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Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s days as a child star are long behind him, his role in this month’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra had him feeling like a kid again.

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IF YOU WANT TO MAKE NOISE ABOUT JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT’S PAST AS A CHILD ACTOR and how it affects his formidable current career, you’re better off drawing parallels to Jodie Foster than to Lindsay Lohan. Gordon-Levitt, 28, approaches his work with the steely intensity of a gunslinger, the discipline of an athlete, and the curiosity of a poet. Sure, we “met” him on the aliens-in-suburbia sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, but Gordon-Levitt has quickly distinguished himself as one of the few serious actors of his generation, offering deeply human, full-bodied performances in films like The Lookout and (500) Days of Summer. This month, he pops some corn in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a project that provided a chance for the young actor to indulge in some make-believe.

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You’ve been acting since you were a kid. When I was a kid, I did a lot of things: I played soccer, took piano lessons, did gymnastics. One of the things I did was musical theater. I liked it. I kept doing it.

In your early 20s, you took a couple of years off from acting to go to college. Tell me about taking that hard left. I think one of the smartest things I’ve ever done was to quit acting for a while and ask myself, “Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?” A lot of times, we just do things because we can, not because we need to. So college was a time for me to consider, for a little while, that maybe I’m not an actor. Maybe I’m something else who has just been acting for a long time. Question marks are good things. College allowed me to be a normal person and do what everybody else was doing for a little while.

You’ve worked with some of the great acting talents, which is probably better than any acting class, right? I don’t really have any academic approaches to acting. Sometimes, I’ll get in a conversation with someone who has studied acting formally, and I won’t recognize the words they’re saying. They’ll tell me all about the things I know, but I don’t really know. I don’t know what Method acting is, for example, but I’ll work hard on every part I play.

In G.I. Joe, you’re behind a mask for most of the movie as Cobra Commander -- what a challenge. That’s why I wanted to do the movie, actually. I wanted to do some mask acting. That’s really the grand tradition of this whole craft, from the ancient cultures to the Greeks and up to about 100 years ago. All around the world, for all of time, really, acting was about masks. I wanted to try that.

How is this movie different from the rest of your body of work? In most of my acting, I try to be really realistic, but there are lots of other kinds of acting, and I wanted to try something that wasn’t tethered to reality. Normally, I’ve got my face and my voice, but the part in G.I. Joe required posture and rhythm -- bolder stuff, older traditions. Plus, it was a chance to do make-believe. It was pretend time. It’s the same kind of thrill you got when you played with a new toy as a kid. This is a big, grand movie. It’s a lot of fun.

You’re balancing this big summer movie with a small love story, (500) Days of Summer. What’s your game plan? I like the one-two punches -- the eclectic mix of the big movie and the little gem. I’m doing it again with my next two movies. People ask me, “What kinds of movies do you like?” I need a variety to keep it interesting. Without variety, I’m a dead man.