When Joseph Gordon-Levitt was 12 years old and shooting "Angels in the Outfield," one of his co-stars, Tony Danza, asked him if he'd like to hang out during some down time.
"No," replied the boy, who had more serious plans. "I have to go follow the director around."
Danza breaks into laughter telling the story, because it's that same ambitious youngster, now 32, who's given him his latest movie job. Danza plays the father in "Don Jon," Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut. Which he also wrote. And stars in.
"What can I say? He's a guy with a strong vision, and real self-assuredness," Danza says. "I'm really proud of the kid."
You can forgive Danza for calling his director a "kid." Because, despite his long resume, which includes working with some of Hollywood's top filmmakers in movies like "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises" (Christopher Nolan) and "Lincoln" (Steven Spielberg), Gordon-Levitt still looks in many ways like, well, a kid. Just like the kid (er, alien posing as one) he played on "3rd Rock From the Sun," with a boyish face that, if not grinning, always looks like it's about to.
Which is one reason audiences may be surprised at the choice he made for his debut: a dark, edgy comedy about porn addiction — a film that had to be carefully edited to avoid an NC-17 rating. Not only is "Don Jon" not a safe, traditional romantic comedy, it's a movie that provocatively suggests that those romantic comedies are just as addictive and destructive to real relationships as porn.
But if you think tackling such a heavy subject – and in such a high-profile way — made Gordon-Levitt even a little insecure or nervous, think again. Talk about self-assured: We're quite sure he's one of the only movie stars to invoke the name of late philosopher Martin Buber while promoting a film.
"I can't say I've read all of Buber," Gordon-Levitt confesses in an interview. "But he talks about the 'thou' vs. the 'it.' And that's the crux of Don Jon: he's a guy who sees everything, even people, as an 'it,' not a 'you.' Don Jon objectifies everything in his life — his car, his apartment, women of course, his family, even his friends."
Obviously, the intensely likable Gordon-Levitt — like Hugh Jackman, he's virtually impossible NOT to like — wasn't afraid to take on an unappealing character. He plays Jon Martello, a New Jersey gym rat with bulging biceps, shiny hair full of "product," a smooth way of getting the ladies to bed, and, most of all, an addiction to Internet porn. Many scenes are devoted to Jon's pleasuring himself in front of a laptop.
Of course, there's more to the story: through relationships with two key women, the film explores just what men and women should expect from each other. Scarlett Johansson plays Jon's dream girl — a "dime," he says in his crass 1-10 rating system. Julianne Moore is the quirky, blunt older woman he meets in night school.
The mere fact that on a low budget — "one-hundredth of a 'Batman' budget," he says — Gordon-Levitt was able to secure such a high-powered cast is a tribute to his growing clout and his network of friends. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson in mind, and she was one of the first to read the script.
As for "Boogie Nights" star Moore, her first thought was, "Ugh, porn!"
"But then I realized it wasn't about porn at all," she says. "It's a film about a personal ideology, that real life and authenticity are the most important things. I think he had something really important to say about how people are defined by things."
Ask Gordon-Levitt if he ever doubted that he could, or would, serve as director-writer-star of "Don Jon," and his answer is disarmingly succinct: "Nope!"
For one thing, he explains, he's been making short films for years, ever since he bought himself a 21st birthday present of Final Cut Pro, the video editing software. "I've made literally hundreds," he says. "And a lot of them, I'm in."
As a writer, he adds, he spent five years on the "Don Jon" script, so he felt supremely comfortable with the character. And as an actor, his ease with comedy is obvious — just check out his "Saturday Night Live" stints — a skill he attributes to years on "3rd Rock," which he says was like working in theater. Some of the best scenes in "Don Jon," in fact, are like little plays, centered around the family dinner table.
Finally, he notes, "Whatever people say, filmmaking is an extremely collaborative endeavor, and I was surrounded by really great people."
That may sound like a stock line, but for Gordon-Levitt, collaboration is actually a mantra. As his fans well know, he has an online collaborative production company called hitRECord; earlier this year he announced a partnership with the new cable network Pivot for a hitRECord variety show, featuring films, live performances, and virtually everything else.
Often, movie stars seek distance from their fans, but Gordon-Levitt invites virtually anyone to come join him by submitting their work, or just their opinions.
As if he doesn't already have lots to do, he promises to "be on there every day."
"He's always been very self-directed," sums up Moore.
In more ways than one, clearly.