'Don Jon': How Joseph Gordon-Levitt wooed Scarlett Johansson for his sexy passion project

It was summer of 2011, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt arrived in New Mexico hoping to catch a Black Widow.

The actor had arranged a meeting with Scarlett Johansson, who was in Albuquerque filming The Avengers, and though he played it casual, this encounter would be a critical part of getting his first film as a writer-director off the ground. The two had crossed paths before, but didn’t know each other well. He was hoping she would take a chance on him.

This is how he won her over for the sexy satire Don Jon, which opens today, starring the two of them as a young New Jersey couple who are dazed, confused, and underwhelmed by their own fantasies.

Even though Gordon-Levitt hadn’t made a feature before, Johansson knew his work from hitRECord, the crowdsourced storytelling operation he founded. “I knew a little about his work as a director from seeing the shorts that he worked on, all the videos he’d done,” she said.  “And I’m such a fan of his as an actor. Plus, I’ve always been a fan of the actor-director combo.”

Johansson was open-minded, but Gordon-Levitt didn’t do a hard sell. “So he came down and we met and really got to know each other. We didn’t even talk about the project all that much, but he left the script with me,” she said.

The movie is about a guy who is obsessed with porn, and his girlfriend who is equally obsessed with Hollywood romantic comedies. Neither is getting what they want out of life, which fails to measure up to their expectations.

If Don Jon had been an actual porn film, or a goofy romantic comedy, it would have had a much easier time getting a green light.

Superheroes to the Rescue

“It is difficult to raise money for any movie nowadays,” Gordon-Levitt says. “It’s especially difficult to raise money for one that’s a little bit out of the box. The business side works on precedent. ‘Look, XYZ movie is a hit. This one is like that one.’ That’s what business people want to know because they have their equations. They have — no joke —  mathematical formulas that break down movies into these categories. A hundred categories, genres, and story elements — and they look at that, along with the cast’s past box office [earnings.]“

While Don Jon was not, say, as easy a sell as a superhero film, both he and Johansson had those types of films in the works, building up box-office credit with the investors who controlled the budget Gordon-Levitt would need.

When Johansson said yes, that was the tipping point that helped him and producer Ram Bergman get the independent financing they’d need to push Don Jon into becoming a reality. (The finished film was later purchased by Relativity Media when it played the Sundance Film Festival.)

“Because I’d been in Inception, and because The Dark Knight Rises hadn’t come out yet, but it was going to come out, and because of Scarlett’s name, and because The Avengers was going to come out, when she and I were attached to the script, that was it,” he says. “I owe a great deal of credit to Scarlett, who got on board before anybody, before we even had our financing. Her making that commitment was a huge part of us being able to do it.”

Johansson says she was won over because the way Gordon-Levitt talked about her character reminded her a lot of girls she knew as a kid — obsessed with the perfect husband, the perfect life, and happily ever afters. All while snapping their gum and speaking in that very distinctive voice, of course.

“It was great to work with Joe to finally utilize my experience growing up in New York City, and knowing those Jersey girls, you know? She’s that kind of girl who is perfectly manicured and really a class act. A girl you want to bring home to your mother,” Johansson says. “The accent represents that community, like ‘So what? I’m a loud Jersey girl. You got somethin’ to say about it?’ There’s a bit of a loud, entitled sound to it. There is also a certain kind of warmth and openness.”

Touchy Subject Matter

The porn element didn’t scare her.

“It’s less of a faux pas now than it was before,” Johansson says. “But oddly in other ways we’re quite conservative [as a society]. You can’t even show a boob on the screen without being totally rejected by the [ratings] board, making it basically impossible for anyone to see your film,” she says. “It’s a subject that might be less of a hot topic, something we can talk about in some ways. But in other ways, we live in a very conservative society.”

Her character Barbara is outraged and disgusted by Jon’s fascination with porn. This would definitely never happen to one of the women in her favorite rom-coms, and those squeaky-clean romances are what she yearns for in her own relationship. (You can see this illustrated in the clip above, featuring cameos from JGL friends Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway.)

“She feels like the movies and stories she’s so wrapped up in really deserve to happen to her,” Johansson says. “She’s living vicariously through these idealized and oversimplified characters and stories that allow her to rationalize her oversimplification of romance in general. ‘It’s happening up there onscreen, why isn’t it happening to me?’ I’m sure a lot of people disappear into those kinds of fantasies.”

Since she’s such a movie fan, what would her Don Jon character think of the actress Scarlett Johansson?

“Oh man, I don’t know if she’d have seen any of my movies!” Johansson says with a laugh. “She would have to be dragged to a superhero movie. But she’d be be admiring my cat suit, I guess.”

She might watch The Avengers waiting for Captain America and Black Widow to kiss already.

“Right,” Johansson says. “She’d be wanting more romance.”

in_this_issue0925For more on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly on sale now and check out an exclusive interview with Gordon-Levitt on our Facebook page.

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