Joseph Gordon-Levitt Remembers His Worst Breakup in New Book: 'I Was in Physical Pain Every Day'

The actor and his artistic collaborative community HITRECORD released a new book, The Art of Breaking Up

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Photo: AWNewYork/Shutterstock

In Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s new book, The Art of Breaking Up, which he created with his artistic collaborative community HITRECORD, the actor remembers his worst breakup ever.

“Life can be painful, especially a love life. I know this from personal experience. Luckily, I’m very happy in my marriage right now, but I certainly remember a time when love and romance was a very emotionally turbulent part of my life,” Gordon-Levitt, 38, tells PEOPLE. (The Snowden star shares two sons with wife Tasha McCauley, a robotics expert.) “Really, a big way that I would cope was write a story, or sing something, or shoot a video. Creativity is such a healing thing, especially when you’re not being creative alone.”

Creative collaboration is at the core of his award-winning organization and the crux of the new book. One HITRECORD member, fleetingmind, started a project in which she asked others in the online community to make art about breaking up. The response was so great, Gordon-Levitt and his team decided to make the art into a double-sided book.

One side is dedicated to the “Heartbreaker” and the other to the “Brokenhearted.” (Gordon-Levitt admits he’s “lived on both sides of that equation”). More than 200 artists contributed art to each side of the book. The collection of funny games, writing prompts, artwork, and poignant short stories was released on Tuesday by Harper Design.

Gordon-Levitt hopes the book will be both cathartic and inspirational.

The Art of Breaking Up by HITRECORD
The Art of Breaking Up by HITRECORD

“Even though the book is fun, and a lot of it is humorous, it’s very sincere in its respect for the pain of what it means to break up,” he says. “There are actual creative prompts in the book itself. It’ll say, ‘Okay, here’s your chance to write’ or ‘Here’s your chance to draw.’ But even go beyond that, and get creative yourself. Write something. Write a longer story, or draw something. This is what HITRECORD is all about.”

Gordon-Levitt’s own contribution, a short story entitled “Heartbroken at LAX,” appears in the “Brokenhearted” side of the book.

“I saw this project, people saying write a story about being heartbroken. I thought about it for a second,” he says. “My mind went back to being 18 years old because the worst heartbreak I ever felt was the first heartbreak I ever felt.”

The Art of Breaking Up by HITRECORD
The actor’s short story. HITRECORD
The Art of Breaking Up by HITRECORD
Reflections from the “Brokenhearted” side. HITRECORD

The actor explains that when he was a teenager, he truly believed that he was “smarter than everybody,” especially when he walked through the airport. He loved to judge people as he passed by. That all changed after Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend broke up with him. Six months after the breakup, he walked through LAX, but this time he didn’t feel so superior to everyone.

“On that morning, walking through the airport, I hated myself,” Gordon-Levitt writes in The Art of Breaking Up. “I did not hate her. I missed her. I was mad at her. I was madly in love with her. And she was madly in love with me too. No, she wasn’t anymore. She had been though.”

“I was in physical pain every day,” he continues. “My body hurt. I’d wake up and wish I hadn’t woken up. I wanted to be unconscious. I wanted to break stuff. Or I wanted to break myself.”

The Art of Breaking Up by HITRECORD
A coloring page from the “Heartbreaker” side. HITRECORD
The Art of Breaking Up by HITRECORD
“Breakup Game Night” suggestions from the “Hearbreaker” side. HITRECORD

Gordon-Levitt says that having his heart broken “knocked me off my high horse.”

“I distinctly remember this feeling of, she doesn’t love me anymore, so maybe I’m not so great. Maybe I’m not so smart. Maybe I’m not that much better or smarter than all these other people that I’m used to judging,” Gordon-Levitt explains, paraphrasing what he wrote in his short story. “The funny paradox is that if I hadn’t been such a judgmental little prick, maybe she wouldn’t have left me. But if she hadn’t left me, then maybe I wouldn’t have learned to stop being such a judgmental little prick.”

Now happily married, Gordon-Levitt still remembers the pain of dating. His advice for his friends who are struggling with a boyfriend or girlfriend is pretty straight forward.

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“My advice usually is to break up. When I’m talking to my friends who are in [relationships] and having problems, I’m like, ‘You don’t have to stay together.'” he says. “I feel like there’s so much pressure in this world… There’s a status symbol that comes along with having a boyfriend, or having a girlfriend, or having this significant other, however you decide to identify. I mean, I get it. There is something lovely about being in a couple. I’m married. I love being married, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not being in a [relationship].”

He adds: “Don’t worry about what it looks because of the outside. What will people think if I’m single? What will people think if I break up with my girlfriend or my boyfriend or whatever? That shouldn’t matter.”

The Art of Breaking Up is on sale now.

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