Jgl Lincoln
Credit: David James

After Lincoln opens in theaters tomorrow (in limited release) following its premiere tonight at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, audiences are bound to marvel at what EW’s Owen Gleiberman calls the “beautiful gravitas” of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the 16th president of the United States. In truth, Day-Lewis’ singular dedication to his roles has long been a major part of his allure as an actor — and that’s as true for other actors as it is for audiences.

When Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in the midst of landing the part of Lincoln’s son Robert in the spring of 2011, he got a message from Day-Lewis confiding that the two-time Oscar winner had been hoping director Steven Spielberg would cast Gordon-Levitt in the role. “He sent me a really sweet, generous text,” Gordon-Levitt says. “[It] was just an enormous honor for me because he’s kind of in a league of his own.” What Gordon-Levitt didn’t quite realize at the time, however, was that would be the last interaction he would have with Day-Lewis in the 21st century for several months.

“When I arrived [on set], he actually was studying Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I received a handwritten note from him that was sort of half from him and half from the president. Just the warmest, sweetest thing.” And then production started, and Day-Lewis completely disappeared into the haggard beard and reedy voice of America’s highest-regarded president. “I didn’t call him ‘Daniel,’ and he didn’t call me ‘Joe,'” says the actor. “I called him ‘sir,’ and he called me ‘Robert.'” Gordon-Levitt says he was in part following his director’s example; Spielberg only called Day-Lewis “Mr. President.”

Adding to Gordon-Levitt’s happy astonishment was that Day-Lewis maintained the nature of Lincoln’s uneasy relationship with his eldest son off camera. “It was two people who had a lot of love for each other, but there’s a strain there — it was just uncanny,” says Gordon-Levitt. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I had absolutely no trouble believing this was Abraham Lincoln and that that’s who I was talking to.” He chuckles. “And I should mention he’s not overzealous about it. He’s just really committed. It’s not that we couldn’t talk in between takes and stuff, but you wouldn’t talk about the Lakers. You would talk about, say, ‘Oh, look at this painting on the wall.’ Something within the world. And by the way, these aren’t rules that anybody established or anything. It’s just kind of a feel that you got. I loved it.”

It wasn’t until filming wrapped, in fact, that Gordon-Levitt ever really got a chance to get to know Daniel Day-Lewis. “[I] got to hang out with him and with Steven [Spielberg] and some folks [that] night,” he says. “That was the first time I ever heard his [real] voice, and when I heard Steven call him ‘Daniel.'”

Ironically, as audiences start absorbing Day-Lewis’ transformative performance starting this Friday (the film expands nationwide on Nov. 16), many could very well start calling him by another name entirely: Abe.

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