In John Carney’s lovely new musical film, Flora and Son, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a guitar teacher who ends up being the catalyst for Flora’s (Eve Hewson) own self-discovery as well as the strengthening of her relationship with her wayward son. As with all John Carney’s movies, music plays a vital part in illuminating the lives of his character.
As Jeff, a very sweet man whose professional goals in music never came true, Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes a character who could have been just a plot device, and invests him with real feeling and a just below the surface sadness that elevates both the role and the movie.
In our conversation, Gordon-Levitt explains not only why he wanted the part as badly as he did, but also the value of an actor knowing their character and being in service of the film’s story, as opposed to one’s ego.
Awards Daily: John Carney’s films have always resonated with me, so I was just delighted to watch Flora and Son. Forgive my ignorance. I did not know you had a background in music. Were you nervous about playing and singing on screen?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: YI don’t get nervous easily because I’m too old and jaded (Laughs), but I did get some nerves, especially in the parts where I was just singing and playing nakedly. In a conventional musical, you go into a studio, you record a song, they edit the best takes together, and then you go on the set and you lip sync to what you’ve already recorded. We did that in a couple of the songs in this movie, but then there were a couple where John was like I think you should just play it live and we’ll record it.
Awards Daily: And you’re like, okay.(Laughs).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I was like okay, great. You’re probably right. That will be better. So I practiced a lot and, yeah, I was nervous. But I had that safety net of knowing that John Carney’s taste in these things is really tip-top and he wouldn’t let me look bad. He would tell me if it were bad, and he did. He definitely helped shape those performances, and I’m so, so grateful.
Awards Daily: You had to build chemistry with Eve often through a laptop. There’s a couple of clever cheats in the movie, which I won’t give away. But was it challenging trying to connect through a webcam?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I’ve had a lot of experience doing art and creativity over the internet. I started this online community for that, called HITRECORD, years ago, so that felt natural to me. Plus, we had just lived through the pandemic. We were still in the middle of it, actually, when we shot this, so that felt natural as well. And I think it’s nice to show an example of technology that’s positive. A decade ago, I was nothing but optimistic about digital technology and its ability to bring us all together, but the last decade has really shown that there have been some poisonous, destructive pitfalls to what happens when you turn this technology into an advertising business that’s based on addiction and behavior modification.
With that said, it’s really lovely to see an example of technology being used in a really positive way. This is a story about two people who are making music together, but they’re not doing it on social media. They’re not trying to be influencers or counting their likes or their follows. They’re just connecting: one person in L.A., one person in Dublin, and really seeing each other and going deeply into each other and falling in some kind of unconventional love. That’s the beauty of what this technology could be giving us, and does give us, if only we could shake the monkey off our back of the other poisonous stuff.
Awards Daily: Speaking of your chemistry with Eve, which was terrific, I think up until Bad Sisters, we may not have been aware of her facility with comedy, but she’s explosively funny here. You’re certainly amusing in the movie, but your role is mostly to allow her the space to be really, really funny, right? Is it ever hard as an actor to give that person the space, because that’s what their part entails, and mine does not?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It’s something I’ve always done. In conventional comedy, there’s the setups and the punchlines. On Third Rock from the Sun, I was often doing setup. This movie is less like laughs-driven conventional comedy, and more like character-driven. It’s a softer kind of comedy, I guess you could say. No, I never really let myself fall into those kinds of competitive mindsets. It’ll ruin you if you let yourself go there. I remember once when I was a little kid, I was in a drama camp where we were putting on a show, seeing one of my campmates going over the script with a highlighter and literally counting her lines and counting other people’s lines. She’s a little kid, you can’t blame her, but actors do that too, like grown up actors do that (Laughs). I always try to catch it in myself if I’m ever slipping into some kind of mentality like that.
Awards Daily: This is largely Flora’s story. You’ve obviously been a lead often in film and on TV. Was part of the reason you were drawn to this piece the opportunity to work with John Carney and get to say these fantastic lines and be this character?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: 100%. I’ve always been a fan of John Carney’s movies. Truthfully, I don’t like that many movie musicals but John Carney has a way of making them feel real, and like you’re watching real humans. I’ve always wanted to be in a musical, and I never have before, all this time I’ve been doing this. So when the John Carney script came across my desk I was just, yes, please, this. This is so for me. And I had to convince him.
He wasn’t quite thinking of me for this part at first. He thought he was going to hire a musician, like a professional, well known musician. I wrote him a whole letter about how I thought no, you shouldn’t have a gorgeous voiced rock star playing this part. This should be someone like me, who can sing and play, but not a star. I’ll practice as much as I need to, and I’ll do a good job, but also, I’ll feel just like a regular person. A normal guy. That’s what will make this character pop, and that’s what this story needs. Luckily I was able to convince him.
Awards Daily: One thing you mentioned about musicals is the kind of musicals that John Carney makes are closer to something like 8 Mile or Purple Rain where they’re not “burst into song” musicals. Is that the genre of musical that you favor?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I like both. I like all kinds of musicals. They’re just really hard to do well. It’s the rare one that really works, but I like some of the burst into song musicals, especially some of the older ones, whether it’s Wizard of Oz or Singing in the Rain. But I like the unconventional. Dancer in the Dark was a musical I liked, or Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You. Moulin Rouge is another. I really like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So, I like all kinds of musicals. I also like really conventional musicals. Encanto is one of my favorite movies of the past decade. I think that movie’s brilliant. And that’s just a full-on conventional Disney animated musical, but it’s great. So I don’t know if there’s one subgenre that I favor, it’s just the ones that I like.
Awards Daily: In regards to your character, you’re playing a guy whose dreams didn’t exactly come true, and he’s finding a way to stay musical. He’s not miserable, but he’s kind of low-key sad. Your character at one point says it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything new. He kind of left that behind because it hurt him that he didn’t get where he wanted to go. Is that how you saw the character?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, a hundred percent, and there’s a reason for that. This ties into the theme of the whole movie. The protagonist of Flora and Son is this woman whose life didn’t exactly go the way that she wanted it to go. She has a son who’s almost a man now, and her marriage didn’t work out, and her career is not something she cares about, and she’s just not very happy and feeling sort of stuck in her life. And there’s a commonality between her and the character I play, Jeff, who, like you said, is someone who is a musician and tried to have a career in music and didn’t end up making a living selling records, but is getting by as a teacher. This is the thing, I’m someone who’s extremely lucky I do get to make a living as an artist. It’s a rare privilege and I feel a lot of gratitude for that.
Part of what Flora and Son is about is recognizing that no matter where it is, no matter where you are, what your life is, there are things about your life that are worth being grateful for. There are also things in your life that you’re going to be disappointed in. As someone who’s had a certain amount of success, are there things that I’ve been disappointed in? Sure. Can I beat myself up over those things? Yeah. And do I sometimes? Yeah. Is that healthy or productive? No, not really. This is a lesson I think we all have to learn, especially those of us who are privileged enough to be watching movies. We’re privileged enough to be spending our time in a place where we get to eat every day and we get to have a house and we get to get medicine when we need it. There’s billions of people in the world who don’t have those things. For those of us who are lucky enough to have those things, it’s probably worthwhile to say yeah, I’m really grateful for a lot in my life, and yeah, I’m also disappointed about some things in my life, and that’s okay, and we can find that balance and move forward, get on with it.
Awards Daily: I think that’s what makes Carney’s films feel so real, that there is that mixture of the bitter and the sweet. He’s also very good at avoiding the conventional route of boy meets girl. Which is carefully managed here as well. Did it surprise you at all that certain things didn’t happen that you can easily imagine would in another film?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I think you’re absolutely right. It’s actually part of why I was initially somewhat surprised that this movie has been such a hit. A lot of movies that hit as hard as this one play it pretty safe. They stick to the conventions, the crowd-pleasing formulas if you will, and this one really doesn’t in a lot of ways. When I was making it, I’ll be perfectly honest, I thought “This is going to be a great movie. I’m so delighted to be in a John Carney movie. It’ll be a little indie movie. Maybe, hopefully, it’ll get some kind of distribution. I don’t know. But that’s not why I’m doing it.
I’m just so happy to be here. I had no idea it would be one of the biggest sales at Sundance, and it would be globally streamed, and everyone would be talking about it like this. I honestly did not anticipate that, which maybe just goes to show that I don’t really know what I’m doing. (Laughs). But it also goes to show, I think, that people don’t only want formulaic stuff. There’s a real yearning for something more unique and honest. And that is what John Carney is so good at delivering.
Awards Daily: When you’re watching the final performance in the film, and the title comes across the screen, I have to tell you I got chills. Sometimes when you’re watching movies you’ll sit there and go god damn it this is so good please stick the landing. Please end as perfectly as you started and middled, and this one does that. You’ve talked about the response that it’s gotten, not only critically, but from viewers that have seen it. Getting to watch the film back and to be able to say “I was a part of that and that damn thing worked” has to feel fantastic.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It certainly does. You’re right. It also goes to what we were talking about a minute ago. You have some successes in your life and then you have some other projects I’ve done that I care about just as much that won’t be regarded as successes the same way that this one is. And that’s fine too. It’s not only about that. It’s great to have something that’s kind of perfect in that way, like you’re talking about, but life is also full of failures and imperfections and those are part of what makes it rich and lovely too. I guess I’m just counterbalancing what you’re saying with part of what I think is the moral of the story of this movie.