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Playing Lincoln's rebellious boy is just the latest feather in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's cap

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Los ANGELES -- Poor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The guy is trying to say something nice about his Lincoln co-star Sally Field at a press conference for the film, alongside Field and the film's screenwriter Tony Kushner. But it kind of turns into a joke about his youth.

Specifically, Gordon-Levitt recalls shooting a scene in the Steven Spielberg-directed film in which Field, in the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, hosts a reception. There, she strategically puts the prickly abolitionist congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in his place. The speech, Field recalls, "was the most eloquent monologue of my life, and it was a mouthful."

Gordon-Levitt concurs.

"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," he says. "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 your lines," he tells Field.

It's a lovely sentiment and a testament to Field's professionalism. But Kushner can't help but laugh.

"It's a shock to hear you say 'in the 25 years I've been doing this,'" he says.

"He's only 25 years old," Field says, inspiring Kushner to suggest Gordon-Levitt was acting "in utero."

Not quite. In fact, Gordon-Levitt is 31 years old, but he has been at this gig for some time. He started doing commercials at age four and was doing movies and TV series by the time he was six.

As a teen, Gordon-Levitt entered the public consciousness playing Tommy Solomon, an alien in teen human disguise on the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun.

But from there, the actor seemed to strive to do more serious, adventurous work, including playing a brain-damaged janitor drawn into a bank robbery plot in the shot-in-Winnipeg drama The Lookout.

Let's just say he has stayed busy. Lincoln is his fourth film in the past year, including The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Premium Rush.

It is arguably the most prestigious of his 2012 credits. Gordon-Levitt portrays Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the president, who rankles as his protective father prevents him from enlisting in the army in the waning days of the Civil War.

He says the "strained relationship" between father and son allowed some shading to the character of Lincoln, whom, one is reminded, "worked so much that he wasn't really around to be a dad when Robert was young."

"The more public struggle (is) 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," Gordon-Levitt says.

"He feels ashamed and cowardly because everybody his age is fighting and that's a really fascinating struggle," he says. "One of the greatest virtues of this movie is it doesn't paint Abraham Lincoln as a deity or as, you know, an absolute, perfect man.

"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."

Seasoned actor as he might be, Gordon-Levitt says he was still in awe of his screen father Daniel Day-Lewis, who tends to stay in character when shooting movies. (Even when the cameras were not rolling, Spielberg, cast and crew addressed Day-Lewis as "Mr. President.")

Gordon-Levitt says he was honoured to observe Day-Lewis's process.

"The first time I met him, I never met him, never met Daniel in person," he explains. "I only ever met the president, only ever heard his voice... the president's voice. (I) called him 'sir.' He called me Robert, and I loved that.

"On the last day of shooting, I got to watch him get up out of his deathbed and start to shrug it off," Gordon-Levitt says. "And later that night, we all went out to celebrate and that was the first time I personally met Daniel. He showed up in jeans and a T-shirt and had a completely different voice and posture.

"He was like one of my friends, you know, this kind of cool artist guy, and having a Guinness and just laughing and having a great time," he says. "It was really something to behold and I feel really lucky that I got to be there on that day."


Lincoln opens Nov. 16 at the Grant Park and Polo Park cinemas.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 C3

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