For his latest role, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an asshole. In Super Pumped, and the nonfiction book on which the new series is based, Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, is an asshole – and proud of it. As the mercurial tech bro who co-founded the now ubiquitous ride-sharing app at 32, Gordon-Levitt is firing on all cylinders. Hyperdriven, hyperactive, hyper-everything. It’s a jittery portrayal of a man coked-up on his own ambition. The actor quietly noodling in front of me today bears no resemblance to this man. Gordon-Levitt – arms by his side and posture straight as a pin – is Zen. Less “super pumped” than, say, gently animated.
Twenty years ago, few people could have guessed that Gordon-Levitt would ever play such a role. That no one today can call Kalanick an atypical part for the actor is perhaps a testament to his diverse career. A native of Los Angeles, Gordon-Levitt began doing ads for Cocoa Puffs, Pop-Tarts and Sunny Jim peanut butter when he was a toddler. At the age of 10, he appeared opposite Brad Pitt in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. But it wasn’t until his role in the hit sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun that Gordon-Levitt’s baby face and impish grin became nationally known. (Both qualities I can confirm are yet to budge even at 41 years old.)
Leaving 3rd Rock at 19, Gordon-Levitt seemed destined for a future of romcoms. He made some. Most memorably, he was a lovesick puppy in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, and then the soft boy-turned-villain of (500) Days of Summer a decade later. But he also veered into offbeat indies (Brick; Mysterious Skin) and appeared in his fair share of biopics (Snowden chief among them). Along the way there have been plenty of blockbusters, too (Looper, Inception, The Dark Knight), as well as classy studio fare (The Trial of the Chicago 7).
Over video, Gordon-Levitt possesses a duality reminiscent of his IMDb page. He can come across as both genuinely open and intensely guarded. The practised calm in his speech calls to mind other big stars who have similarly got away with privacy in an age of relentless gossip. With Gordon-Levitt, there is a willingness to go some places but certainly not all. He’s had three decades to draw his boundaries.
Unlike any number of his child star contemporaries, Gordon-Levitt ascended to dizzying heights unscathed. When I say this to him, he laughs and cocks an eyebrow as if to say, “If only you knew!” Well, relatively unscathed at least. He managed this partly by disavowing the leading-man roles expected of him early on. When in 2004 – after completing “half a Bachelor’s degree” in French at Columbia University in New York – he chose to take on Gregg Araki’s queer indie drama Mysterious Skin instead of another big money romcom, he effectively let go of fame’s live wire. Certainly, a very well-adjusted decision for someone famous and feted at 19. “I’d love to take credit for some early wisdom but I don’t think that’s true.” Money was a consideration, he adds. Or more specifically, the fact it had never been one. “I was lucky that my dad was earning a living such that we never wanted for anything,” says Gordon-Levitt, whose father had worked as the news editor of LA’s progressive KPFK radio station. “And I had made a bunch of money being on 3rd Rock so I could really just follow my creative desire. I loved those Sundance movies; that’s what I felt compelled to do. I wasn’t inspired to do another sitcom even though I could have made more money – but to what end?”
He pauses for a moment before answering his own question. “You can always make more money but why? Do you ever arrive at the end of the rainbow? And it’s not just money. Think of any time you’ve tried to measure your happiness with a number. The same things happen with followers and likes on social media. There is no end to that craving for more and more numbers so you have to jump out of that hamster wheel.” The hamster wheel is a hamster wheel for a reason, though, and it takes work to get off. Let alone stay off. “Frankly, it’s always been a struggle,” he says. “I’m not immune to how seductive those desires are. I’m aware of myself doing that all the time.” He pauses a moment before connecting this personal quality of his to humankind’s ancestral instinct to survive and reproduce via social approval.
These are the moments when Gordon-Levitt comes alive: when he is speaking about the –isms of life; the capital-I issues. It’s a physical change. There’s a loosening of his shoulders and a hinging at the waist that brings his body closer to the camera. A silent exhale of relief that he isn’t being asked about his personal life. Gordon-Levitt has been in the business long enough to pivot to these wider subjects with all the grace of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist he played in 2015’s The Walk. One second we’re speaking about his childhood, the next it’s society’s myriad ills.
The truth is Gordon-Levitt never had the stomach for fame – and every year, the dreaded “teen celebrity conference” would remind him of that. He grimaces when I bring it up: three words that elicit memories of flashing cameras and questions that were at once asinine and intrusive. Gordon-Levitt recalls one conversation he had at 14 with a reporter who told him he didn’t look happy to be there. “I replied, ‘I think this is all pornography.’ She didn’t know what I meant by it but what I meant is that fame is objectifying in the way that pornography is objectifying to the people in pornography.” Decades later, Gordon-Levitt fed those experiences into a directorial debut no one expected: 2013’s Don Jon in which he played an oiled up gym junkie from New Jersey with a porn addiction. “Media has more overlap with pornography than we might care to admit,” he continues. “Social media is all very pornographic.” And by pornographic, he clarifies, he doesn’t necessarily mean sex. “Although, sex obviously comes into it.”
“I mean the system of how social media works, these machine-learning algorithms that lead to sensationalism, reductionism, tribalism, extremism, authoritarianism. All those things, what they have in common with pornography is that they stiumlate the limbic system. They hit here –” Gordon-Levitt pounds his chest with his fist, harder than you’d expect so that it makes a hollow thwomp – “They’re not aimed at your cerebral cortex, not aimed at your slower-thinking muscles. They’re aimed at your quick primal emotions because that’s what will keep you hooked and that’s what will allow the platform to serve you more ads and make more money.” The more successful the platform, the more pornographic, he reckons. “It plays into the decision-making process at Facebook or ByteDance [the company that owns TikTok], this need for constant growth at whatever cost.”
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Of course, Gordon-Levitt has sympathy for child stars today but really he has sympathy for anyone with an Instagram account. “The pitfalls that were in front of me as a teenager dealing with the kind of fame that came from being on TV, those pitfalls are now just offered to everybody with a phone,” he says, adding that tech companies have no incentive to encourage moderation among its users. More addiction; more ads; more money. “They’ll make some gestures at moderation,” he shrugs. “Apple is probably the company that most tries to moderate the excess that comes with some of its new technology. But really these are small measures compared to what needs to be done.” They’ll never make real changes of their own accord, he concludes. “If they were to do that, it would spell their own demise.”
Gordon-Levitt has a lot of thoughts on Big Tech – possibly because of his role in Super Pumped, but you also get a sense that the subject interested him long before that. “There’s a current that runs through Silicon Valley, certainly not all of it but some of it, that takes human agency out of technology. There’s a sort of deification of technology. It almost gets personified – and when you take the human person out of the equation, that’s no good.” I mention it’s a funny coincidence he says so because only an hour before our conversation Elon Musk had tweeted: “Some hate humanity, but I love humanity so much.”
It brings us to the topic of Musk’s controversial Twitter takeover. Gordon-Levitt has this to say about it: “The main thing I’ve seen him say that is concerning is this idea of quote unquote absolute free speech, which to me is faulty because Twitter is not neutral in the first place. If Twitter were truly a neutral platform where everybody had an equal voice I might understand the notion of not having moderation but it’s not because of the way the business works, the way it’s driven by advertising and what we talked about before…” He stops short, slows down, reconsiders his answer. “Look, here’s the thing. I’m not an expert in this and these conversations… You and I, we’re having a conversation in the context of entertainment news, you know? I can give you my opinion but if we were serious about improving public discourse or improving Twitter, this conversation would have to be much slower and more boring.” These are exactly the sort of subjects that can’t be reduced to hot takes, is his point. “It shouldn’t be scintillating entertainment.”
Expert or not, at times the smooth baritone of Gordon-Levitt’s voice channels the conversational style of a podcast host. Or a show that would air on NPR or LBC. The fact his parents, both Jewish intellectuals, met while working on a leftwing radio station is not lost on me. All of this – the passion, the charisma, the fanbase – would bode well for a budding politician? Gordon-Levitt is quick to assure me that he is most definitely not one of those.
It wouldn’t be a big leap to think so, though. Matthew McConaughey, Kanye West, Dwayne Johnson and Cynthia Nixon are among the A-listers to have at the very least considered decamping from Hollywood to the White House. “When the 2016 election happened, I think every entertainer in the industry was like, ‘Oh, well if Trump can do it, why can’t I?’” He chuckles before becoming serious again. “I don’t think that’s the life for me. I like my privacy a lot. And I like my family’s privacy a lot.” As if to demonstrate that very fondness, Gordon-Levitt pirouettes the conversation outwards again. “I wish that our government was less focused on these personality-driven popularity contests. Politics has all become a big show. We all discuss politics as if it’s entertainment.”
Gordon-Levitt’s values appear at odds with Kalanick’s – who, from the conversation we’re having, seems to stand for everything that Gordon-Levitt loathes about the world. My words, not his. In Super Pumped, when Kalanick is not exploiting passengers for profit with a “safe-ride surcharge” or authorising the use of a “God View” tool that allows his employees to spy on passengers without permission, he is making comments about the “Boob-er” effect that his success has had on his dating life or berating drivers from the backseat. (All true events, by the way.) Plus, he says things like “hashtag winning” unironically. It’s interesting then that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t consider Kalanick a villain. “I think as soon as you step outside a character and judge them, you render something thin,” he says, adding that he spoke to a lot of people who could attest to Kalanick’s strengths as well as weaknesses. “Travis played the game better than anybody – Uber is the fastest growing start-up in the world – but he didn’t make up the rules to the game.” The game, he clarifies, is to maximise profits at all costs. “So I think the more worthwhile conversation to be having is, why are we so driven to have such extreme wins? So that everything else becomes disposable in this Machiavellian way. It’s much more difficult and complicated to talk about and certainly much harder to change, but I think that is the task at hand.” Another topic best served by a long discussion, perhaps.
When his son – the first of two – was born in 2015, Gordon-Levitt took two years off to be a dad. It was the longest break he had taken since he was six years old, and yet there were still concerns about what 730 days offscreen may do to his career. “I told my agent that I was gonna have kids and I wanted to take a bunch of time off and he said, ‘I think that’s wonderful and you should do that but it’s my job to tell you what the consequences are going to be; your career will be impacted by that break,’” he recalls now. And was his agent right? “Definitely. My career was and is impacted by the decision I made.” But if there were any shadow of a regret, he assures me with a Cheshire grin that he’d do it again. “It was so worth it.”
The two-year hiatus may have stalled his career (although a quick scan of his IMDb suggests not by much), but Gordon-Levitt dismisses any suggestion that his ticking age may also be a factor. “Oh no,” he shakes his head. “The prejudice certainly favours men in that regard, which is highly problematic, for sure. I’m 41 and there’s still plenty of roles for me but there’s certainly fewer roles for women as they get into their forties.” Gordon-Levitt confesses that his position as a man in Hollywood means he is actually able to enjoy ageing in the industry. “I’ve always welcomed that change. Really, many of my favourite performances from actors are older characters,” he says. “I’m in the middle-ground now. I don’t get to play the bright-eyed bushy tailed guy any more but I’m playing the ethically questionable CEO and I love that. When I was 17, I would have loved to play the ethically questionable CEO,” he laughs.
Achieving longevity in Hollywood is rare but Gordon-Levitt has pulled it off. Against the odds, his baby face has endured. “I started out as Fred Savage in ‘The Princess Bride’, and hopefully I’ll eventually get to be Peter Falk.”
The first three episodes of ‘Super Pumped’ will be available to watch on Paramount+ on 22 June, with the four remaining episodes arriving weekly on Wednesdays