the way, what was more daunting, tightrope-walking or taking direction from Oliver Stone in Snowden?
I’m still getting my head around what that experience was like, to tell you the truth. Working with Oliver was a powerful and wonderful and engrossing experience. There’s a similarity between him and Philippe Petit, actually. They’re both so driven and care so much about what they’re doing. I mean, there’s a reason Oliver’s body of work is entirely unique in all of Hollywood. No one has been able to make movies as subversive as those Oliver has made. He’s really been the only one consistently to stand up and say, “I don’t think this is right.”
People either love him or hate him for it.
What the haters don’t understand is that his opinions are formed completely out of patriotism. He has a very deep love for this country and what America is meant to stand for. It’s not patriotic to just sit back and let the country you love do something wrong.
I feel the same way. I’m so grateful to have been born and raised here, and for the freedoms and opportunities that have been afforded me, which I wouldn’t have gotten were I born in most other places in the world. But I also want to raise my hand and say so if the principles that are the foundation of what our country is about are being violated. The government is not supposed to be the one with the power. That’s the whole principle of democracy, of the United States, of the American Revolution, the American experiment, you could say. The people are supposed to be the ones in control. The government serves them. The Edward Snowden story exemplifies that. It’s a chilling example.
Some call Snowden a hero for boldly blowing the whistle on domestic surveillance and government secrecy. Others consider him a traitor and believe the government information he leaked crippled intelligence efforts and put American troops at great risk.
First of all, there is no evidence that Edward Snowden’s documents gave away any specific locations or specific names that put people in jeopardy. Critics say these generic things, but then they can’t come up with any examples.
You can read so many different opinions, and at first, I immersed myself in all of them. When Oliver asked me to play the role of Snowden, I didn’t know much about the story. I didn’t know the difference between Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks and Julian Assange and Bradley/Chelsea Manning. But as I delved deeply into the reading, a couple of things struck me. First, no matter how you feel about mass surveillance or online privacy or any of that, the government was doing things that were against its own rules and doing them in secret and lying about it, which is why Snowden’s role in releasing the information was so valuable. Our government was lying.
Be more specific. What bothered you the most?
There’s a guy named James Clapper who is currently our director of national intelligence. He reports to the president, oversees national intelligence—meaning the CIA, FBI, NSA, etc. James Clapper was called before Congress and raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth, as you do when you testify before Congress. A senator asked him whether the NSA collects millions of phone calls, e-mails and text messages on American citizens. Clapper answered, “No, sir.” That’s what he said to a senator who was elected to be the representative of the people.
Did you meet with Snowden?
[Pauses] I can’t say. Sorry. I read everything I could and watched every video I could. Certainly the documentary Citizenfour was a huge asset because you get to see what he’s like when he’s not giving a talk, when he’s not doing an interview. But also, some of the movie takes place when he’s much younger, so a lot of what I had to do was the kind of work I do as an actor, which is to try to use empathy and inference. How would this person be then? How would he feel? That’s what I was doing with Philippe as well as with Snowden.
How much do you worry about your own privacy or about the government peering into your e-mails? Are you more paranoid about that now?
It’s not paranoia. It’s just a fact that right now the U.S. government is able to see anything it wants to see in regard to anything digital. Some of the stuff starts to sound paranoid because it’s so extreme, but it’s real.
What are you referring to?
Well, for instance [holds up his cell phone], the government could be listening to us right now in this hotel room if it wanted to.
Even though the phone’s not on?
Correct. If the phone is out of batteries it won’t work, but I’ve been told they could be watching you right now on this smartphone camera or on the camera on your laptop. They can do that. I put a Band-Aid on my webcam. Does that look paranoid? You know, if it weren’t a known fact that this occurs, it might be. And by the way, it’s not just the U.S. government. It’s also Google. It’s Facebook. Those companies are at least as aggressive as the NSA.
Google and Facebook are watching us?
Absolutely. One of the most important revelations from Snowden is that Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, YouTube, Twitter, Skype, Yahoo were all collaborating with the NSA. When that news came out, most of the companies denied it. They all just lied. Again, a lot of people in this story are just unashamed to lie. But when it became clear they were lying, they started to act all indignant, saying they were pressured into it.
It’s very Big Brother.
The truth is, the business model for companies like Google and Facebook is they spy on you. They collect all that information and then sell it to advertisers. When I say spy on you, I don’t just mean they track what you search for. They certainly do that, but if you’ve used Google there’s stuff on your computer that Google has put there that you don’t know about. Data travels from your computer to Google’s databases all day long, whether you’re using Google or not, whether you have your web browser open or not. It doesn’t matter. It just does it. Unless you’re very technically savvy and able to block those things, you’re being spied on. These people can get inside your computers. We can’t forget that.
Sony learned that the hard way this year. Were you worried that information about you would surface in the wake of the hacking scandal?
The situation scared me at first because I’m friends with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg [co-directors of The Interview, the film widely believed to have prompted the Sony information breach]. I was actually with Evan the day some of the news broke, and he was like, “Oh shit, we’re going to have to get security or whatever.” That was scary.
Ultimately, it’s less scary but more of a wake-up call. It’s really a reminder, like, let’s all pay attention to this, folks. Our whole way of life is largely attached to how we interact with these digital systems. We should be paying attention to that and asking questions about how these systems work.
Are you taking any further precautions beyond your Band-Aid solution?
I use an app called Signal, which you can download for free. It will encrypt text and phone calls with other people who use the app. So if for whatever reason you want to talk or text without anyone tracking you, whether it’s the NSA or Google, that’s an easy answer. Honestly, I should do more. I feel we should all do more. I don’t like the nagging feeling in the back of my head when I’m writing an e-mail to somebody and thinking, Man, is this going to get out?
So you’re not that guy posting drunken selfies every Saturday night on Instagram?
No, but that’s probably not as bad as the other stuff I’m talking about. I think there’s a big difference between intentionally putting stuff out there because you want it to be out there versus your government secretly taking it from you without asking, or corporate entities disguising themselves as search engines or social networks that are really just spying advertising agencies.
Think about this: Google is so commercially successful, yet the service it provides, that it labels as free, is not commensurate with the money it makes off of us. We don’t realize that it’s making money off of us exactly, but obviously it’s making money somewhere, and the amount of money it makes is not a fair trade for the service it gives away for free.
With all these companies, there are these terms of service that we just click and agree on. The truth is you’d have to be a lawyer or have a lot of free time to really understand what you’re agreeing to. These companies don’t talk about it.
You obviously grew up in a household that encouraged you to question authority.
Oh, for sure. My mom and dad both worked at Pacifica Radio. That’s where they met. My dad was news director. It’s very progressive, very liberal, and my parents’ message to me was always to ask questions, to be curious and not just take people’s word for things. Find multiple sources and consider what the hidden agenda might be. My dad worked as a journalist during the Watergate scandal, and I think that shaped him. Again, their outlook wasn’t antigovernment; rather it was true patriotism, as far as really believing in what the United States of America is about and what it stands for.
They do not sound like typical Hollywood stage parents.
I’m glad you said that. My mom always asked me, “Do you want to do this?” And my answer was always, always yes. I loved acting. I’ve loved acting ever since I was a little kid. I was doing community theater early on, and because I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a couple of the kids who were in my community-theater group were going to auditions for commercials and stuff. So my mom asked if I wanted to do that too, and I really did. I got some little parts, Cocoa Puffs ads and stuff. I loved being on set. I loved seeing it all happen. I loved watching everyone work with the camera. I loved working with grown-ups. On one of my first jobs, when I was six years old, Tommy Lee Jones played my dad. I had no idea who he was, but who cares? I loved everything about it until I had to start doing publicity and press. That was the beginning of the downside. But that didn’t start until I was 12.
That was the year after you appeared alongside Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford. What’s your standout memory of that shoot?
I didn’t have any real interaction with Brad, but Redford made a big impact. Because he’s an actor, I knew he understood what I was going through. I remember the cinematographer, who later won an Oscar for the movie, telling me how important it was to hit my mark. But Bob leans in and goes, “I never hit my mark.” It was reassuring but also made the larger point of not focusing on a piece of tape on the ground but the feelings of what I was trying to convey. That stuck with me.
You went through puberty in the public eye, which means you basically lived every adolescent boy’s wet dream of watching hot actresses getting undressed and flirting with you at cast parties. It was glorious, right?
What can I say, man? That’s really a false fantasy that I’m here to say doesn’t exist. Maybe someone’s putting that forward in order to sell Hollywood as a glamorous place or to sell movie tickets, but it’s not real. At least not in my life. I mean, it’s cool to be on a studio lot. When I was on 3rd Rock, Seinfeld was shooting right next to us, and we’d see them around. We’d see all these people. But mostly it’s work, sad to say. Work, school, your mom driving you around to auditions. If anything, it was the opposite of glamorous for me sometimes. I faced a certain amount of ridicule from kids my own age or a little older. It was a little bit of that thing of “Hey, so you think you’re too good for us?” I never felt comfortable being famous and all the word implies.
You once dubbed it the “fascist cult of celebrity.”
Well, yeah, the principle of fascism is that certain people are more important than other people. That’s where celebrities and fascists overlap, because it’s the same idea. I mean, when you’re a teenager you believe in something, and I didn’t think it was right that certain people who were on TV got special treatment. It always felt weird to me. When people would put me in that box, I just felt disgusted about myself. I guess the reason I said I never liked the press was because I always felt they were putting me in that box. I never want to be pigeonholed.
After the huge success of 3rd Rock From the Sun, you could have done sitcoms the rest of your life.
Exactly, and I would have been incredibly bored. Everybody wanted me to do a high-paying pilot. Everyone was saying, “You’re the kid from that show. We can make you lots and lots of money if you do another one.”
You went to college instead. Did you know when you enrolled at Columbia that you would probably drop out?
My plan with college was I wanted not to have a plan for a while. I wanted the future to be wide open, the way my friends had it. But pretty quickly I was spending more time cutting video with my copy of Final Cut Pro and enjoying those possibilities, rather than doing the class work that was expected of me. I just got attracted to other things, like editing and making things. I would walk around New York all the time. For some people, school is the right environment to learn to do that. For me it wasn’t.
You came back to Hollywood with some seriously dark roles. In Manic, you play a teenager who brutalizes another kid with a baseball bat and ends up in a psychiatric ward. It was as if you were trying to shatter your image as a child star.
That was pretty fucking intense. Frankly, the director, Jordan Melamed, and I didn’t exactly get along. I didn’t think it was going to work. I was like, “I’m the man. Fuck this fucking guy.” [laughs] But to his credit he made a movie that I’m enormously proud of. Manic is one of the most important movies I’ve done. It’s a very heavy drama, especially coming right after 3rd Rock. It was the movie Gregg Araki saw that made him want to put me in Mysterious Skin, and that was the movie Rian Johnson saw that made him want to put me in Brick. Those movies got filmmakers to put me in the next round of movies, including (500) Days of Summer, which then Chris Nolan saw. So Manic was, in many ways, the movie that started me on that path.
What did you learn from Christopher Nolan?
Be prepared. He would show up in these massive movies—The Dark Knight Rises, Inception—and just be completely ready to roll. He planned and worked to make sure he knew exactly what everybody needed to do that day. It’s a privilege to make a living in Hollywood, and it’s so great when someone respects the work, respects the other people on set. I really value that.
You defied gravity in your famous hallway fight scene in Inception. How did that work?
Yeah, I loved that because I got to do the whole thing myself. They built three sets. One was a normal hallway. One turned on its side so that it became a 10-story tower. They would shoot up it and I would hang with my feet on what looked like the wall. The third set rotated 360 degrees like a washing machine. That was the most fun. I used to do gymnastics when I was a little kid, and the stunt guy I was fighting against was an Olympic gymnast. We really worked to make that scene great.
What do you consider your best work?
My measure of how much I like my work is how much I’m able to change and be someone other than myself. I think Looper is probably the greatest example of that because I had prosthetics on my face. It was three hours of makeup every morning to change my face—facial structural changes, contacts, eyebrows, the whole nine.
Let’s move on. In November, you and your buds Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, your co-star and producer from 50/50, are reuniting in The Night Before, a comedy about a group of childhood best friends who get together over a bunch of drugs for a blowout Christmas Eve. Was it just a big cannabis-fueled party on set?
I will say it was probably the easiest job I’ve ever done. It was a remarkable welcome and contrast going from The Walk to shooting again with Seth and Evan. The Walk was in certain ways the hardest thing I’ve ever done. On a physical level, learning to walk on wire, learning French, being in every scene of the movie and also occupying the headspace of a character who’s both super-focused and losing his mind—it was intense.
There’s such a thing as trying too hard, and with The Night Before I thought what would be cooler than just showing up and being with my friends, making each other laugh and having a blast, which is exactly what that movie is. Having fun like that is so necessary. You feel better, you feel more like yourself, you get fresh new ideas.
Is weed a creativity booster for you?
It is. When I smoke weed I’m more liable to make connections I wouldn’t otherwise make. Sometimes those connections are ludicrous. [laughs] But sometimes they’re great. You’re like, Oh shit, I might not have thought of that, and it actually makes sense in the morning.
Are you a connoisseur? Do you know your Afghan Sour Kush from your Banana Candy?
I don’t pay attention to the strains that much, but I know they say sativa is more up and indica is more down. I don’t like the sleepy ones. I never get that, so I always buy sativa. Even though the tide is turning, I think marijuana is overly demonized in our culture. I do know people who let it get out of control and let it play a part in their lives that’s not beneficial. There’s definitely an addictive quality, but it’s psychological. It’s not physically addictive in the way cigarettes or alcohol are physically addictive.
Do you smoke when you’re making movies?
No. It’s illegal to smoke on sets because of insurance companies and stuff. And during breaks when I was shooting Snowden, for instance, I did it rarely. But I smoked with Oliver Stone a few times, which was awesome.
Wow. What was that like?
The experience you have when you’re smoking weed is so determined by the context and who is around you, which is why I don’t like smoking in large social settings. But with Oliver it was really nice because most of the time we were in this kind of high-stakes situation of working, and when we were smoking, we just smoked and watched a couple of movies a few times. We watched Paths of Glory, the Kubrick movie, and we watched Grand Hotel, with Barrymore and Garbo. Oliver’s a hilarious, fascinating dude—incredibly smart and good to hang out with. But he’s also very direct. He’s not afraid to challenge you, both at work and in social settings. He’ll say shit people don’t say. If I laughed at something while we were watching a movie, he would be like, “Why are you laughing?” Then you have to think about it for a second and say, “Well, I think maybe I identify with Greta Garbo’s sick ballerina character in some manner.” He’s always kind of nudging you.
How does smoking pot compare with your experience with other drugs, like, say, acid?
Well, acid’s a lot more intense. I consider both psychedelic and kind of the same thing. Your mind will make connections that you wouldn’t otherwise make. I remember having a vivid bird’s-eye view of where I was. Somehow, my vision went up above me, and not only could I see…. It wasn’t so much about myself. It was seeing a totality of how everything is all part of one thing, connected.
Your brother, Dan, died in 2010. How has that event shaped your life?
It’s an evolution. It changes. I let the change happen and try not to cling to any one idea or feeling. In coping with grief, my motto has tended to be “Don’t force anything, and don’t resist anything.”
My brother put so much gusto and flair and personality into whatever he did. His thing was to express himself without limits, and he encouraged others to do that. Burning Man was a watershed for him, and it changed everything. He was an introvert, but he said, “I’m not going to be introverted anymore. I’m going to get out there with people and be the best fire-spinner in the world. I’m going to make people happy.” And that’s exactly what he did. [starts to cry] People will walk up to me and say, “Your brother”—he and I looked very much alike—“I just want you to know your brother changed my life.” Dan inspired me so much to inspire other people to take creative risks at HitRECord.
You and Dan launched the production company in 2010 right before he died. Since then you’ve built a global community of makers and doers who collaborate on movies, books, shorts and a TV series on Pivot. Is this the future of media?
We currently think about media as something we passively consume, but what we’re moving toward is participatory media. That concept is very dear to me. The difference between just sitting and watching versus interacting and participating in something is really the mission of HitRECord. The idea of getting home after work, sitting down and just watching your media and not participating in it is unnatural and unhealthy. It’s like eating a bag of potato chips. My vision is not to just sit and watch but to throw in your two cents or to tell a new version of whatever story is being told.
So the future of entertainment is us?
It’s already happening. That’s how a television works. You can’t talk back to it exactly—not yet, anyway—but there is an input device. Our culture needs to catch up to the technology because we’re still trapped in the mind-set of passive consumer media. We’re getting to the end of the star era. For so long people said it’s only the stars who create. Only the super-best singers are supposed to sing. Only the super-best storytellers are supposed to tell stories. If I’m not as good as they are, then I should just shut up and listen. I don’t think that’s true.
You could argue there’s a downside to art when everyone’s a DJ or musician or talk-show host or filmmaker. There’s a ton of terrible content out there.
But that’s subjective. In high school my buddies and I used to get together and make goofy videos. It would take us an hour or so. We’d shoot it and then watch it and laugh our asses off, it was so funny. If you showed that to someone who wasn’t us, they’d probably call it garbage. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. The point is, you don’t know what’s going to emerge when you open the channels of communication and media—especially if you pay people. I’m really proud that we’ve paid out more than a million dollars to our contributors over the past five years. For some people it’s the first time they’ve gotten paid for their art.
That model hasn’t proven to be sustainable for the artist, though. Lots of digital-media companies pay contributors pennies on the dollar—or nothing—for work that used to be valuable, such as photography, design and journalism.
That’s a really important criticism. It’s one of the big stances Jaron Lanier takes in Who Owns the Future? There’s a sleight of hand going on with companies saying information wants to be free, so there’s no money to give you. Yeah, you generated these ideas and it’s intellectual property, it’s your music, it’s your videos—but we can’t pay. Meanwhile they’re making all this fucking money.
I’m not claiming I have the answer, but we are paying contributors, and I do think there are some radical solutions. Lanier talks about the idea of there being two-way web links. If that were the case, it would take starting the whole internet over, which is certainly ambitious, to say the least. But if links went two ways, then you could have a system where all this money that currently just basically goes to Google could be spread out among the different people who generated the content.
A Google search puts your net worth at $35 million.
Ha! I certainly don’t have that much money. But sure. Look, the last thing I want to do is deny that I live a privileged life. I do live a privileged life. And I don’t think money is the root of all evil. But I think the love of money is. If you’re making money because you have things you want to accomplish with that money, then money is a tool. If you’re making money because you just want to make more money, then that’s an endless black hole that leads down bad roads.
I’ve been fortunate, but there’s this whole other side to success that can be weird, frankly. You get into that extreme territory with everybody telling you how great you are, that everything you do is amazing, and you get into this nebulous territory where you can lose touch with reality. You can’t believe anybody, so you don’t really have any friends because all your relationships are predicated on a view of you as this supernova.
That’s been the downfall of countless celebrities, particularly child stars. Yet you somehow came through without many TMZ-worthy dramas.
I’ve always done my best to surround myself with people who are honest with me. It’s why I chose certain friends in high school and why those people are still close friends to me now. We hang out, we play basketball. I go to my parents’ house every weekend. These things keep you sane.
You also got married last year. How has that changed things?
[Fidgets] Yeah, again, I’m reluctant to talk about being married because I’m married to a woman who doesn’t like strangers being privy to her life and relationships.
She seems smart. She builds robots for NASA. But was marrying a celebrity the wisest choice?
[Laughs] We all bring different challenges to the table when we enter relationships. Certainly this is the challenge. You know, we kept our wedding a secret. It wasn’t that difficult because we didn’t tell many people about it. As much as some people may disagree, I don’t believe a person’s private life—even a person in entertainment—is a public performance. I also want very much to respect my wife’s wishes—and frankly mine too—that we keep our private life private.
Fair enough. Let’s move on. Do you want to do another big superhero movie?
Sure, if it’s good. Certainly the Nolan movies were good. Robert Downey’s Iron Man is pretty fucking brilliant. I really enjoyed Age of Ultron.
Are you looking forward to Ben Affleck as Batman?
[Raises eyebrows and smiles] Um, yeah.
That doesn’t sound convincing.
I think Ben Affleck’s a great actor. I also think it’s going to be very hard to follow Christian Bale.
What’s the status of the Sandman movie you’re producing based on the Neil Gaiman comic books?
I think about it pretty close to daily. What’s so cool is that Sandman is a superhero movie whose setting is the creative mind and whose “superhero”—and I would put that in quotes because he’s not exactly a superhero—is the embodiment of human ingenuity, creativity and dreams. It’s totally different from just a very powerful man who wants to fight crime. There’s nothing wrong with those movies, but something like this is stimulating for me on a whole other level and for the readers of Sandman. There’s not a single scene in a Sandman comic where he punches somebody. So come up with a spectacular action movie where no one punches anybody. It’s a challenge to write, but we’re getting there, and when we get there I think it’s going to be unique.
Which actors’ careers would you most like to emulate?
Jim Henson, Elon Musk. Wait, can you repeat the question?
Are there any actors you see as models for your career?
Oh, I don’t want to just be an actor. I love acting, and I always want to do it, but if that were the only thing I got to do I don’t think I’d be satisfied. I love the editing, producing and writing I do at HitRECord. I love making music. In the second season of HitRECord’s TV series, I did two songs. One’s a kind of Morrissey-inspired 1980s dance song, and one is a comedic R&B song.
What other music are you enjoying these days?
D’Angelo’s new album is probably my favorite in recent times. Newer acts: Flying Lotus, James Vincent McMorrow. But I largely listen to Nirvana, Brian Eno. I spend a fair amount of time on Spotify, though I feel bad about it because I know artists are getting the short end of the stick. Then again, it’s a great way to discover music. The internet can provide us with wondrous little pieces of brain candy all day long if we want it to.
What are your online rabbit holes?
Well, I’ve certainly experienced what it’s like to go down a rabbit hole with pornography. I think most young men my age have experienced what that’s like. I wrote a movie about that. Don Jon is probably the most transformative of any movie I’ve done. That character is the most different from me, and I’m proud of that from an acting-performance standpoint. I’m also proud of what it says about sex, about guys, about compulsions.
Your character would rather watch porn than have sex with Scarlett Johansson. Isn’t that asking a lot from your audience in terms of suspending disbelief?
[Laughs] Actually, the reason I wanted the character of Jon to be with the hottest girl in the world is to illustrate the concept that it’s not about how hot she is. I’m not saying beauty is only skin deep. That’s a different argument. The argument is when your sexuality is defined by pornography or, on the other side, when your idea of romance is defined by movies or any number of other things—when your mentality gets defined by media, one-way media, consumer media—you are nothing but a passive receiver. Regardless of how hot the girl is, just by virtue of the fact that Jon has to interact with her means she’s not as hot for him as the one-way street of pornography.
Doing publicity for that movie, you were frank about being someone who masturbates.
Oh, big news, folks!
But it’s rare for celebrities to actually talk about it.
I think it’s worth talking about, so I’m happy to lubricate the conversation, so to speak. What’s interesting is that people were sometimes resistant to talking about it as it pertained to me. Most interviewers didn’t even ask me about it, even though masturbation and porn are the themes of the movie. It goes back to the thing I was talking about earlier. Throughout my life of being an actor I’ve seen the way mainstream media impact people, and there’s this myth that gets sold of the celebrity world on the other side of the screen. I guess it doesn’t fit with their preconceived notions that someone like me would jerk off. [laughs]
Okay, we will ask about it. What has been your experience with masturbating to porn? Any downsides?
I’ve thought about that quite a bit. What it mostly comes down to—besides the specifics of what you’re into or do you like more of this body part or that fetish—is whether you’re having too much of a passive experience versus an interactive one. When I say interactive I don’t mean, like, a porn video game. I mean interacting with another human being—and not by webcam. Whether you’re watching the Victoria’s Secret show on CBS or hardcore porn of two girls with three guys or whatever else it is that gets you off, you have to recognize it’s a different mode from being with another human being. If you get used to getting a boner and jerking off without having another person there, you run the risk of not knowing how to truly interact once you’re actually in bed with someone. Sex is good only if you have that two-way feedback cycle.
What’s ahead for you? Anyone you’re dying to collaborate with?
There are the obvious ones like the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Any of those would be a dream. I’d love to work with Louis C.K. His show is probably my favorite in contemporary culture, maybe because I have a dark sense of humor. But he’s also heartfelt and insightful. There’s a really talented filmmaker named Ryan Coogler, who made Fruitvale Station. I’d love to work with him. Through Ryan I got turned on to the work of another guy, Terence Nance. He does these brilliant short pieces. So many people to work with, so little time.
You’ve been in show business since the age of six. What motivates you to keep working?
I really enjoy it. That’s at the top of the list. But I try to find the balance between being motivated for myself and for the whole team, the 7 billion of us on the planet. People think there’s nothing really important about movies or music or what you could call culture. There’s nothing sacred about it. It’s considered snooty to think this stuff matters nowadays, but I believe it does. I’m not saying it matters more than other things, but it matters to me, and it’s part of being human. That’s enough for me.