'Complexities, contradictions and messiness make for the best stories,' says actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt about playing Travis Kalanick

Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks about the relevance of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber and what drew him to the show

Ayesha Tabassum Published :  24th February 2022 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  24th February 2022 12:00 AM
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick

The trailer of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber opens with the dialogue, “I’m Travis Kalanick and I will never back down from a fight. If no one wants to believe in me, I’ll make them believe by being undeniable.” It’s this go-getter attitude and powerful words that build up the excitement for Showtime’s new anthology series that brings to screen the rise of Uber in its first season. The actor who is cast as Travis Kalanick is the popular and much-loved Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His character as the disruptor who shook up the startup industry in America with Uber’s unanticipated rise, is based on the 2019 non-fiction book of the same name and is created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the team behind Billions.

Gordon-Levitt who has played a variety of roles in movies such as Inception, Looper, Snowden and The Dark Knight Rises, portrays the aggressive and ambitious streaks of Kalanick’s personality convincingly. His previous outing was Mr Corman in which he played the reluctant Josh Corman and the show received a mixed response. But with Super Pumped, Gordon-Levitt is all set to surprise fans.

In an interview just ahead of the show’s premiere, the actors talk about what drew them to the script, the challenges they faced while interpreting and performing their roles and what the audience can expect from the show. Excerpts:

You both have been part of so many different television series and films inspired by real-life stories so what was it about Super Pumped that excited you?
Joseph: Super Pumped is a crime story in a way. I found it fascinating. I remember reading about Greyball, the programme inside of Uber where they were systematically breaking the law. They actually built software and had a whole engineering team working on this software to break the law. I knew that there might be some questionable decisions being made behind the scenes. But I did not know that they were just actually, fully, intentionally breaking the law at that scale — thousands and thousands and million times over. That really fascinated me amongst plenty of other things.

Joseph, there’s a book and a living person, Travis Kalanick, on whom the story is based. How did you approach the script and bring your perspective to your role?
The well-researched book written by New York Times journalist Mike Isaac is first-hand sourced information that is confirmed by secondary sources. We had that, but I wanted to go beyond that to learn about how it felt and what it really was like to be in the room with him. So, I spoke to people who worked closely with him and I learned a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have learned from the press or from watching interviews he gave. Surprisingly, most people I spoke with had a lot of positive things to say about him. They really liked Travis and felt that he was compelling and inspiring. I then went about trying to find that balance. We wanted to be unflinching in showing the questionable and arguably unethical decisions and behaviours. But we also wanted to show a human being who was actually pretty relatable in a lot of ways. I think Travis made for an ideal character to play as an actor. The complexities, contradictions and messiness make for the best stories.

What about your character did you love the most, Joseph?
We all have in us an animal with a primal desire to just take what we want and win at all costs... to hell with everybody else. Most of us don’t act on that urge, at least not too much. Travis is somebody who did and he was heavily rewarded for that. We know that there will be pretty bad consequences if that’s how we behave and Travis did suffer some bad consequences, but maybe not bad enough. As an actor though, it feels amazing. It’s incredibly cathartic to get into that arena and dig into that part of myself and bring it out. And also not have to suffer those consequences. I got the best of both worlds, perhaps. It was fun for me to do and hopefully, that makes it fun for the audience to watch.

While it chronicles the rise of a business and the fall of a person, is there a bigger message in the story?
This story reminds me of Icarus from Greek mythology. Icarus was warned not to fly high and get too close to the sun. It is a story of humility. This is that. Travis is somebody who built something powerful and he thought of himself as infallible. But he was. There are a million Icarus stories. There’s a reason why that myth has stayed relevant for thousands of years and I think this is a good one for our time.

You did Snowden, now Super Pumped and you will soon be playing the cult leader Jim Jones. What’s drawing you to roles based on real people and their stories?
I love telling stories about things that I feel matter to the world. Whatever Snowden did was controversial, but doubtlessly historic. The same goes for Travis. Uber was the fastest-growing company ever in the history of American capitalism. Jim Jones is a horrendous cult leader but was obviously doing something effectively that got people gathering around him. It’s a trend worth exploring especially now in these times of social media when cult leaders and authoritarians are in their heyday. This is why we elected Trump in 2016 and why we are seeing a rise in authoritarianism around the world. That’s why playing one of the most deadly cult leaders of all time is an important story to tell in history.

Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber premieres on February 28 on Voot Select