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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a man of many faces

Photo credit : Matt Carr/Getty Images
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a man of many faces

LOS ANGELES — It’s difficult to decide what is more amazing about the unassuming Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Is it that he’s in four high-profile movies this year? Or is it the fact he’s been honing his craft for 27 years at the ripe old age of 31?

The former child actor is asked to decide in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, but all he can manage is a modest smile. Gordon-Levitt’s not being difficult, he just doesn’t say much when he has nothing important to impart.

So far, in 2012, he has let his acting do most of the emoting, earning positive reviews.

He portrays Batman’s do-the-right-thing cop in Christopher Nolan’s mega-hit, The Dark Knight Rises. He is a desperate bike messenger in the thriller Premium Rush and he plays an assassin opposite Bruce Willis in the sci-fi action film Looper.

Next up is his co-starring role in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opens in Toronto Nov. 9 and other selected Canadian cities Nov. 16.

In the biopic, Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son Robert who is at odds with the 16th American president (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) because he wants to enlist even as Honest Abe is trying to push through the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery before the Civil War ends.

Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as powerful Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. David Strathairn is Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln’s adviser. John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson show up briefly as behind-the-scenes lobbyists trying to round up Congress votes for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

On the home front, Sally Field is distraught first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, grieving over the early death of their child. The scenes between Lincoln and his adult son underscore the aloof nature of their relationship.

All things considered, Gordon-Levitt admits he was looking forward to acting opposite the acclaimed Day-Lewis but felt a little under-prepared when he arrived on Spielberg’s Virginia set from Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises shoot.

“To be honest, my research paled in comparison to those around me like Daniel (Day-Lewis) and Sally (Field),” he says. “I found out the most (about Robert) just by having conversations with them.”

Despite the iconic historical nature of the Lincoln story, Gordon-Levitt reports that he found a modern motivation.

“The strained relationship between father and son seems familiar,” he says. “It’s a father who worked so much he wasn’t really around to be a dad when Robert was young.”

So when Robert wants to enlist “because he feels ashamed and cowardly” for not joining the fight, his father reacts like a parent, not the president, when he objects.

“That’s really a fascinating struggle, and one of the greatest virtues of this movie,” Gordon-Levitt says. “It doesn’t paint Abraham Lincoln as a deity or as an absolute perfect man.

“It 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 in it.”

Born and raised in L.A., Gordon-Levitt started working in the business at age four, first in commercials and then with guest spots in TV shows, and mostly notably in his 1994 film debut as the child lead in Disney’s Angels in the Outfield.

Later on, he became a reluctant teen idol playing alien Tommy Solomon in the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun.

When the series ended in 2001, he took a break. He enrolled at Columbia University in New York from 2001 to 2004, studying history, literature and French.

Re-energized, he returned to acting and rejected the mainstream for independent features, including the grim Mysterious Skin, in which he played a gay prostitute. He was also a teen detective in the post-modern noir movie Brick and emotionally crippled American soldier in Stop-Loss.

(500) Days of Summer opposite Zooey Deschanel showed his lighter side in the 2009 romantic comedy. He played a dream invader in Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi flick, Inception, and won raves for his cancer patient portrayal in last year’s comedy-drama 50/50.

It’s not a surprise that the Oscar-winning Spielberg says that he was “thrilled and happy” to wait for Gordon-Levitt to arrive on the Lincoln set from Nolan’s final Batman film.

The actor says that he was just as enthusiastic about working alongside Spielberg and especially method actor Day-Lewis.

“I was fortunate enough to be working on the last day of filming, and so I got to witness him shed Lincoln,” says Gordon-Levitt of Day-Lewis, who stayed in character off camera. “I had never met Daniel in person, and only ever as the president. I called him sir, and he called me Robert, and I loved that.

“On the last day of shooting, though, I got to watch him get up out of his deathbed and start to shrug it off.”

After the wrap, the cast and crew celebrated with some dinner and drinks.

“Daniel showed up in jeans and a T-shirt, and he had a completely different voice and posture, and he was like one of my friends,” Gordon-Levitt reports. “It was really something to behold and I feel lucky that I got to be there on that day.”