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Success, but at what cost? asks actor playing Travis Kalanick in a new show

As ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’ gets ready for release on February 27, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, shares his views on the controversial CEO.

February 26, 2022 / 08:59 AM IST
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Travis Kalanick in 'Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber', premiering on Showtime on February 27, 2022. (Image: screen grab)

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Travis Kalanick in 'Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber', premiering on Showtime on February 27, 2022. (Image: screen grab)

Travis Kalanick’s reputation followed the same trajectory as an errant Uber driver's.

In the early days of the app, as the world toasted Kalanick for the convenience of hailing a cab from their phone, the founder scored high ratings.

And then, inevitably, turbulence hit.

There were accusations that Kalanick was abrasive, unreasonably demanding and sexist, and so was the work culture at Uber. Sexual harassment complaints by female staffers were often ignored.

Another charge was that Kalanick and the company did not care about the very asset that kept them going - drivers. They were paid meagre wages with few benefits.


Kalanick’s ratings plunged, and forced him to exit the company. Of course, not without cashing out with over $2 billion, as per reports.

Uber and Kalanick made for a phenomenal story. In 2019, Mike Isaac wrote a book on the crash and burn at the taxi app, titled Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. It was picked up for screen adaptation. On February 27, it will premiere on Showtime.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Kalanick. Over the last few days, he has shared his view of the Uber CEO in interviews.

“From what I can gather—from the book, and from the people that I spoke to—he (Kalanick) was always convinced that he was doing the right thing,” Gordon-Levitt told The New York Times. “That’s something that probably all of us humans do at different times, when we get focused on a certain goal and we get Machiavellian. We think, ‘This goal is so good, and if I have to make other compromises on the way, it’s worth it.’”


In another interview, while talking to talk show host Stephen Colbert, Gordon-Levitt compared Kalanick to Donald Trump—he was entertaining company but did not always do what was good for people.

“I think he was a really exciting guy to be around actually, and there's good parts to that and bad parts to that,” Gordon-Levitt said. “There's probably some people who have done some pretty bad things in the world—like the president we elected in 2016—who was pretty exciting to be around. But just because someone’s exciting to be around doesn’t mean they are doing the right thing.”

In one scene in the show, Kalanick’s mentor, the venture capitalist Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler), delivers a succinct summation of his impetuous protégé: “The best thing about Travis is he’ll run through walls to win. The worst thing about him is he thinks everything’s a wall.”

In real life, the words were uttered by Mark Cuban.

“That was Mark Cuban’s take on Travis,” Gordon-Levitt told NYT. “That was a real quote.”

Gordon-Levitt then laid some of the responsibility of Kalanick’s fate on start-up culture, which often only values profits.

“What’s most fascinating about the story isn’t just Uber itself or Travis himself, but the larger cultural trends that led to Uber becoming inevitable,” the actor said. “When entrepreneurs are held accountable for profits and profits only, you get these companies that grow incredibly fast and achieve incredible success, but at what cost?”

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Akshay Sawai
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