In Don Jon, which won praise at its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January and opens in theaters everywhere Friday, Gordon-Levitt plays a Jersey boy, a modern-day Lothario who dutifully works out in the gym, goes to confession, eats pasta with his family, picks up and beds down a parade of women, and, in just about every other waking moment, flips open his laptop and heads for the porn sites.
And then he meets Barbara - a tube-dressed, super-coiffed, beguiling Scarlett Johansson. Finally, this could be something serious, he thinks. If only she doesn't find out about his porn fixation.
"Jon is a character who treats everybody like a thing, whether it's the women in his life, or his friends, or his family, or his church," he says. "Everybody is sort of a thing, an object to put on a shelf, at the beginning of the movie. And then, hopefully, by the end, he begins to break out of that a bit and connect more with people."
Gordon-Levitt said that even as he was writing Don Jon, he had Johansson in mind for the key role.
"I always was picturing Scarlett playing this part. . . . And she brought so much more to it than I even thought she would, but I was pretty confident that she would be great. I was a fan of her work from Lost in Translation and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Man Who Wasn't There. And even her hosting Saturday Night Live - she's great, and not every movie actor knows how to handle SNL.
"So, I was always a fan, and I also think she's perfect because she does occupy a sort of particular position in pop culture. She's a very smart person, she's a very talented artist, and yet a lot of what people talk about is her looks. And yes, she's very good-looking, but there's so much more to her than that . . . .
"That was a big part of why she was keen to play this part and satirize that aspect of our culture."
Don Jon, which was originally titled Don Jon's Addiction, also boasts a pivotal turn from Julianne Moore, playing a woman Gordon-Levitt's character runs into at a community college night class.
"Julianne, she's just been in some of my favorite movies of all time. She's such a terrific actress, whether it's Magnolia or The Big Lebowski or Far From Heaven or Safe or Short Cuts - so many great, great movies, and she brings such heart and honesty to all of her characters. That was really important. . . . And I was just flattered and honored that she read the script and liked it. I felt very fortunate."
Although the seed of the idea for Don Jon goes back five years or so, it wasn't until Gordon-Levitt was in Vancouver making 50/50 - the 2011 comedy with Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick about a guy diagnosed with cancer - that everything clicked.
" 50/50 is a comedy that is not all about the jokes," Gordon-Levitt explains, on the phone from Boston recently. "The humor comes from the people in the story, the characters, the human beings.
"And then I thought of trying to tell this story in that tone, finding the humor in what could be seen as a dark situation, and I started thinking of this version of a contemporary Don Juan character."
He adds: "The idea of me playing this guy with the gym body and shiny hair made me laugh. . . . It felt like a challenge, and it felt funny."
And the idea of directing himself? How did that feel? Daunting?
"There's no room for doubt," he insists, conceding that he did have his doubts earlier in the writing process.
"You know, those voices in your head: 'Maybe this isn't the one I should do. I don't know if I'm really good enough to do this, other people could do this better' - you always have those feelings, those thoughts. I think anybody who's making anything has those thoughts and feelings. And I certainly did."
But then Gordon-Levitt finished the first draft of his script and showed it to Rian Johnson, his director on Looper and Brick. "And when Rian said you really have something here, from that point forward I was resolved to leave my doubts aside and finish the thing."
It didn't hurt any that he had spent 2011 working with Johnson, and with Christopher Nolan on Inception and Steven Spielberg on Lincoln. Formidable directors, all.
"I was certainly paying a lot of attention to what they were doing," he says. "But I also have always been really fascinated with every facet of the moviemaking process. The truth is that an actor's performance is not just made by the actor. So much of that performance has to do with the camera, the editing, the music, et cetera. . . . And with Don Jon, I was just envisioning all of those elements together while I was writing it and figured, I should direct this.
"I know how I want to shoot it. I know how I want to cut it. I know how I want to score it. I should just do it."
And do it he did.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.