In ‘Mr. Corman,’ Joseph Gordon-Levitt Looks Inward and Asks, ‘What If?’
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the first to admit he’s had it pretty good. He has had a wildly successful acting career on stages and screens spanning …
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the first to admit he’s had it pretty good. He has had a wildly successful acting career on stages and screens spanning over three decades. He sings, dances, writes and directs, and he does a decent Nirvana cover. He has a wife and two kids and he hardly seems to age.
But in his new dramatic comedy series, “Mr. Corman,” he plays a game of “What if?”
What if he hadn’t been so fortunate?
What if he had been passed over instead of landing a breakout role as an alien boy on the beloved NBC sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun”? What if he had grown up with only one parent, or his anxiety — a frequent but not debilitating challenge — had been a little worse?
“I’m really lucky to be me,” said Gordon-Levitt, who created, directed and stars in the new series, which premieres Aug. 6 on Apple TV+. “Lots of people work really hard and haven’t reaped my rewards.”
Now, at age 40, he seems determined with “Mr. Corman” to reflect upon that luck — to take stock of his own accomplishments, his own anxieties and even his own unfulfilled dreams. (They do exist.) It is the most personal project of his career, he said, “a culmination of everything I learned in my life about making art and telling stories.”
Call it a twist on middle-age artistic musing that could only come from a grown-up Hollywood wunderkind who never peaked — an existential search for what might not have been as a path to deeper meaning.
The 10-episode series, which follows his onscreen alter ego’s struggles with adulthood and disappointment, is less a plot-driven hero’s journey than an exploration of his character’s psyche — and by extension, his own. Like Gordon-Levitt, his character, Josh Corman, cherishes an unfulfilled ambition of becoming a rock star. (Gordon-Levitt himself sings and plays guitar.) Unlike Gordon-Levitt, Josh has failed thus far to accomplish his dreams, having given up on music to become a fifth grade public-school teacher.
Josh has also failed to launch in other ways. After his fiancée leaves him, he ends up living with his high school buddy Victor (Arturo Castro). And Josh has another companion, whose presence Gordon-Levitt takes pains to highlight without stigmatizing: deep-seated anxiety that occasionally leaves him panicked and gasping for breath.
While some aspects of Josh’s life are drastic departures from his creator’s — for starters, Gordon-Levitt has been married for six years, and had two supportive parents — the character’s mental health struggles weren’t hard for Gordon-Levitt to channel. He acknowledged that while he does not have a clinical anxiety disorder, he struggles often with “my brain going around in circles, feeling bad about myself.”
In other words, it’s no accident that Josh Corman — Gordon-Levitt’s first regular role on a scripted TV series in two decades — and Joseph Gordon have such similar sounding names.
“When I’m playing Josh, I don’t have to think about what to do,” he said in a recent video call from New Zealand, where he had been living with his family since October. “I know.”
LIKE HIS CHARACTER IN “MR. CORMAN,” Gordon-Levitt grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in Los Angeles. But their timelines quickly diverge from there. Gordon-Levitt was a child star, having landed almost two dozen films and TV roles before his big break on “3rd Rock,” in 1996. Among them, he played the orphan whose prayers help his favorite team win a pennant in the 1994 Disney film “Angels in the Outfield.”
But even then, he wasn’t interested only in being in front of the camera. On sets, he was intrigued by what every member of the crew was doing.
“Whether they were matching the props, or they were setting up the lights or the camera, I was fascinated with the whole process,” he said.
Acting ultimately won his heart: From 2007 to 2016, he was part of at least one favorably reviewed film every year, including scene-stealing performances as Leonardo DiCaprio’s right-hand man in Christopher Nolan’s visually arresting “Inception” and as a young contract killer in Rian Johnson’s 2012 time-traveling epic, “Looper.”
His collaborators are among Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights: Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Robert Zemeckis. He added Aaron Sorkin to the list last year by playing the conflicted young prosecutor in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Zemeckis, who directed Gordon-Levitt as the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit in “The Walk” in 2015, said that Gordon-Levitt had a singular commitment to immersion. Before filming began, Gordon-Levitt trained for eight straight days with Petit in a warehouse — and came away having learned how to walk on a wire.
Zemeckis was flabbergasted.
“Going in, I had it all planned,” Zemeckis said, outlining his designs for staging Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. “We’d have stunt people, wire-walking doubles, C.G.I. effects and rigs where the performer was actually walking on a big, thick blue screen plank that we’d then remove and put the wire under his feet.”
“But it was so much more magnificent when he could actually do it from 12 feet up!”
Gordon-Levitt was also learning behind the camera. He directed his first feature film in 2013, the romantic comedy “Don Jon,” in which he plays a pornography addict who can’t deal with the living, breathing women who end up in his bed. The film was a critical and commercial success — and left him with a taste for more.
But he knew he had more to master.
“I’ve since become more collaborative,” he said. “One thing I’ve noticed great directors have in common is the ability to balance their own vision with input from others.”
While he tended toward careful calibration of each moment in “Don Jon,” choreographing tightly the length of each pause, he wanted to wanted to open the door to spontaneity for “Mr. Corman.”
So, on the new series he made the takes longer, letting the actors breathe and improvise.
“We have far fewer cuts in ‘Mr. Corman’ than most shows and movies,” Gordon-Levitt said. “And part of that is wanting to really make it an actors-forward show.”
He asked for suggestions. He didn’t fret if things didn’t turn out exactly how he had planned. Like, say, when a pandemic shut down production just three weeks into shooting in Los Angeles.
But he worked quickly with producers to come up with a solution: relocating the Valley about 7,000 miles southwest to New Zealand, where coronavirus cases were low and where the government had opened its borders to some international filmmakers and actors.
“At first, I thought he was joking,” said Debra Winger, who plays his mother on the show and dances with him across a rooftop in a “La La Land”-like song and dance number he co-wrote with Nathan Johnson for Episode 3. “But then I realized he meant it. So I threw up one arm and said, ‘Adventure!’”
But Gordon-Levitt didn’t try merely to reconstruct a mini-Hollywood when production resumed in Wellington in November. Castro, who plays his friend and roommate, said that Gordon-Levitt went all in, from researching Maori culture to hiring a local film crew.
“The Kiwi crew was so sweet — the only problem was they would pronounce ‘yes’ like ‘yeese,’” Castro said, noting he picked up the habit himself. “I ruined a couple of takes with that. Joe would be like, ‘Hey, man, we’re supposed to be in the Valley.’”
On the subject of mental health, it was important to Gordon-Levitt that “Mr. Corman” treat Josh’s anxiety with complexity and compassion — starting with the recognition that anxiety doesn’t always care about success or upbringing.
“We wanted to normalize it and show a guy who has a relatively secure and safe life, and yet here he is wrestling with anxiety,” he said, adding: “That’s normal. And if you relate, it’s not because you’re weird or broken or that you ought to be ashamed.”
The show was also an opportunity for him to present a more complex picture of Valley life, particularly by showcasing Latino stories — like that of Castro’s character, a divorced young father — in an authentic way. The fourth episode (“Mr. Morales”) is devoted almost entirely to Castro’s character and is one of two in the series that Aurora Guerrero, a Chicana filmmaker from California, directed.
“The approach to that was subverting what we tend to see in the mainstream when it comes to Latino characters — a white male lead with a character of color as a sidekick,” she said. “It’s a slice of life. He’s a divorcé and a father, and he’s struggling to understand his daughter.”
Castro put it this way: “The character just happens to be Latin. But that doesn’t define his experience in life. It’s just who he is.”
GIVEN THE PROMINENCE of anxiety, loneliness and unfulfilled dreams in Mr. Corman’s story, this might be a good place for a reminder that “Mr. Corman” is, at its heart, a comedy. Amid the angst in “Mr. Corman,” there is creativity. Amid the disappointment, humor.
“I want people to enjoy themselves and laugh while they watch the show,” Gordon-Levitt said.
And there is joy: Chalk it up to the show’s inspiration, which, as Gordon-Levitt explained, wasn’t having gotten lost in some dark wood of the soul as he approached middle age. It was his elation at becoming a father in 2015, which spurred both gratitude and self-searching — the “what ifs.”
“I felt so, so lucky,” he said, adding: “I realized, I’m the adult now. “I wasn’t looking ahead any longer. It was like, I’m here.”
But what does an artist do with those feelings of gratitude, of wanting to slow down, to be present? That he felt the need to do anything was itself a fertile tension and a recurring theme of our conversation. From gratitude sprang existential anxiety. But from that sprang artistic impetus.
If Mr. Corman embodied the rich potential of those paradoxes, then “Mr. Corman,” it was clear, had been Gordon-Levitt’s way of realizing that potential for himself — it was his “personal essence, distilled,” as he put it.
“It’s probably the most me-ish thing I’ve ever made,” he said.