PARK CITY, Utah - The sinewy, slick-haired character Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays in his directorial debut, Don Jon's Addiction, has his eyes trained firmly on objects.
"He's very into his things," says Gordon-Levitt, 31. "Everything in his life is an object for consumption."
Not only are women objects to Jon Martello (aka "Don Jon"), but he's fastidious about his muscle car, his sterile apartment, his bulging biceps and washboard abs.
But the real Gordon-Levitt, who wrote, directed and stars in Don Jon's Addiction - which played to much fanfare at the Sundance Film Festival - is much more focused on human nature.
In the middle of an interview just after his film's premiere, he spots his mother in a crowded room and excuses himself politely: "I just have to go talk to my mom." He rushes off to wrap her in a big bear hug and returns five minutes later.
"She said she loved it, which means the world to me," he says. "She read the script, but she hadn't seen any of the cuts. You know a lot of what's in this movie is stuff that I learned from her. She was very much an activist in the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s and always brought me up to not look at women for their bodies and stuff. So that's the numero uno person that I wanted to like the movie."
Based on the cheering at the Sundance premiere, a lot of others liked the movie, too, which is about a guy obsessed with porn, preferring it to sex with real women, until he begins to figure himself out.
Though he's made several short films and videos, this is Gordon-Levitt's first time as a feature screenwriter/director.
"I felt the confidence to do this because I've made a lot of shorts," he says.
But what scared him most about the process was writing the script.
"When you're alone you run into that self-doubt," he says. "You run into those questions. You ask yourself: 'Is this really any good?' or 'Are people going to take me seriously?' "
But he had an encouraging coach in filmmaker RianJohnson, who directed Gordon-Levitt in last year's Looper and 2005's Brick.
"The first time I had a finished draft I sent it to Rian and he wrote me back saying 'You really have something here.' " says Gordon-Levitt. "He came to different screenings of the movie and was a big mentor for me. That first moment when he first said 'I think you have something here' was the end of the hardest part. From then on it was a ton of hard work but I didn't have that self-doubt."
The one constant through all the rewrites was the actress he envisioned to play the character of Barbara Sugarman, the sexy "10" Jon and his buddies spot at the bar they frequent. Normally a big hit with the ladies, Jon has to work much harder to woo Barbara.
"I did have Scarlett in mind from the very beginning for that character," says Gordon-Levitt of co-star Scarlett Johansson. "I thought of her and also Rob Brown, who played my best friend. Everyone else was kind of a discovery."
Those discoveries included Tony Danza as his father, Glenne Headly as his mom and Brie Larson as his nearly silent, constantly texting sister.
Gordon-Levitt disappears into the role of Jon Martello, who recalls Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever if he were young today and perhaps on Jersey Shore. But he's no caricature, thanks to Gordon-Levitt's assured script.
The actor said he worried if he could pull off playing Italian-American and asked Danza for his opinion.
"I told him 'That's what's great about you: You could play anybody.' And boy did he pull it off," Danza says. "I directed and acted in and wrote a 28-minute movie, called Mama Mia. And I remember how hard it was to act and not think about everybody else's performance. Joe's able to do it somehow. And he's so good in the movie. I met him when he was 12 when we did Angels in the Outfield. I'm always rooting for him. He's the real deal."
And Danza believes the movie should resonate with audiences.
"One of the great things about the movie is how accessible it is," Danza says. "People are going to say 'I see a little of myself in this thing.' "
While Jon spends his days salivating, and then some, over Internet porn, he also regularly attends Mass in his parish church. And he dutifully goes to confession each week. When he lifts weights, instead of counting reps he mutters Hail Marys. Levitt fashioned a very specific character that is light years from the far more introspective actor.
"That's my favorite kind of acting, playing someone very different from myself," he said. "Most of my favorite actors are those who do that, whether it's Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep or Gary Oldman."
He also cast one of his favorite actresses, he says. Julianne Moore plays a key, and somewhat mysterious, but vivid role.
"We're two lost people who find each other," says Gordon-Levitt of their roles in the film.
Gordon-Levitt was drawn to making a movie about objectification, in all its forms, and the havoc it can wreak in human relationships.
"I wanted it to be a mainstream comedy, because I want people to see this," he says. "It's going be rated R, but I want young - not too young - people to see this because I feel we're so entrenched all the time with different forms of media, whether it's Hollywood rom-coms or porn or anything else. I don't think it's a problem necessarily. I love the Internet. But I think it's important to also acknowledge that you can't learn what you want in a love from a movie. Or from porn. That's something only you can know. "
Gordon-Levitt began acting in musical theater at 4 years old. By 6 he was appearing in made-for-TV films and he has been acting ever since. He has surely absorbed some of the basics of filmmaking simply by spending so much time on film sets.
"When you're an actor you get to watch what the filmmakers are doing," Gordon-Levitt said. "I ask a lot of questions. I like to know what they're doing with the camera, know how they're thinking about editing it. I like to know what kind of music they're thinking about having. All of that stuff is so, so important. But as an actor, other than asking questions about it, you don't really have that much to do with it. So, it was just so fun to get to design all that. And as I was writing it I'd be thinking, 'I'm gonna shoot it like this' and 'I'm going to put the camera here.' "
But being on the A-list of actors these days, how did he find the time to write and shoot a film?
"When you're acting you have a lot of down time," Gordon-Levitt says. "And I like to work. I'll enjoy going out sometimes and having a good time. But mostly I like to work."