Joseph Gordon-Levitt knows the world of big tech thanks to his experiences trying to raise money with Silicon Valley venture capitalists for his production company, HITRECORD. It’s something he took into his role as Travis Kalanick, the now-former CEO of Uber, for Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber (which premieres Sunday). But that doesn’t mean the star of Looper and Inception is a tech bro fanboy. To the contrary, he demonstrated concern for the culture that made a Travis Kalanick possible when we spoke recently about the series, which comes from David Levian, Brian Koppelman, and Beth Schacter, the minds behind Billions. Concern and curiosity. And who can blame him?
Take a broad view and expand out beyond tech to include adventures in scam artistry and the general efforts of the rich and powerful to game systems and bludgeon rivals with their wallets and you’ve got the aforementioned Billions, Succession, Inventing Anna, The Dropout, White Lotus, and Pam & Tommy — the buzziest shows in the world — all about or adjacent to toxic win culture. All fruit from the tree of The Social Network. All focused on people struggling to retain elements of their humanity while nearly morphing into Gods, their consolation often a golden parachute but sometimes ample legal troubles. What is it about these Icarus things that captivate us so (we’ll have thoughts on that from the Daedalus of Super Pumped, co-lead Kyle Chandler, next week)? It’s a fascinating question and one we got into with Levitt while also exploring how winning is defined within that culture, whether Travis is a villain and a cult leader, and approaching this tale with an eye on not creating an accidental pirate folk hero with too much verve and coolness for our own good.
Everyone knows who this guy is, but there’s a lot here. There’s some nuance, but this is definitely a villain, it feels like. How do you find your way into the character and is it just exhausting to play that much cockiness all the time?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It’s definitely exhausting. It’s a lot of hard work. I was tired at the end of the day. But it’s also the kind of marathon I’m trained for, man. Like I’m good at this shit. [Laughs] Not to toot my own horn. But also the writing was really good and when the writing’s there it makes it pretty easy.
It’s interesting you say villain because, in a way, I think that’s true. There are a lot of highly questionable decisions and behavior from Travis. To me, what’s more interesting is not an indictment of that one individual human being but rather an exploration of what’s the system? What’s the culture? What are the macro components in place that drive somebody to do this? Ultimately, this is the game that’s been set up for entrepreneurs in our country. Travis just played it really well. Why is that the game? Why are entrepreneurs told that their only priority is to increase value for shareholders… is to grow stock price? “Grow or die,” as he says. Why? Why is that the thing? Why don’t we have an economy that also rewards benefiting the country or the human race as a whole and looking out for people’s wellbeing? And looking at the long-term future? And making sure that the things we’re doing are sustainable? None of that is built into our economy. And that, I think, that’s the problem! If we want to point a finger at, “Oh, this is bad, this is killing us.” It’s not Travis. It’s the larger system that Travis is a product of.
Well, I mean, yes. But while those are all valid and good points. And you’re right, what are the motivations behind those decisions? But a lot of it is just, “how cool would it be to have a hundred billion dollars?” and “How cool would it be to not have to listen to any rules?” And we’ve kind of seen what that looks like in a larger sense. So to me, that’s sort of why I go with a villain [label] because the system is what the system is, but he’s still choosing to exploit that system.
Right. But what else can he do?
Well, I mean, there are people that make the choice to work within the system, work within the rules, make things better.
They don’t win. They don’t win.
What does winning look like though? Is 100 billion dollars winning? Is 50 billion dollars not winning? Is 10 billion? Is it a scale? I guess that’s the question. What is enough success?
Winning is building the thing that everybody’s using. So let’s take Facebook, as an example, or YouTube. These are platforms that currently have established the framework for public discourse right now. They won in that way. They’re the medium through which we all have to conduct our lives, our public discourse, our democracy, our social lives. They state the claim. We can’t just say, “Oh, I won’t use Facebook. I’ll use this other social network that’s not driven by ads.” I mean, you could say that you’ll use that but no one will be on there with you. When a thing has succeeded like that and becomes the winner, the thing that everyone’s using, why does the thing that everyone’s using have to be optimized just for profits? I guess that’s the point that I’m making.
That’s a really good point.
If you don’t just optimize for profits… Why didn’t Vimeo win? Why did YouTube win? YouTube won because it made these decisions that are now the things that are breaking our democracy. Vimeo took the high road. It didn’t allow for the violation of copyright. It didn’t go the advertising route. It made a few of those big decisions. And now Vimeo is Vimeo and YouTube is YouTube. Vimeo came first. It wasn’t that YouTube had the first movers advantage. Vimeo launched before YouTube did.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to this view. But there are people that look at things like Goodfellas, The Sopranos, as having been things that glorified criminal enterprise, the mob. We talk about the system in place with these tech gods. And we all know what happened to this guy with Uber, at least. But is there a worry going into something like this that it becomes part of the cycle? Because some of this stuff, even if it’s still morally stunning to a lot of people, to others, perhaps people in that world, that’s some cool shit that he’s getting to do as this titan getting people to believe in him through these in-office sermons.
Yeah, I think it’s a wonderful question. It’s something I spoke actually at length about with Brian [Koppleman] and David [Levien]. You mentioned Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street is another example. And it’s a really important point that I think ultimately gets to the question of what’s the role of entertainment in our culture? And what happens when we’re all paying attention to entertainment, to the exclusion of other kinds of rhetoric?
In order to make this story a work of entertainment, you have to lean into the primal emotional stuff. That’s what makes entertainment, entertainment. And I think that it is totally honest, and I think it is worth acknowledging that that’s why… I think that’s a big part of why these things happen is because they are attractive. They do appeal to our animal selves to just take what you want and fuck everybody else. And there is something attractive about watching that. There’s something attractive about playing that. And that’s why it keeps happening over and over in history.
I don’t think that a work of entertainment can present a holistic argument of why not to do that. Because a holistic argument of why not to do that requires that we kind of set aside some of those primal animal, emotional feelings. And instead, start activating our logic, intuition, hard work, kind of as Daniel Kahneman calls it system 2 thinking. It’s stuff that we don’t want to think about when we sit down and watch TV. If you make a show like that, people won’t watch it because that’s not entertainment. That’s academia or that’s school or that’s work. And so to me, the role of entertainment here is to entertain you. Appeal to those urges, make you feel those feelings and simultaneously ask some questions.
I think an irresponsible version of Super Pumped would be the one that doesn’t ask those questions. That only shows you the fun parts and doesn’t show you any of the downsides. That doesn’t show you Travis’s shortcomings. And this show is unflinching in showing you.
And as glorious as he appears in episodes one, two, and three, he appears… if you watch the end, he’s inglorious for sure. So I love your question and it’s something we were talking about all the time. How do we ride that balance between, hopefully, not inspiring people to do more of this, but also being honest about why? Why all of us humans are drawn to this kind of behavior.
I read that you were cast as [cult leader] Jim Jones. I’m curious, are Travis and people in this position cult leaders, to a certain degree?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Travis a cult leader like Jim Jones. He [Travis] was a magnetic personality that rallied a lot of people, his team, as well as his drivers.
Well, obviously not to the same level of the thread running to the end there. I just found like the Koresh comment from Kyle Chandler’s character in, I think it was the first episode [of Super Pumped], really interesting. Cause it obviously seems like he believes that they’re cult leaders. [Laughs]
Yeah, it’s really true. First of all, there have always been these figures throughout history. But I think they’re playing an outsized role in our particular era because of how social media currently works. The way the sort of attention economy, the mass surveillance advertising model that optimizes for the kind of lowest common denominator… It plays very well into the hands of cult leaders, authoritarians, et cetera. We’re seeing a rise in authoritarianism throughout the world. Not just the fact that we elected an authoritarian.
It’s just so odd to me that people are drawn to them. They just get tunnel vision when someone speaks with authority and with confidence, it’s very troubling.
Yeah. Well, I think it’s basic human nature. Again, we’re animals. And this is why I think social media has to do with it. And this goes back to the profits at all cost question. Does our current social media frames public discourse to maximize profits? And the best way to maximize profit is to appeal to the most, basic, and sort of universal, human instincts. That’s how you’re going to maximize your profit. If you’re getting a fraction of a penny for every bit of public discourse, you’ll get more, if people are mad or if they’re scared, or if they’re adhering to a strong-man cult leader authoritarian figure that’s going to do better at sucking in all of our monkey brains. Whereas a framework that was trying to optimize for logic, reason, evidence-based, nuanced conversations… you’re making a brain work harder and it’s going to be harder to siphon profits off of that. So this is why I say that these sorts of cult leaders are probably having a heyday right now because they’re swimming in the fishbowl of Facebook and YouTube. And those platforms are why Trump was able to get elected. And, Trump’s not the only one around the world.
‘Super Pumped’ premieres Sunday on Showtime