We caught up with Julianne Moore about her new romantic comedy subversion Don Jon, in which she plays a woman named Esther who meets Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s character Jon at community college. Moore discusses all the ways Gordon-Levitt’s film turns the rom-com genre on its head, playing a complex, interesting, almost loony woman, and delving into the psychology behind the addiction featured in the movie.
The movie has a lot to say about a lot of different things: pornography, addiction in general, gender roles, and — to put it ineloquently — bro culture. Which of these interested you to the point of getting on board with the project?
I think all of them. When I first read the script, I was really touched by it. Very, very surprised. It didn’t go in the direction I expected at all. Not at all! Just the fact that somebody was able to construct a script so good that it’s surprising is kind of amazing. Generally, things tend to follow a certain pattern. [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] explores so many things, socially and politically, and then really ends as an exploration of intimacy. What intimacy is. I love the fact that he juxtaposed the porn culture and the romantic comedy culture, and then equated them as equal kinds of fantasy. That’s fascinating. That’s something that we haven’t seen. And I love that he explored all these other things.
[Jon] has set these definitions for himself. There’s the porn. There’s his friends. The bro culture, like you said. There’s the religious community, and the idea that things are either right or wrong. There’s what his father believes he should be, what his mother believes he should be. The gym culture. All these things that define. And do they make him happy? Has he chosen them, have they chosen him? The idea that you can find yourself buried in that, not knowing who you are or what you want, was fascinating.
You mentioned that you thought the script was going to go one way, but then it didn’t. I’m interested in hearing how you thought it was going to go.
I don’t know if there was anything specific. But when somebody handed me the script and said it was going to be about porn, I didn’t think it was going to be very interesting. [Laughs] They said, “Hey, here’s this movie, it’s about porn,” and I said, “Ugh… okay.” So that’s what I meant. I think my expectations were about that, not that it was going to be an exploration of how these things have managed to define people and how they broke away from them.
I like when we meet your character. The movie, up until then, feels very contained in this little world. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has experienced all these things before, is very familiar with them. And then Esther is completely different from anyone he has known to any real degree. I was wondering about your take on her. She’s a little loony.
She seems so crazy! Isn’t that great? [Laughs]
But you make her a person. So how did you balance that? How much crazy did you put in, how much humanity did you put in?
What I like about her is that she is somebody who, because of what she has recently experienced, is not able to be anything but one hundred percent authentic. She has to be where she is. There’s a quality to her that is almost skinless. And she’s extremely present because of it. There’s an acute presence. What’s interesting about Esther is that you think she’s probably not this way all the time. You know? I think this is just a moment in time when she is this way. So what she brings, the energy that she brings, is kind of loaded. [Laughs] It’s a lot! And like I said, she probably wouldn’t ordinarily behave this way, but she just happens to because of her experience.
So that’s what I really, really liked. The way she rides on emotions, too, is very immediate. Extremely immediate. I thought that was really fresh writing.
Definitely. I think that what the script and your performance do really well is keep her from becoming the manic pixie dream girl phenomenon. In another version of this movie, I could definitely see that character becoming that.
That’s interesting. Nobody has brought that up, but that’s very interesting. It could be another version of that, yeah. That “Let me help you find yourself”…
Right, totally. But to your credit and to the movie’s credit, she comes across as another character who comes through Jon’s life. And because of who they both are, they both benefit from it. I wanted to know what you think about that trend and the benefits of subverting it.
When we were at Sundance, we talked a little bit about cinematic tropes and how tiresome they can be. I think that’s what I mean about having expectations of the script. I did think there was going to be something more formulaic about the way it unfolded. And the fact that he didn’t do that in the writing, and that she is an unexpected character, and that Barbara is not an expected character either. Especially to cast someone who looks like Scarlett, who is such a beautiful girl, such a bombshell. And very intelligent and very self-possessed. I think what Joe is subverting in this movie as well is that these tropes are just that: cinematic tropes. They’re not truisms, just things that people resort to.
Another thing that I think is indicative of that is the fact that he obsessively loves to clean. This antithesis of traditional masculinity.
Right! And what’s interesting is that is one of the places where the movie turns, too. He feels so connected to that. [Laughs] It feels so authentically him, so when that’s challenged, he’s really like, “Hey man, I like this!” It’s actually really sweet and unusual that that’s the moment where he really gets like, “I’ve had enough!”
Right. With the porn, he becomes aggressive, but with the cleaning —
He takes it personally! “This is mine.” I kind of love that. Because what is authentic? And what do we like? And what’s wrong with liking the things that we like? And you have to allow for that. You have to allow for it in your love and in other people’s lives.
And going a little bit on the idea of addiction, in at least two or three scenes you see Esther smoking marijuana.
One scene. She’s only smoking pot in the scene in the car, and she’s smoking a cigarette in another scene.
Oh. I guess that was just my Freudian interpretation…
[Laughs] But she is smoking pot and smoking a cigarette, so…
I do think she mentions coming to class high, at least.
Right. Well, I think what we can surmise from that is that she’s traumatized.
So you viewed it more as sort of a coping mechanism rather than a parallel to his addiction?
Maybe that’s something that she’s having issues with too. That’s really possible. I think addictions are generally coping mechanisms. They start out as a way to mask something, and then they become something that is addictive and ongoing. There is usually some complicity there.
That’s certainly true. Do you think that Joe’s character was attempting to mask something with his pattern of pornography?
Maybe not feeling anything. I think that’s what Esther is trying to do, too. That kind of stimulation… when it’s that constant, yeah, there’s something going on. There’s some kind of sensation that you’re creating to mask some kind of pain — listen, I am not an expert! [Laughs]
No, totally, I just wanted to get your take on it. But getting back to Esther, is it particularly rewarding for you to play characters that have some more colorful eccentricities? Maybe as opposed to a more “traditional” female lead.
Like what kind of traditional female lead?
That’s a good question. Just thinking of another movie you were in recently, Crazy, Stupid, Love. You definitely had scenes of emotional volatility, but you’re a little bit more together there, I think.
Right. Although, I really loved doing that movie.
Oh, it was excellent!
No, each character is kind of endemic to themselves. But it is always interesting to do something where you have interesting things to do. You want the character to have a conundrum. I hesitate to say that one is more interesting than another. It really is about the whole thing, about the narrative. But it’s always kind of fun to do stuff that is different.
You were talking before about how this movie takes on the rom-com genre. How it’s about genuine intimacy. I wanted to hear what you think about what this movie does specifically that other movies, or the genre in general, miss the mark on?
I think it doesn’t assume that there’s a “happily ever after.” I think in a lot of romantic comedies, everyone ends up with the right person, and that’s it — they’re going to stay with that person and get married and walk off into the sunset. They’ve figured out the problem. I don’t think this movie assumes that at all. I think it just says, “Let’s see what happens.” This is what it is for now. This is what we’re paying attention to. This is what the connection is. This is just what’s happening.
And don’t try to block it out.
Yeah, don’t try to block it out. Be present. Be aware. It isn’t a fantasy. It’s not like that. And that’s what it leaves you with.