Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants you to know that it’s OK to not be OK — even if it appears you have more than most. The actor leaned into that notion when he created his new Apple+ series, Mr. Corman, which is set in Van Nuys, California, and centers on a thirtysomething aspiring musician who is now a fifth-grade teacher. Although he thoroughly enjoys being a mentor to his students, he still feels unfulfilled, leading him to tackle with self-doubt and anxiety.
“When I started coming up with this character, it started with me just kind of writing down a bunch of stuff I was grateful for in my life. And that I feel so lucky for. I’m so lucky I have a partner [Tasha McCauley] that I love and we have our kids and I have two wonderful parents,” the Dark Knight Rises actor, 40, exclusively tells Us Weekly. “And I get to do work that’s meaningful to me and I’m healthy and I’m safe. I just feel so lucky and it does lead me to think sometimes, like, what if my luck had been different?”
The 10-episode season, which debuted on August 6, is his most personal project yet. Each episode, which could arguably be standalone pieces, examines Josh’s outlook on multiple facets of his life — his childhood with his estranged father, the heaviness of the state of the world and his relationships with his ex-girlfriend and former high school friend-turned-roommate Victor (played by Arturo Castro).
Gordon-Levitt is the creator, executive producer and star of the dramedy, with a writer-director credit on multiple episodes. He admits playing a true version of himself would drive him “crazy,” but Josh is the most “me-ish” character he’s ever played.
“He’s a lot like me. One of Josh’s parents, Ruth, is a lot like my parents. And then his dad, who you sort of hear about throughout the season, is struggling with addiction. And that’s caused a lot of chaos in Josh’s childhood and you can kind of see how that cascades through his life. And so that’s one example,” he explains to Us. “There’s little changes in there. But what Josh and I think both have in common is we both have a lot to be grateful for. Josh does have a lot to be grateful for, and I think he knows that. Just like I know that. But I’d also be lying if I told you I was happy 100 percent of the time. I just don’t know that that’s human. And oftentimes when you see characters portrayed on screen, things get kind of oversimplified. There’s either a happy character or a sad character, or a hero or a villain. And I think real people are more complicated than that.”
He adds: “This is a person who’s doing his best to be happy and to be a good person and just doesn’t always succeed. And there’s things that are admirable about him. And then there’s things that you can criticize about him. And to me, that’s what makes a character on screen feel like a real human being.”
Much like his collaborative media platform HitRecord, Gordon-Levitt weaves imagery and music into certain story lines in the show. In “Happy Birthday,” he and Debra Winger go from having an emotional mother-son conversation in a parking lot to singing and dancing on a rooftop. The 3rd Rock From the Sun alum was selective deciding when to incorporate green screen arrangements.
“This was really fun for me in that way. Those sequences come when the character’s feeling feelings that are so kind of big or unexplainable that a grounded realistic scene just will fail to describe how it feels,” he explains. “Josh feels close to his mom and he wants so badly to just make her feel that, but he doesn’t feel like he can put it into words. You can play that in a real scene and it would play as, like, a five-second pause. And I don’t know that the audience would really feel it. And so sometimes you just got to go into something larger than life and sing and dance.”
Gordon-Levitt “wanted to make something that was really personal” with Mr. Corman, noting that some of his favorite stories are “when the storyteller has taken a good, honest look at themselves.” By pulling back the curtain of Josh’s life he hopes that audiences feel comforted in knowing their feelings are valid.
“I sometimes get down on myself for not feeling happy all the time because I feel like man, I’ve got it so good. I should feel happy all the time. What’s wrong with me? And, you know, I think that’s probably an experience that a lot of us have,” he tells Us. “That doesn’t mean though that you have to be happy 100 percent of the time. It’s OK and normal to struggle through some ups and downs and that’s just part of life. And that can be sad sometimes. And that’s OK. That can be stressful sometimes. And that’s OK. It can also be funny. It’s OK to laugh about that kind of thing. And that’s where a lot of the humor in Mr. Corman comes from.”
New episodes of Mr. Corman drop on Apple+ every Friday. For more with Gordon-Levitt, pick up the latest issue of Us Weekly, on stands now.