Joseph Gordon-Levitt Interview For Steven Spielberg’s ‘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. Out now in the US, ‘Lincoln’ lands in UK cinemas on January 25th. My Daniel Day-Lewis interview for ‘Lincoln’ can be read here, while my Steven Spielberg interview can be read here (more to come).
Where we meet Robert Lincoln in this story, he’s 21 and a promising Harvard student. He didn’t have to go war like so many young men, yet he felt compelled to be part of this historic moment, and his parents in Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln felt otherwise. This is a big dilemma for him?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. At this point in the story, Robert’s 21, he’s going to Harvard. He’s a rare bird because he’s not fighting in the civil war – everybody else is fighting. That puts him in a really awkward position. Being that privileged and that fortunate, he’s obviously lucky to not be fighting because who wants to go and fight in this horrible and bloody war where you can die? At the same time, because of his circumstances, he’s been taken out of what’s happening in the country. And that’s tough for him because he also really believes in the cause of this war, believes in the rights of human beings, and that makes him want to fight.
‘Lincoln’ is focused on a particular segment of time in Abraham Lincoln’s life. Was that way of telling us about this man’s life more compelling to you compared to a more “from birth to death” type biopic?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. When they first sent me the script I assumed it would be a biopic, the childhood to the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life – which I was looking forward to reading (laughs). But when I started to read it and discovered that it’s so specifically focused on this one very important moment in time, really over the course of two months – the crux of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and legacy, where he managed to pass the 13th Amendment in the context of the civil war. That, for me, that’s more my taste, because then it becomes a real political intrigue and it’s about something even larger than one man.
When you were cast in ‘Lincoln,’ do you remember your first interaction with Daniel Day‐Lewis?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: When they offered me the role, we had a little exchange via text message – which was a delight. He’s such a sweet and generous guy with his words, but also it’s a little bizarre to be texting with someone that I’ve idolized for years of my life (laughs). But it was a delight. I’m an actor, I really love acting, and here’s a guy who’s mastered the craft to such a degree that it’s profoundly inspiring to watch what he does. It really meant a lot when he said, “You’re my first choice of who I want to do this.” I loved that.
What was it like for you working with Steven Spielberg on this project he’s been passionate about for such a long time? Speaking to him, he seems so fascinated by this moment in history and this man, Abraham Lincoln.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I think it’s an incredibly profound and compelling image of this moment in history. Steven Spielberg has a unique way of diving into the American zeitgeist and reflecting it in cinematic form. And obviously, the story of Abraham Lincoln is a prominent story in American culture. I think he’s the perfect guy to do it and he was clearly enjoying it, he was so in his element (laughs). It was fun to see a director having so much fun, it doesn’t always happen that way (laughs).
Telling a story like this, I can imagine it was important to show not only his moments that are heralded, but also his many flaws and shortcomings?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Definitely. I like that this movie doesn’t turn Lincoln into a saint. What he accomplished in abolishing slavery was a truly great thing; but this movie also shows the compromises he had to make, the things that he had to do that were questionable in order to accomplish that goal. My character Robert is a good example of that because he really never was able to have much of a relationship with his father. That was a big sacrifice and showed how complicated Lincoln’s life was. History is made by human beings and I like that this story portrays Lincoln as a human being with personal flaws and hypocrisies as well as real strengths and virtues.
I was told you spoke to the films screenwriter, Tony Kushner, a lot about Robert Lincoln and the time period?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Mr. Kushner done such a great deal of research. I spoke to him quite a lot – it was great getting to know him and to see how passionate he is. He knows so much about not just this period of time that this story tells, he knows so much about the entire family history and really about the entire time. He also just knows a great deal about American history in general….and things in general (laughs), he’s great to talk with.
And with many of your fellow actors also learning about the time and their characters, how was it speaking to them? Each of you would have had your own perspective on your characters….
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Definitely. I was keyed in with the people that were working on this project, learning what I could from them. And everyone’s got their own perspective, for example, I was talking to Sally Field and she’s really learned a lot about Mary, and she looked at Robert in a certain kind of way, different to how I did. Steven Spielberg knows a great deal about this stuff. Speaking with the different people that I was working with on ‘Lincoln’ about the story and about the character was really illuminating for me. That was awesome. It really helped as well to play the role.
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