Joseph Gordon-Levitt: “Looking for fame leads nowhere but anxiety”

Playing ex-Uber boss Travis Kalanick in 'Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber' has made the actor re-evaluate things – he tells us what and why

It’s difficult to like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his latest on-screen offering. Though he is synonymous with chirpy everymen, from Tom Hansen in 500 Days of Summer to John Blake in The Dark Knight Rises, his most recent character is a man so ruthlessly driven by a quest for world domination that he is blind to almost everything else, including the feelings of everyone he encounters. Gordon-Levitt is playing Travis Kalanick, the ex-CEO of Uber.

In the last few years Gordon-Levitt, who is 41, has appeared in films like The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Project Power, and TV shows like Mr Corman, a strange Apple TV+ series about an unsatisfied teacher, which he not only appeared in but also directed and wrote for. He comes across as a restless polymath, forever spinning plates and learning new disciplines. But, when he talks to NME on Zoom, for an interview for which his publicity team have requested that there be “no personal/gossip questions”, he is decidedly calm. He sits in a spacious living room in North Carolina, where he is filming The Problem with Providence opposite Lily James and Himesh Patel. He takes a little while to become animated, talking slowly at first. He’s wearing a navy blue T-shirt and he has grown a healthy pair of mutton chops for his character, a police officer in a small seaside town.

Kalanick, by contrast, takes no time to warm up. Neither does Super Pumped, the series about Uber’s chequered rise to ubiquity. “Are you an asshole?” is a key line of dialogue in the deliberately provocative opening scene. It is a question that Kalanick asked interviewees when he started the game-changing cab app in 2009 – then called Uber X – because, as we learn over the subsequent seven episodes, if you want to work at Uber, it helps if you’re an asshole.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
As ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in ‘Super Pumped’. CREDIT: Paramount

From the very beginning, Kalanick sits atop the grand pyramid of assholes. He takes the bulk of the credit for the original business idea, which was in fact his friend Garrett Camp’s, and does everything within his power to make Uber impossible to ignore. The series, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is based on New York Times journalist Mike Isaac’s book of the same name. Gordon-Levitt stresses that the material in the show had to meet a high standard of truth: “I don’t think we ever claimed to be a documentary,” he says, “but we were quite strict: the things that go in the script were the things that were in the book.”

Gordon-Levitt hasn’t played many real people. With more and more recent real-life events being turned into prestige dramas – Inventing Anna, The Staircase, WeCrashed – productions have to tread a careful line when it comes to misrepresenting their subjects, mainly because their subjects are still very much alive. In Super Pumped, Kalanick often behaves in a manner so obnoxious it is difficult to believe. A few examples: after breaking up with his girlfriend, he insists that he stays in the flat that she owns, simply because he claims to think well there; his first reaction to tragedies like murdered Uber drivers is that they’ll reflect badly on him; and he refuses to help out his brother financially for no justifiable reason, despite already being rich beyond his wildest dreams.

But Gordon-Levitt is quicker to defend Kalanick than you might assume. Strangely, his assessment of the man is far more sympathetic than his portrayal on screen. “I spoke to a whole bunch of people that worked closely with him at Uber and heard over and over again how compelling, how winning, how caring he really was with his team,” he says. He admits that Kalanick “made some questionable decisions and was guilty of some blameworthy behaviour” but he says that the show wanted to show both sides of the man. There are precious few glimpses of Kalanick being caring onscreen but one of the gestures Gordon-Levitt cites is Kalanick’s having taken from the mini-bar any alcohol that his head of strategy Austin Geidt, a recovering addict, might have been tempted to drink. He acknowledges the cynical interpretation – that Kalanick simply wanted his staff to be at the top of their game – but reiterates that his sources were largely positive about the entrepreneur.

“My mum and dad always emphasised the fun of acting”

He has said in other interviews that he didn’t meet Kalanick before playing him in the show. “I very much wanted to meet him,” he tells NME. “Yeah. I really really wanted to meet him and I hope I get to one day.” His lips are sealed beyond this point, the implication being perhaps that Kalanick was not keen on participating in a show about the incendiary things he did to his own company. We will have to guess as to whether a face-to-face encounter would have made the actor’s portrayal more or less sympathetic.

As it is, the series is a rollicking ride through one of the most significant cultural changes of the last 15 years. A dozen or so sequences are narrated by Quentin Tarantino; characters occasionally address the camera as in Fleabag; there is a lot of Beastie Boys on the soundtrack. Though Kalanick’s bullish nature means that many of his scenes become a little predictable (a member of his team will suggest making a small concession to a figure of authority; “No!” or “Fuck that,” Kalanick will pronounce), he is a horribly watchable protagonist. “As an actor, I think complexity is often the most attractive,” says Gordon-Levitt. “Someone with great strengths as well as some shortcomings.”

Does he think therefore that the show portrays Kalanick fairly? Would his friends recognise the man onscreen? “Of course not,” he says. “It’s a drama. And anybody who lived a real life thing and then sees it dramatised on television is gonna feel big discrepancies because a one-hour drama doesn’t resemble real life.”

Super Pumped
Travis Kalanick was ousted as CEO of Uber after complaints about his conduct. CREDIT: Paramount

As well as being about Kalanick, however, the show is about the way that companies like Uber can muscle into a sector, use money to make every problem go away, and assassinate their competition in morally reprehensible style. Because the US has produced so many of the men at the very top of these asshole pyramids – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg – Super Pumped is as much about the US as it is about anything else. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t disagree and thinks that the difficult conversation is about the systems that incentivise the megalomania that is rife in companies like Amazon and Facebook. “I think as long as we live in a system where profits are prioritised over all else, and that’s something that’s in place in our economic systems, in our government systems, as well as in our cultural systems, I think we’re gonna keep getting these bad actors. Certainly the United States is spearheading these systems.”

It just so happens that the actor has some first-hand experience of Silicon Valley. Having founded HitRecord, a collaborative media platform with his brother Dan, who passed away in 2010, he needed to raise some funds from venture capitalists like Bill Gurley, who bank-rolls most of Kalanick’s whims. He didn’t feel dirty asking for money in those rooms, he says, because money helps you achieve more ambitious things. He doesn’t know if he’s becoming old and corrupt but he has come to recognise that money is a clear means to end. “If you want to do more ambitious things that reach more people, money’s probably gonna be involved in it. So I’ve found more and more that it’s kinda counterproductive to demonise money in the way that I had in the past.”

Gordon-Levitt’s introduction to acting happened early in life, with his starring role as Tom Solomon in US sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun arriving at the age of 15. He’s not sure what his first acting memory is – the internet tells us that he played the Scarecrow in a production of The Wizard of Oz at the age of four, and he doesn’t contradict this – but he remembers playing pretend as a tiny kid, talking to himself in the bath and playing imaginative games. “I think for the most part that’s what acting is,” he says. “And then you put a bunch of other grown-up structures on it but the real core of it is that thing that I think most of us do as kids.”

“If you see money as the end, then you’re doomed to despair”

When he went to Columbia University at 19 to study history, French poetry and literature, he decided to quit acting temporarily because he wanted to try something else. He didn’t really deliver on this, he admits, dropping out before he declared a major. He only lasted a year without doing any acting. He missed it too much. In order to compensate, he was finding himself dressing more loudly and behaving more performatively in his social life. “I pretty soon realised I really wanted to get back to it. I was just so drawn back to it.”

He didn’t drop out of university because he wasn’t enjoying it – he loved taking classes entirely in French, for example – but he had bought video editing software and begun to get into it. Night after night he kept having to decide between editing a video he wanted to make, or writing a paper he needed to write. “And the paper lost that contest.”

Given that he found fame at a young age and needed to navigate the beginnings of celebrity while going through puberty, does he have any advice for actors like the Stranger Things cast, who have had the bright lights of Hollywood shone on them from an alarmingly early stage? “I would first give credit to my family, my mum and dad, who never put any emphasis on fame or money but always just emphasised the fun of doing it,” he says. He consistently draws joy and fulfilment not from the money but from the creative process itself. Anything else tends to poison the magic: “As soon as I look for the external validations of fame or money or followers or whatever else, I find that leads nowhere but anxiety.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
‘Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber’ arrives on Paramount+ in June. CREDIT: Paramount

You could argue that Travis Kalanick suffered from the affliction that Gordon-Levitt wants to swerve. The series ends calamitously for him: though he is still worth $2.6billion, Kalanick is no longer the CEO of Uber because he was ousted from within, having behaved so recklessly for so long that his board had had enough of him. Among other things, he ignored reports of sexual harassment for long periods of time, contributing to a toxic environment within the male-dominated company. He may have been so desperate for money and success that he was always doomed to burn out. Judging by Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal, it is difficult to imagine him ever being truly happy.

By contrast – and there is, needless to say, a huge contrast between Gordon-Levitt and Kalanick – the actor does seem happy. The one characteristic he seems to share with Kalanick is that he takes himself and his industry pretty seriously – probably an essential thing to an extent, though dangerous if taken to the extreme, as Kalanick proved. And, though the actor is clearly keen to keep a wall between his personal and his private life, he lights up in the moments when he is able to respond to something in the moment, not fall back on a learned script. This is, you would expect, because he has been appearing in and talking about movies for the majority of his life. This is the only world he knows; a world he couldn’t even leave when he tried.

Given that he has just said that the allure of money poisons the magic of creativity, NME wonders whether this contradicts what he had said earlier in our conversation about it helping you to achieve things? He laughs, thinks this is a good point, and takes a moment. He doesn’t believe there is a contradiction and, as with most questions, he has a good explanation. “If you see money as a means to an end,” he says, “then you can accomplish things. If you see money as the end, then you’re kinda doomed to a whirlpool of despair.”

‘Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber’ debuts on Paramount+ in the UK on June 22 with three episodes. Subsequent episodes will air weekly