Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from his days as a teen star in the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun and in the film 10 Things I Hate About You. Levitt has gained new buzz with roles in films like G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, (500) Days Of Summer, Inceeption, and 50/50.
He particularly has had a productive year with films like The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, and Looper. Now the 31 year-old hopes to cap it with a role as President Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s latest film Lincoln.
Gordon-Levitt talks about the biggest challenge and biggest surprise he found in playing the character.
“My experience was that the research that I did, to be honest, paled in comparison to the research that was done by those around me,” he answers, “Daniel [Day-Lewis] and [screenwriter] Tony [Kushner] and Sally [Field] amongst others and I found I learned the most just by having conversations with them. And I found Robert to be a really fascinating character myself for a number of reasons. Personally, the strained relationship between father and son, between a father who worked so much that he wasn’t really around to be a dad when Robert was young. As well as the more public struggle that, uh, that’s really on the surface of the story of our movie, where Robert wants to enlist in the Union army and his parents concerned for his safety don’t want him to.”
“And he feels ashamed and cowardly because everybody his age is fighting and that’s a really fascinating struggle and I think one that points one of the greatest virtues of this movie, which is it doesn’t paint Abraham Lincoln as a deity or as an absolute perfect man,” Joseph adds, “It really portrays him as a human being with flaws and hypocrisies because it is sort of hypocritical for a President to be perpetuating a war while at the same time, keeping his son from fighting. That is hypocritical and the movie doesn’t shy away from pointing out that hypocrisy and I think that’s really important because we tend to deify Abraham Lincoln and think of him as this sort of angel almost. And he wasn’t. He’s a human being. And I think that’s a really important lesson to learn.”
Asked of Joseph was how Robert’s relationship with his father shaped Lincoln’s ideology and how did Lincoln’s ideology shape his role as a Father to Robert.
“Man, to be honest, I don’t think I could really properly answer the first question,” Gordon-Levitt replies, “How did the President’s relationship to his son shape the President’s ideologies? I don’t have a good answer. I’ll just be really honest.”
Gordon-Levitt recalls a pivotal scene in the film where Lincoln’s wife and First Lady Mary Todd, played by Sally Field, has an intense confrontation with Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones.
“I’ll say about that day is it’s a common thing when you have a big dialogue scene, you have to do it over and over again all day for all the different camera angles,” Joseph remembers, “And pretty invariably by the end of the day, you know everybody’s lines. And this is, I think the only time I can ever remember in the 25 years I’ve been doing this where by the end, I still could absolutely not have done Sally’s lines.”
“If she says a mouthful,” he continues, “But I mean, but she also, I remember, I understood it every time, even the first time she said it, I was like, it’s, as she says, I mean, really extraordinary verbiage, but a really clear and strong train of thought and so well communicated.”
Joseph talks about what it was like to work with Oscar-winning actor Daniel-Day Lewis, who plays the titular sixteenth President in Lincoln.
“Well the story that I’ll tell I guess is I was fortunate enough to be working on the last day of filming,” he says, “And so I got to sort of witness him shed this character because I — I also had a really warm, although not probably as extensive exchange via text message with Daniel. But the first time I met him, I never never met Daniel in person. I only ever met the President, only ever heard his voice, the President’s voice, called him Sir, he called me Robert.”
“And I loved that,” Gordon-Levitt adds, “On the last day of shooting, I got to watch him get up out of his death bed and start to shrug it off. And later that night, we all went out to celebrate and that was the first time I personally met Daniel. And he showed up in jeans and a T-shirt and had a completely different voice and posture and he was like one of my friends, this kind of cool artist guy.And having a Guinness and just laughing and having a great time, and it was really something to behold and I feel really lucky that I got to be there on that day.”