Joseph Gordon-Levitt Interview For ‘Lincoln’
Steven Spielberg directs two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Lincoln,’ a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office. Based on the best-selling book ‘Team of Rivals’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and adapted for the screen by Tony Kushner and Goodwin himself, ’Lincoln’ focuses on the life of the former President, focusing on the man’s rise to politics and his role in the Civil War.
Alongside Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, ‘Lincoln’ stars Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, John Hawkes as Robert Latham, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Walton Goggins as Wells A. Hutchins, James Spader as WN Bilbo, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens. David Oyelowo, Tim Blake Nelson, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, David Costabile, Byron Jennings, Dakin Matthews, Boris McGiver, Gloria Reuben, Jeremy Strong, David Warshofsky and Lee Pace also star. In the US, ‘Lincoln’ will hit limited theaters on November 9th before expanding wider on November 16th. The film lands in UK cinemas on January 25th.
In the film, while we see Abraham Lincoln struggle with his responsibilities to his country, to his wife, his morals….we also get a glimpse into his father/son relationship with your character. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic of father and son in ‘Lincoln’?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Sure. I play Robert Todd Lincoln, who’s Abraham Lincoln’s eldest son. And in fact they didn’t have a great father/son relationship, it was quite strained. Abraham Lincoln was largely absent when Robert was young, he was on the circuit. I love that because this movie doesn’t portray Abraham Lincoln as a symbol, or an icon, or an angel. ‘Lincoln’ shows him as a human being, it shows him as a man with flaws, a guy who has to make compromises, who has his moments of hypocrisy. I think that’s really important, you know? Yes, he’s one of the great leaders and great minds of history, but he’s also a human being. I think it’s important to remember, and also it make for a really interesting movie to watch.
How was it working opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in that role?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: It’s uncanny (laughs). Daniel’s just a phenomenon, he’s kind of in a league of his own. I had absolutely no problem believing that I was speaking to Abraham Lincoln. Which is sort of mind-boggling because with Abraham Lincoln….I grew up in the US, I have Abraham Lincoln on my pennies and on my $5 bills (laughs). He’s this iconic figure in our psyches, so to see an actor so seamlessly just become this figure and have no problems believing he was him, that’s really an accomplishment.
On the one hand you have Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, then you were also taken into the White House of 1860’s in this film. The attention to detail and authenticity seemed quite remarkable watching ‘Lincoln.’ What was it like to have that environment on top of these very real characters around you? How did that affect your work as an actor?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: They replicated the Lincoln White House with meticulous historical accuracy. I love it when anybody gives that much love and care to their work, it makes my job a lot easier – a lot easire! When I can step onto a set and the environment that Steven Spielberg has created is so conducive to an actor being able to focus and just get into to it – and not feel like we’re acting.
What struck you most about walking onto the sets?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Daniel (laughs). The whole set revolved around him, and as it should have. I think that really speaks high to Steven, because a less experienced and perhaps more egotistical director….generally the set revolves around the director, but on ‘Lincoln’ Steven really centered everything on Daniel, the President – he called him Mr. President. I think that was key and for me it made it just so I could slip into the world.
There’s so many relevant themes and topics in this film that resonate today. What stands out to you most about the story that Steven Spielberg decided to tell in ‘Lincoln’? Obviously he had a pick of many stories he could have told about this man….
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: When I first sat down to read the script I figured I was just going to read a biography of Lincoln, and that’s not what this movie is. In fact it’s focused on this moment leading up to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, and slavery in the United States. What struck me the most I guess was that this was controversial at the time. Now it seems pretty obvious: no human being should be a slave. All men are created equal, isn’t that the whole point? But back then it was super controversial, on both sides. And that was another thing that really struck me, Lincoln wasn’t just contending with Democrats who wanted to keep slavery legal – back then the Democratic party were the more conservative party and the Republican party were the more progressive party, he was also contending with more progressive and revolutionary Republicans to the left of him. They were holding ideas that today seem completely normal, the fact that black people should be allowed to vote, and that black people and white people should be allowed to get married. Back then they were really, really revolutionary and controversial ideas, and Lincoln made these compromises. Lincoln said, “I know that this is the right thing to do, but I can’t push for it right now. If I do I will lose all of these people and we won’t be able to take any steps forward, we’ll be stuck.” And he received grief, so much grief from all sides and so much criticism. And I guess in many ways that’s what a leader is.
Working with Steven Spielberg on ‘Lincoln,’ what was it like seeing him work with actors and the enthusiasm he has on set?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: What I noticed the most about Steven immediately that stuck with me was just how happy he was to be on set, and how enthusiastic and gleeful he was (laughs). You know, you’d think, “Steven Spielberg, he’s one of the most successful and renowned filmmakers of all time, probably it’s just another day at the office for him.” But not at all (laughs). I think this project was really special to him. This was a particular movie that he’s been trying to make happen for years. Just every day, every shot, he had just such love for what he was doing. And that’s contagious.
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