Business

Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the Anxiety of Unfulfilled Dreams

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they fell down, how they pick themselves up and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: One thing I’ve been noticing since the pandemic began in media, news, social media, in the public discourse is really an increasing awareness of mental health. An increasing conversation volume about mental health and how it affects us. And that is great. And it’s a huge purpose of this show. Another purpose of this show is to talk about the unique ways mental health issues, neurodiversity can actually help people succeed and thrive in their careers. But as much as anxiety or other struggles might drive someone to succeed, there are many mental health issues that can arise because of a life that you feel like you didn’t quite get, opportunities missed out on, anxiety that comes from feeling stuck in your life and your career and wanting things to be different.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: The big what-ifs. That’s a bit of the storyline behind a show that I became obsessed with recently, Mr. Corman on Apple TV+. It’s a story about a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Corman, as he deals with loneliness, depression, and dreams unfilled. As channeled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays him, Corman experiences anxiety on screen in such a real and touching way. I really felt so seen.

[SOUND OF A CLIP FROM AN EPISODE OF MR. CORMAN]

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: He goes, it just makes me feel small.

ACTOR 2 ON MR. CORMAN: Oh my God.

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: I know. I love him. He’s such this heartfelt thoughtful guy.

ACTOR 2 ON MR. CORMAN: Does the universe make you feel small?

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: Yeah. Doesn’t it for you?

ACTOR 2 ON MR. CORMAN: Well, that’s not a main thing I feel when I look at that picture.

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: You know the big picture?

ACTOR 2 ON MR. CORMAN: Yeah, dude. I grew up here. I’ve been to the Griffith Observatory.

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: No, no, no. Right, right, right.

ACTOR 2 ON MR. CORMAN: I love the big picture.

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: So do I.

ACTOR 2 ON MR. CORMAN: But you just said it makes you feel small.

ACTOR 1 ON MR. CORMAN: It does.

[END CLIP FROM MR. CORMAN EPISODE]

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Anxiety can cause us to be narcissistic. It can drive the people around us up the wall, but it can also make us really sweet and vulnerable and deeply human. And that comes out in Mr. Corman. So I’m super excited today to kick off Season Five with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who not only plays the title role in this series, he also wrote and directed it. And as Gordon-Levitt will tell us, he’s actually a manager and an executive, even though he’s a Hollywood star. So we’ll talk about that. Gordon-Levitt says, Mr. Corman is actually one of his most personal projects he’s ever done.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Hi, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’m so excited to have you on the show.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Hello. How are you, Morra?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It is so cool to have you on the show. You have said that this is the most me-ish. I’m not sure that’s a word, but I like it. Me-ish project you’ve ever done. And why?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I guess a lot of it has to do with just the aesthetics of it. It’s very much to my taste in terms of what it looks like and what it sounds like, and the music and everything else, the acting, the humor. It’s very dry humor, which is tends to be what makes me laugh. But I think it’s also probably me-ish in that the story started with me. Mr. Corman, Josh Corman, he’s not me. I’m not playing myself, but he’s a version of myself in that the beginning of this character was me thinking about my own life and how things could have been differently, feeling incredibly grateful for so many things, incredibly grateful for having met my partner that I love so much. And we have our kids and I’ve had two great parents, and I get to do work that I care about and I’m healthy. And I live in a safe place. I’m grateful for so many things. I also think that a lot of those things just come down to luck. I wonder about that all the time. And I started writing about it and writing about, well, what if my luck had been different in this case or that case? What if I hadn’t met my partner? What if I just hadn’t met the right person for me yet? Or what if one of my parents was more of a chaotic personality and less supportive and positive? Or what if I didn’t get the lucky breaks to get to earn a living as an artist? What would I do? And I’ve always really admired teachers and been drawn to that. And so I made him a teacher. This is the kind of process that resulted in this character of Josh Corman, which sounds like Joseph Gordon.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It does. Yeah.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. And that’s perhaps another reason why I called this show me-ish, which is a word. You can look it up.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay. Challenge accepted.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: I just lied. That was a lie.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. It’s funny because I think a lot of people who are anxious, overthinkers in life might have this sense of what if, and there was an interview with you in the New York Times and the reporter I think said from gratitude, your gratitude, sprang a sort of existential anxiety, right? This what if, was there any piece of this that came from that feeling of an anxious place or was it more curiosity or was it both?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Well, I think probably both to be fair. But yeah, for sure, a lot of it came from an anxious place. A lot of times when I’m writing, I’m trying to calm my mind down. Our brains are built to do that. Right? Our ancestors, our biological ancestors running around in the wild had to constantly be on the lookout for what was going to kill them. Weirdly, we now live in, or I should say some of us, all of us should, but only some of us do, live in materially, comfortable lives where we don’t have to worry about something jumping out of the bushes to eat us. And we don’t have to worry about where we’re going to get our next meal, etc. And so our brains evolved to foresee problems, but the problems that our brains are evolved to see aren’t really part of our lives anymore. And so we find other problems to focus on and then we write them down and tell stories about them.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s so true. It’s so true. My husband always says, “Well, if you get over that one anxiety, your anxiety is just going to go someplace else because that’s how your brain works.”

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Definitely.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s seeking. There’s no tiger jumping out from the bush, but it’s true. So, you’ve talked about—this is a show about leadership and anxiety and mental illness and mental health. You have said that you struggle with anxiety. I don’t think you have a clinical diagnosis, but it seems like you consider yourself an anxious person.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And I’m curious how that manifests. What’s your relationship—

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: And there you have my sense of humor. For some reason that makes me laugh when you say that. And if that makes you laugh too, then you’ll laugh a lot when you watch Mr. Corman. Do I consider myself an anxious person? It wouldn’t be the first word I’d use to describe myself. But if I’m honest, it would definitely have to be in there. And you’re right. I did go talk to a doctor about it one time, a couple of years ago, and I don’t have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, but I think a lot of us have… There’s a gradient here. I do have a number of people in my life who I’m very close with. I care about a lot who do have more diagnosable anxiety that they struggle through, and it’s incredibly common as I guess, anybody listening to this might know. I learned that one out of every six people in the United States is going through a diagnosable anxiety disorder. And that’s just the diagnosable kinds, or there’s a lot more than people like me who might not come away with that kind of diagnosis, but are still wrestling with some feelings. And part of what I wanted to do with Mr. Corman was de-stigmatize it. And obviously one show is not going to do that. But I mean, do my small part to help move the conversation forward in de-stigmatizing it. It seems like we’re moving in that direction in our culture and that’s a great thing. Historically, there’s such a stigma. People don’t want to talk about feelings of anxiety because they’ll be told, “Hey, quit whining. Hey, look up. Hey, get a grip. Be more positive. Quit complaining.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, that’s what Josh’s mom tells him.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, she does. Her reaction is not entirely perfect, but I’ll also say, I don’t think Josh is blameless. And I think probably a lot of anxiety is complicated and there is a degree to which you can’t do anything about it. It’s just a disorder. But there is also—Josh is guilty of perpetuating a negative attitude, in addition to the anxiety that he’s going through. And I think that that complexity is part of what makes it so hard to deal with. I did show this script and get input from a doctor of neuropsychology. And she did say, “Yes, I would say, based on this script, probably I’d have to really talk to him more to make a real diagnosis, but it seems like he exhibits a lot of the same things that people do have.” And so, yeah, I think that’s a really tough one to parse . And that’s part of what’s to me really interesting and complicated about the story.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So you’ve had a long career in Hollywood, but you’re also, from what I’ve read about you’re creative. You like to make music. You act and direct and produce and write. How have you learned, maybe as someone who was an overthinker and anxious, to separate the love of the craft from all the pressures, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have to manage your career in Hollywood. Like how stressful that could be.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. It’s a good point. And you’re making, I think the right distinction that there’s the art and creativity, and then there’s the show business part. And they occasionally overlap somewhat. But mostly to me, it’s important to guard and to separate the art part of it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How have you learned how to do that? How have you taught yourself to do that?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Good question. The first thing that comes to mind is acting on a set is something I’ve been doing ever since I was a little kid. And so I think I’ve drawn a lot of skills from doing that that are beyond just the acting part. One of the things you have to do on a set is focus. You’re surrounded by distractions. You’re trying to embody a character who is standing in a room with, for example, one person and having an important emotional conversation with that person. But in reality, you’re not in a room with one person, you’re in a room with like 20 people and all these lights and a camera and microphone, and you have to tune all of them out. And by the way, all those people are just making tons of noise doing their work, so that we can make the movie all right up until five seconds before you have to start the scene. Everyone’s making all this noise and then suddenly someone says “Rolling,” and then they say, “Speed, marker, and action.” And those words to me have become almost a magic spell, where I’m able to just tune all that stuff out. All of it just goes away. And that’s a skill that I think I probably apply not just on set when I’m acting. When you’re asking, how do you just focus on your own self-expression and how do you tune out the voices in your head saying like, “Oh, you got to think about your career. You got to think about your momentum, your heat, your blah, blah, blah.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Exactly. Well, and also other people probably judging you all the time and giving unsolicited advice and people just managing you. I would imagine there’s just a lot of relationship management that comes with being a star.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Again, I’ve been doing it a long time. And so the people that I work closely with, I think are all—I’m lucky that I’ve been able to surround myself with a bunch of really good people that are kind and understanding. Like, for example, when I became a dad, I took a bunch of time off work. I didn’t set foot on a set for two years, and that was the longest I’d ever gone ever since being six years old. And my agent at the time, you might expect a cliche agent to be like, “Don’t do it. You’ll lose all your heat.” But he really didn’t do that at all. And he played it so perfectly. He was honest with me, but completely supportive and warm and said, “Look, as your agent it’s my job to tell you that of course there will be consequences to your career for doing this. But as your friend and someone who’s known you for decades, and I care about you, you should absolutely do what you feel like you should do and go be a dad ,and we’ll figure it out when you want to come back.” And he was right. He was right about all of it. My career did suffer from it, I guess you could say. I mean, I wouldn’t say horribly. I was still able to make Mr. Corman. So, I couldn’t really ask for more than that, but there’s definitely plenty of opportunities that were coming to me that stopped coming. And is that stressful? In moments, yeah. I definitely have my moments where I’m like, “I can’t believe that I let that happen. I had this incredible opportunity and I thought I was invincible. I didn’t think that they’re being…” But I knew because Warren told me what would happen and ultimately it was 100 percent worth it. I’m so, so happy that I was able to spend more time with my family, and the stress it comes and goes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that he told you that. Honestly, I wish I wish more people in corporate America would say that. Right? Because he laid it out to you. He gave you the stakes and he allowed you to make a good decision, it sounds like. You know?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, yeah. Radical candor.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yup. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Mr. Corman, it seems to me he’s a bit of a catastrophist. I definitely am as well. I mean, he goes to the deep dark places. And did you purposely draw on that for him? Is that something that you had experienced? Did you think it was important to show that element?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Oh yeah. I think that’s part of my mind for sure. And I guess it’s maybe drawn from the same place that’s why I like to tell stories or whatever is. If you’ve got that muscle going in your mind that tells stories, you will make up catastrophic stories about horrible things that could happen.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I have to say that, for me, there were two scenes that felt so true to me as an anxious person. And they were very subtle, but the first one was when he’s driving on the freeway. I lived in LA for two years. I’m an East Coaster, but I lived in LA for two years, and the freeway was seriously an impediment to my life because I would get so ridden with anxiety. And you have a scene where Josh is driving with his mom. I feel like it’s on the 405 because they’re heading up to Valencia. I don’t know what it is.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But anyway. And he’s driving super slow and he’s super anxious. And his mom asks him about it. And do you get anxious driving on the freeway? That scene felt so true.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. I sometimes do. I really can’t wait for self-driving cars.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, yeah. I know. The other scene that made me really cry was he goes to a breathing class.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was that scene about loneliness and wanting to connect?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. I think you said it really well. This is the episode that, and it’s early in the season, that focuses most on Josh’s anxiety. And throughout he’s trying to connect with people and failing, failing over and over again to have a resonant and meaningful connection with another person. And that’s, in many cases, his own fault. And then in other cases, maybe not his fault. But he’s feeling really anxious, and early in the episode someone says, “Have you tried to focus on your breathing?” And he gets really angry and flies off the handle at them. But by the end of the episode, when Victor, his caring friend has sort of said to him, “Hey, I’m not going to leave you alone until you do something to deal with this.” And he says that because Josh has been saying very negative things and even joked about suicide, which Victor does not take lightly. And he’s being a caring friend. And so out of other options, Josh does go to this breathing class that he’s really reticent to go to. It’s not the kind of thing he would usually go do and unexpectedly—I don’t think it’s not really the breathing or the class that helps him. But he ends up sitting next to a woman, an older woman, and she only says a very brief thing. They’re going around the circle and talking and she just says, “I was feeling very alone today.” And in just such a simple and honest moment, he feels like, “ah, yeah.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And he reaches out for her hand. It’s so moving.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. So later when they’re lying together, trying to do the breathing, he sees that she’s crying about something and he doesn’t even know what. He doesn’t say like, “Hey, what are you crying about?” He doesn’t try to solve her problem or cheer her up or anything like that. Yeah. They just hold other’s hands and are lying there together. And sometimes maybe that’s what it takes. You can’t necessarily solve the problem, but you can just be there for someone else. Like I said, I have a number of people that I care about a lot that struggle through anxiety. And what I have found is that it doesn’t usually help to try to solve a problem. The best thing I can usually do is just be there for them.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What has being immersed in the show taught you? And does it change maybe even how you’re thinking about being a parent? And I think your kids are little, so the emotions are different, right?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Mm-hmm.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But are you seeing human nature differently? I guess is my question.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, a lot of the show is about luck versus choice, which is another way of saying, what are the things that you can control and what are the things that you can’t control? And emotions are a funny one because as we’ve been talking about some of them you can’t control and some of them you can, it’s not really simple. My whole skill, like what I’m really good at, is controlling my emotions. That’s what acting is in a lot of ways.But I certainly can’t just control them with the snap of the fingers. And the truth about acting is you don’t just turn emotions on and off with a switch. I don’t know, maybe some actors can do that. But that’s not how I do it. If you want the emotions to really ring true to an audience, you have to really feel them. And to really feel them, you have to work your way into them. And so if I’m going to do a certain scene that’s, for example, if the character is going through something emotionally intense, I can’t just show up to work and be like, “Oh, hey, how’s it going? Did you see the Lakers last night? Blah, blah, blah.” And then say “action,” and all of a sudden be feeling that. The skill of acting and bringing those emotions into a scene has more to do with—it’s not exactly fakery. It’s more just knowing myself enough and paying attention to how I’m feeling enough and gently nudging it throughout however long a time period it takes. But oftentimes it’s an all-day thing, waking up knowing I’m going to do this scene and just—you can’t force it. If you force it, it’ll look force to an audience. But you just gently, barely nudging it this way or that way with various tools or techniques, focusing my mind on given experiences or memories or stories or listening to music or doing physical exercise even, or any number of things that I do sometimes to just nudge my emotions in one direction or another.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How do you do that? If you want to have a good day with your kids and your wife, but you have to go play a scene where your characters in crisis, how do you balance that?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, it’s funny. You’re picking up on—I said, I’d starts when I wake up. Since being a dad, it doesn’t start when I wake up. It used to when I was—before that. But now it starts, when I walk out the door.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s really disciplined. It’s so funny what you’re telling me because you’re talking about being incredibly mindful. Right? And mindfulness is obviously a huge skill, but it sounds like part of your tradecraft is mindfulness.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: That’s interesting. It’s an interesting way to put it. I mean, yeah, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right. That part of what it means to act is paying a lot of attention to how I’m feeling.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: When you played a tight rope walker, how did you summon that level—I read that you actually did it, which is terrifying. How did you summon that level of mental toughness and steeliness?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Well, just to clarify, I did learn to walk on a wire, but the wire I was walking on was twelve feet in the air. The guy I was playing walked on a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, which I did not do in the slightest. He risked his life. I did not, but I identified a lot with that. You don’t risk your life when you act, but, for example, I got to do Saturday Night Live a couple of times, and that feels very much like a high wire act because you’re on live television. And so you can really mess up and you have to not mess up. And yeah, the adrenaline is incredibly intense. It was probably more exhilarating than any experience I’ve had in my working life because it’s that component of live television. And also because SNL is like pillar in my mind and upbringing that was very meaningful to me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do you feel like when you put something out there that’s more personal, it’s more of a high wire act or does that not matter to you? Like something that you’ve written and created versus something that you maybe just acting—not that I’m minimizing acting, but you know what I mean.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: For sure. No, I think it definitely does. And so, putting Mr. Corman out into the world. Yeah, definitely feels like higher stakes. And I definitely feel more sensitive to both sides when people like it that are liking it, is putting it lightly. When people say things like some of the lovely things you’ve said today that I’m very grateful for, that it really resonates or it feels validating or it feels relatable or illuminating. It means the world to me when I hear people tell me that, and on the flip side, when people say that they don’t like it or that they say other negative things, it’s really painful. But again, I feel like that’s not something I want to shy away from. Of course, none of us want negativity in our lives, but I think you’re always going to have some if you’re trying anything.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: If you’re trying anything, you’re going to risk some… There’s some risk and there’s going to be some failure and there’s going to be some people are voices that say you suck. And that’s just par for the course.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that. So, you try to keep just a learning mindset like, “Okay, I’m going to take the feedback, but I’m going to keep going.”

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. If you can. If you can not dismiss the feedback, that’s I think really elevated. I do my best to that and, I think, if fingers crossed—don’t know if we’ll make a second season of Mr. Corman—but I actually find some of the negative things that people have said, not all of them, but some of them, I actually think have been constructive for me. And I think we’ll be able to make a second season that is better than the first. I really applaud that it. I don’t know that it’s wise to listen to negativity. The most constructive feedback comes from people who are doing it caringly and not everybody is caring in their criticism.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s the understatement of the century.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But it seems to me like, you’ve never been scared to explore—whether it’s you made a movie called Manic, right? And that was a pretty stark portrayal. And your film, Don Jon, which I think was the first movie you directed was about a porn addict. You’re not scared of exploring things that make people uncomfortable.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah. Those are the movies that I like the best, usually. I definitely understand the desire for light entertainment. Personally, maybe it’s just my own relationship with the medium, because I have spent my life on it—light entertainment, if I want to escape or turn my mind off, watching a movie or show doesn’t work that well for me. I’ll do other things if I want some light entertainment, like maybe watch sports or watch like Shark Tank or listen to some music or if I want to just like, relax. But if I’m going to watch a story in a movie or a show or something like that, the ones that really hold my interest are the ones that are really getting in there and are going to challenge me and are going to make me feel strong feelings or make me have to consider something I might not have thought of before.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question for you is a question I ask of most of my guests. Now they’re mostly like corporate executives and CEOs, but I’m going to ask it of you because I would assume that you manage people, right? You have people in your life, people on your team, people who you work with. How has the experience of making Mr. Corman of going so deep into anxiety specifically, changed how you’re going to be as a leader and a manager going forward?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Well, you’re right. I mean, when directing Mr. Corman, certainly you don’t usually use the word manager, but it is what you’re doing. You’re leading a team of people.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Big time—

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: The casts and a crew. And I also run a company called HitRecord. I’m not the sole runner of it. I’m part-time at it because I do other things, but I am in a leadership position, and we have 40 employees at this point. And so I’ve spent the last few years because our company has grown. I’ve spent the last few years learning more explicitly about what it means to manage. And like I mentioned earlier, I read Radical Candor. So how has Mr. Corman affected that? I think that the feelings and experiences that the characters going through are things that I’ve lived and I’ve known about my whole life, but doing the show has made me really focus on it. And I think that’s been very helpful, especially nowadays because everyone’s anxiety is on the rise in these extraordinary times during the pandemic. And so I think it’s helped me be more empathetic and really try to put myself in the shoes of the people that I’m working with and what they’re feeling, which, to me, that’s what being a good leader is. You’re all making something together, but you can’t just think about, “All right. I’m making this thing, and all these people are going to help me.” I have to think about who are—OK, all those people, they’re all people. They’re a person just as much as I’m a person, they all have their feelings just as much as I have my feelings. And they all want things just as much as I want things. What is it that they want? What is it that they’re feeling? How can I help them? And how can this be a positive experience holistically for them in their life, professionally and personally? Because that’s the right thing to do, but also because that is when everyone will do their best work. I think those are two sides of the same coin that if your work is coming from a place of sincerity, it’s not insincere to want everybody to do good work. And everybody getting to do good work is one in the same with everybody leading a good life and being good people and finding meaning and happiness in the time that we spend alive. So I don’t know. So I guess that just comes down to, yeah, treating people like whole people.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I like it.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Thanks.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, thank you so much. I wish you good health and great work and all the good things.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: Thank you, Morra. It was really great talking to you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe. Thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths. For you, our listeners who asked me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming. Please do send me feedback. You can email me, you can leave a message on LinkedIn for me, or tweet me @morraam. And if you love the show, tell your friends. Subscribe and leave a review. From HBR presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.

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