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Joseph Gordon-Levitt: 'Super Pumped' shows Uber's unethical practices

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt: 'Super Pumped' shows Uber's unethical practices
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in "Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt said Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, premiering Sunday on Showtime, highlights an ethical flaw in American business practices.

The 41-year-old Gordon-Levitt plays Uber founder Travis Kalanick in the series.

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"If your company achieves profitability and is doing pretty good, you won't get venture capital investment," Gordon-Levitt said on a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "The economy doesn't reward that kind of success. It rewards unicorns."

Super Pumped, based on the book by Mike Isaac that chronicles the tech company, depicts how Kalanick sought venture capital funding from Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler). The company grew the user base for its rideshare app while battling city transportation departments and taxi unions.

Gordon-Levitt said Uber is one of many companies pressured to demonstrate exponential growth. The actor said such pressures led Kalanick to enact business practices that left drivers and users vulnerable.

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"Oftentimes, to achieve that kind of unicorn success, you have to be Machiavellian," Gordon-Levitt said. "You have to be predatory."

In addition to acting, Gordon-Levitt founded a media company, HitRecord. HitRecord produces films like Don Jon and online media by facilitating collaboration amongst artists.

Gordon-Levitt said he hopes the business world can change to reward companies for ethical practices. He hopes that, in the future, companies can be successful "for doing the right thing, being kind and good to people, thinking about the long-term future and making sure that everyone is taken care of."

Gordon-Levitt also said Uber deserves credit for improving its platform for drivers and users since the events depicted in Super Pumped. That the company suffered financially for it is indicative of the economy favoring cutthroat businesses, Gordon-Levitt said.

"As they've cleaned up their act. Unfortunately, their stock price and their growth has gone down," he said.

In addition to business demands, Gordon-Levitt said Kalanick also let power go to his head, and that Super Pumped will show how Kalanick lost sight of his goal to provide affordable, accessible rideshare, in part by surrounding himself with yes men.

"It's sort of an Icarus story of someone who is really well-meaning," Gordon-Levitt said. "Watching Travis's rise and then fall is, I think, watching someone who doesn't have anyone around him anymore who will disagree with him."

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In playing Kalanick, Gordon-Levitt said he needed to do more than simply re-enact the events of Uber's development. He met with associates of Kalanick to get a sense of his impact on others.

"People actually had a lot of positive things to say about him," Gordon-Levitt said. "He was so energetic, that he was so inspiring, that he would get everybody on their side, that he made everybody feel like what they were doing was incredibly important."

Not everybody gave Kalanick glowing reviews. Gordon-Levitt said he also obtained confirmation about some of Kalanick's negative qualities depicted in Super Pumped.

"Yes, I heard about a certain level of intensity that could be intimidating," Gordon-Levitt said. "I heard about some of the toxic behavior, that he was not focused enough on addressing within the company."

He said he hopes Kalanick will like his portrayal, and that Super Pumped is more even-handed than much of the negative press Kalanick has received.

"The way that the writers of this show wrote him, he comes off as a badass," Gordon-Levitt said. "There's fireworks coming out of his mouth every minute, and who wouldn't enjoy that?"

Gordon-Levitt said he is still optimistic about positive applications for digital technology. He uses social media to promote his acting projects, and HitRecord projects.

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"I absolutely still believe in the positive outcomes that can result from using digital technology to bring people together," Gordon-Levitt said. "I do think there are some really big problems when you make money off of those connections through mass surveillance and advertising."

Gordon-Levitt said he hopes laws will be enacted to limit surveillance by digital companies. Until they are, he encourages users of social media to keep some of their personal information private.

"You can stay private if you want to," Gordon-Levitt said. "You have to choose to."

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber airs Sundays at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime.

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