Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Josh of Mr. Corman, finds his artistic expression at the keyboard.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt thinks a lot about the creative process.
He has a podcast about it (Creative Processing with Joseph Gordon- Levitt), he gave a TED Talk about it ("How Craving Attention Makes You Less Creative") and he established an Emmy-winning digital platform devoted to it (HitRecord). He even likens parenthood to it ("I think being a parent is the most ambitious, the most challenging and the most /rewarding creative process of all").
Now he's made a show in which his main character is finding his way back to his creative spark: Apple TV+'s Mr. Corman. The 10-episode dramatic comedy follows Josh Corman, a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley — where both the character and the actor were born and raised — as he rediscovers his passion for making music while struggling with anxiety and self-doubt.
"I was just looking back at my earliest notes on this show," he says, "and they're from 2015, when I first became a dad. [That experience] forced me to take stock of my life, and I ended up feeling incredibly grateful for so many things. I found a partner — my wife who I love so much, two kids who are healthy, parents who are really positive and reliable people, and work that I love doing.
"So many things in my life that I'm grateful for — I feel they come down to luck, to be honest. And it's not that I haven't worked hard for the things that I have, but I know a lot of people who have worked hard and haven't reaped the same rewards. That got me thinking about how else it could've gone, just as easily, if some of my luck had been different."
That is one of the questions at the heart of his new show: whether hard work or good luck matters more in the equation of success. In the first episode, Joshua asks his students if they think they're lucky. (Only one does.) When the inquiry is turned around on him, he considers it for a moment before answering (somewhat unconvincingly) that yes, he thinks he's lucky.
But he isn't, really. Suffice it to say, Joshua Corman is an alternate version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Their names even sound somewhat alike, the actor points out. But the character is an artist who didn't get to live his life as one — a variant of Gordon-Levitt, but without the advantages.
Gordon-Levitt credits his parents as the most crucial of those advantages. In the series, Joshua's father battles addiction and is largely absent from his life. "My parents haven't struggled with that," he says. "And I was interested in, if I change that one thing — change his dad — how does that cascade throughout his whole life and personality?"
Perhaps the second-greatest factor in Gordon-Levitt's life is an event that occurred when he was five. After performing in a community-theater production of The Wizard of Oz, he was scouted by a manager , and soon he was booking commercials, television shows and movies. Ultimately he landed a lead role on 3rd Rock from the Sun, appearing for six seasons as Tommy Solomon, an extraterrestrial who arrives on earth in the form of a teenage boy.
When his character left for college, so did the actor, taking a break from work to attend Columbia University, where he studied history, literature and French poetry. He ended up leaving school early to return to acting, which led to leading roles in (500) Days of Summer, Inception and 50/50.
Only a year after quitting Columbia, in 2005, he and his late older brother, Dan, set up HitRecord.org. Two years later they added a message board, and a community began to form. Finally in 2010, they relaunched as a collaborative production company. "I'm gonna read you this week's writing challenge, just for fun," he states, demonstrating how the site's prompts can yield inspiration: "In the year 2032 we discover a planet identical to Earth in our own solar system. ..."
HitRecord provides a space where artists can write, paint, sing, "remix" other people's art and be paid for contributions that turn a profit — though the aim of HitRecord has never been fame or fortune. "The point is to make things together," Gordon-Levitt says in his introductory video for the site. In 2014, HitRecord on TV premiered on the Pivot network, a cable channel targeted to young adults that folded two years later.
A variety show of sorts, the series featured live performances, shorts, songs and other creative elements culled from the site. The collaborative effort won an Emmy that year for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media — Social TV Experience. And in 2020, Gordon-Levitt won another Emmy for the YouTube Original series Create Together, which was made in response to Covid-19 and explored how people in the HitRecord community coped with the pandemic by staying creative.
"There's a lot of art and creativity online that dangles the carrot of you can be a star, you can be an influencer ," he observes. "But it doesn't have to be all results-oriented. It doesn't have to be that the thing you write wins the Pulitzer Prize or is adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster. And I say that from the privileged position of having experienced some of that extrinsic success — of being in a hit movie and walking a red carpet."
Josh, on the other hand, won't be posing for photographers anytime soon. "Josh is kind of mourning the idea of, I'm not going to get to play the Super Bowl. I'm not going to get to be that superstar on stage with millions of people screaming my name ," Gordon-Levitt continues. "The truth is, I dreamed of playing the Super Bowl. But I'm not going to do that, and it's okay. I could easily go negative and think, I didn't do this, I didn't do that, and oh fuck, I blew it.
"But if what you're looking for is quantifiable, golden calf rewards, you're never gonna be satisfied. The real satisfaction comes from being in that moment when you're tinkering around on your piano and trying something [until it works].
"Mr. Corman is about Josh as an artist — that's the story we're telling. And that's the philosophy behind HitRecord. Great artists are able to find meaning, self-expression, joy, peace, humor and fun in making art."
Not since his 2013 film Don Jon has Gordon-Levitt released a project so fully his own, crafted by him from start to finish. He created, executive-produced and stars in Mr. Corman. He also wrote four of the episodes, directed eight and shared showrunning responsibilities with fellow executive producer Bruce Eric Kaplan (Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, Girls).
For this interview, Gordon-Levitt speaks via Zoom from his postproduction office in Wellington, New Zealand, where the series was filmed. He always envisioned Mr. Corman as specific to life in the San Fernando Valley, but those plans went awry when, three weeks into shooting, the pandemic set in.
Executives at A24, the production company behind the series, suggested moving the show to New Zealand. "They were just ahead of the curve, right before everybody else had that idea," Gordon-Levitt says. "So we managed to get a little stage space and a crew just under the wire."
Getting New Zealand to double for southern California had its challenges. "There are so many little things — like doorknobs or windows — that make up where you are," Kaplan says. "We'd walk into a shop and be like, 'Oh no, coffee pots don't look like that. Those look European . ' And the actors — you have to have people who speak like they're in the Valley."
Fortunately, Kaplan brought expertise in the details as well as the big picture. "Basically, I was hired to service Joe's creative vision," he remarks. "The voice of the show was already there."
Kaplan, who is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker, remembers when he read the show's two initial scripts. "They were exactly what I would want to write. I like something that's funny, sad, highbrow, lowbrow, about the beauty and the horror of life. I like anything that's about everything, which I really feel this show is."
Parts of Mr. Corman tiptoe into the surreal — including one dream-like sequence of Josh being thrown out of a window and sailing into outer space, and another of him drumming on his chest in the shower to a thumping visual collage. These forays into the fantastic were suggested by Gordon-Levitt's friend and frequent collaborator, director Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi).
"A piece of feedback he gave me after he read the first draft was, 'This feels real , and that's good, but it feels like you're holding something back. What would happen if you just let yourself loose to do the shit that you would get a big kick out of?'"
Those comments led Gordon-Levitt to an insight: sometimes real life feels fanciful or bizarre, and depicting those feelings realistically doesn't necessarily do them justice. Which is why he included a big song-and-dance number in episode three. "I think that's where musicals are at their best — when characters are feeling something so powerfully that they can't quite say it in dialogue, so they have to sing."
The final stage of Gordon-Levitt's creative process does not, in fact, belong to him — it lies with the viewer, he says. "Any time any audience watches a show, they're going to have their own subjective experience with it, and that in itself is a creative process. It might overlap with what I intended, or it might be totally different. But some of it's probably going to be more beautiful or more meaningful than anything I could have conceived or intended.
"The internet is so conducive to brevity, and soundbites about a show tend to be like, you liked it or you didn't. But what's interesting to me is when someone says, 'That scene reminded me of this thing in my life.' Using a movie or a show as a means of exploring a person and their perspective is what's satisfying."
Gordon-Levitt grudgingly reads his reviews, though it's a habit he'd prefer to break. "I wish I could tell you it doesn't matter — I do think it mostly doesn't matter — but I can't help it, as much as I should.
"I wouldn't say I have the quietest mind in the world," he adds.
That active mental state is a trait he shares with his character, though to a far lesser degree. "We all have our various anxieties, and I am close with some people who have gone through acute attacks, like what you see Josh go through," he continues. "I feel like I know what it's like to be anxious, though I haven't had a clinical anxiety attack. And it's something I was interested in exploring. It's incredibly prevalent in our society and doesn't get talked about enough.
"TV shows are conversation-starters at their best," maintains Gordon-Levitt, who is pleased about his show landing at Apple TV+. The presence of Michelle Lee — director of domestic programming at Apple TV+, a producer on Mr. Corman and an early advocate of the series — is one of the reasons he's happy to be at the streamer.
He also likes the way Apple as a company champions creativity through technology. But it was Apple TV+'s commitment to drop episodes weekly that particularly appealed to him. "I think the way you connect with people is different when you binge. There's something more communal about a show that comes out week to week."
The final scene in the first episode will give viewers plenty to talk about. Especially if, like Gordon-Levitt, they know what it feels like to push through the initial stages of an artistic pursuit. Josh sits down at his keyboard for the first time in a long time and starts tinkering. As the screen goes black, we hear him playing in fits and starts.
"Psychologists study a thing called flow, which is an observable phenomenon in the brain," Gordon-Levitt says. "If something is too easy, you won't click into a flow state. It needs to be just challenging enough so you have to work for it. But it's doable — it won't crush you. Those are the feelings that Josh has been missing for the year that he hasn't been playing.
"The Hollywood ending would be that he sits down, and he plays and it's beautiful. But that's not how — in my experience — art and creativity really are. It's a challenge. And the challenge is what makes it so meaningful."
Executive producers for Mr. Corman are Gordon-Levitt, Kaplan, Ravi Nandan and Inman Young. The series debuted with three episodes on August 6 and will drop the remaining episodes each Friday.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No.8, 2021