Daniel Day-Lewis makes Abraham Lincoln a movie star

Daniel Day-Lewis feared he’d screw up playing the 16th president, but he and Steven Spielberg found a way to give the man new life.

BEVERLY HILLS—What? Daniel Day-Lewis, actor extraordinaire, was worried about a little thing like playing Abraham Lincoln in a movie? Well, what was the problem, exactly?

“Apart from everything, you mean?” Day-Lewis said one recent morning in a Beverly Hills hotel. He laughed, but then he seemed to have that tendency. His Irish accent was warm and lilting. The gold earrings he is frequently photographed wearing were disappointingly AWOL, as were the long locks, and he displayed none of the cracked inclinations of, say, his character Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York or oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Instead, he seemed—gasp—sweet, the sort of guy who’s nice to puppies and grandmas. Where was the wild man, the monster? Oh, right. Acting!

But he wasn’t certain he could believably portray the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln (which opens Friday [November 16]). He wasn’t itching to don the famous stovepipe hat, attempt to plausibly abolish slavery, or, if it came up, address anyone in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Perhaps two Oscars (for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) aren’t the confidence kick one would expect.

“Trying to approach a man’s life that’s been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it,” Day-Lewis said, “I just wasn’t sure that I’d be able to do that. And beyond that, I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t do that.” He laughed, then added: “And that somebody else should do that instead!” He laughed again, seeming simultaneously amused and shy.

“It was hard getting him to say yes,” director Steven Spielberg, sitting beside his star, interjected. Spielberg, who looked exactly as one expected him to look, confessed a fixation “with the myth of Abraham Lincoln”. The man had become “a kind of cultural national stereotype”, he thought. “Lincoln has been reduced to statuary.” This is true. Not to mention an 18-metre head on Mount Rushmore and that animatronic Abe at Disneyland.

Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is no statue. He is so warm and vivid and, weirdly, witty that one suddenly can’t envision any other Lincoln. (Including vampire-hunting ones.) Helpfully, the actor, like the famous president, is long and rangy. In the film, he walks like Lincoln—that is, as one, uh, figures Lincoln walked. And then there are the vocal stylings: unexpectedly alto, impassioned, and folksy. Later, his costars Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt revealed that the actor kept up the Lincoln-speak off-screen, too. Whatever did craft services think?

At first, the sum total of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln expertise was “a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural [address], and the Gettysburg Address”. Discovering that the president was a funny guy was a “delicious surprise”. “There are accounts of people who came to ask him a question of, to them, great importance,” he said, “who found themselves in his presence, got a handshake, a story, and were out of the room before they even realized.” Everyone laughed. “That’s good politics.” But he decided that Lincoln was “innately joyful”.

At one point as screenwriter Tony Kushner was wrangling Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the script hit 550 pages. He and Spielberg decided to target the last four months of Lincoln’s life, in 1865, when he was juggling the Civil War, the push for the 13th Amendment (to end slavery), and his responsibilities as a seemingly devoted husband and father. Their movie wouldn’t be “a greatest-hit list of Abraham Lincoln”, Spielberg said. “It couldn’t just be the golden oldies, a compilation of his entire life.”

Doing his own reading, Day-Lewis was fascinated by the decidedly permissive relationship Lincoln had with his youngest son, Tad. In the film, the child interrupts cabinet meetings and terrorizes the White House in a goat-drawn cart. Lincoln’s own childhood appeared “bleak and difficult. He had a very interesting attitude towards parenthood which is surprisingly modern. There was a total absence of parental authority whatsoever.”

He clearly found this amusing. “But I think he felt such a pure love for him.” He spoke thoughtfully about the psychology of Lincoln letting Tad do “whatever the hell” he wanted, then said, “Um, I’m rambling,” and stopped.

In the film, Lincoln and his people employ interesting tactics to persuade what seem to be mostly Democrats (Lincoln, if anyone has forgotten, was Republican) to vote for the 13th Amendment. “Desperate times require desperate measures,” Spielberg said. What Lincoln and his lobbyists did wasn’t illegal, exactly. “It was murky. And what they did was noble and grand.…And, by the way, what they did to gain favour, to persuade people not to vote their conscience is not uncommon in this day and age either.” Sounds about right.

Earlier, a reporter had observed that historical dramas seemed unpopular of late. The idea had, apparently, been bothering Day-Lewis for a number of minutes. “Just thinking back on the question, and I’m just sort of reflecting a little bit on my entire life,” he said suddenly. “And I’m thinking that I’ve spent a certain amount of time in 17th-century America, quite a bit of time in 18th-century America, and so much time in 19th-century America that I don’t know if I’ll ever get out.” Everyone was suitably amused.

There were nagging questions. For instance, wasn’t Liam Neeson in the casting mix for a bit? This prompted a long-seeming answer from Spielberg about script changes and his “very healthy flirt” with Neeson in between several wooings of Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis also gave a lengthy though eloquent response about said wooing, said scripts, and his friend Neeson. Neeson’s Lincoln, he was certain, would have been “quite wonderful”.

“I had just accepted that I would make Lincoln if Daniel decided to play him,” Spielberg said finally. “I would not make Lincoln had Daniel decided not to play him. It was as simple as that.”

Perhaps it was never going to be simple for Day-Lewis. “Well, I don’t think I ever did know it was the right choice,” he said. “But I ran out of excuses at a certain point.”

A moment later, he laughed and said: “Least of all did I want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the greatest president this country’s ever known.” Luckily, Abe would probably honestly agree, he’s done no such staining.

Watch the trailer for Lincoln.

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