"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 and join the modern world"— Daniel Day-Lewis
There aren’t many actors out there with the legendary reputation of two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Though classically trained, he has become known for a form of method acting in which he completely immerses himself in the part. It’s paid off with widely praised performances in the likes of My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, The Crucible, In the Name of the Father and There Will Be Blood. Even those tremendous accomplishments pale before the prospect of playing Abraham Lincoln – for director Steven Spielberg no less – in a role that may earn him a third Oscar. He spoke to the press at the junket for the film about the role, and things he learned about the Great American Emancipator in the process.
What did you see as your greatest challenge in bringing this iconic figure to life?
Apart from everything you mean? (laughter). The most obvious thing is simply trying to approach a man’s life that has been mythologised to this extent. You need to get close enough to the man, rather than the image, in order to properly represent it. And I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that. In fact, I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn’t do that, and that somebody else should do it instead.
The wonderful surprise with Lincoln comes when you begin to discover him. There are many different ways in which you can do that, and when you do, he kind of welcomes you in. He’s very accessible, and that took me by surprise.
What were your concerns about the part, and what changed your mind about taking it?
I did not want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the greatest President this country’s ever known. It seemed to me to be very difficult to tell that kind of story, and do it in such a way that it could live. What changed my mind were the people involved in the project. I had a wonderful meeting with Steven Spielberg and the screenwriter Tony Kushner, and even if nothing had come from it, it still would've left me with a really wonderful memory of the time we spent talking about Lincoln. It had become such an important part of their lives.
Then when Tony went away to continue working on the script, I read Doris’s book (Team of Rivals, on which the script is based), and I think that really became the platform for me from which I could believe that there was a living being to be discovered there. She makes so that beautifully clear in her book, and that had been a great problem for me: not just the responsibility of taking on that task, but really asking the question of who he was… divorced from the iconography that now surrounds his life.
I should also say that Liam Neeson, who’s a friend of mine and who looked like he was going to play the part for a time, had a hand in my decision as well. During that period when Liam was committed to the project, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider it. But when Liam decided that he had to step away, Steven approached me again about it, and Liam got in touch with me about it and gave me a lot of encouragement, incredible encouragement towards that decision. Just in the most generous possible way.
And I know for a fact that Liam’s Lincoln would've been something I would've wished to see. These things are haphazard. Timing becomes everything. It worked out this way. It could easily have worked out the other way, and I think Liam would've been quite wonderful if it had.
What kind of things did you learn about Mr. Lincoln that you either did not know previously or most surprised?
I knew nothing about him; I had everything to learn, apart from a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural, a few from the Gettysburg Address. That would be my entire knowledge of that man’s life before starting this project. I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was his sense of humour, and what an important part of his personality it was. There was a very joyful element to it.
Would it be fair to say it’s a very tactical humour?
At times, it could be, though not necessarily in the political sense. I think at times he undoubtedly used it to make a point… or even to avoid making a point. There are accounts of people who came to ask him a question of great importance to them. They found themselves in his presence, got a handshake and a funny story, and were out of the room before they even realised it. That’s good politics. (Laughs)
How about Lincoln’s status as a father?
The relationship between him and his eldest son, Robert, who you see in the film, was perhaps the least resolved, the least explored of his relationships. There was a distance there, I think largely because of the work that he’d been doing on the judicial circuit, which had taken away from home six months of any given year. And then he had political campaigns and then he was in office with Robert away at University and so on. So there’d been a certain distance there. By the time we meet him in the story, he’d lost two sons, so that may have created a further distance.
He had a very interesting attitude towards parenthood, which is surprisingly modern. I think it almost exceeds the degree to which we’re able to be modern. He believed that there should be a total absence of any parental authority whatsoever. And that was a conscious decision. And it may well have been largely influenced by the very harsh disciplinarian that he had as a father himself. His experience of childhood would've been a very bleak, very difficult one. From the moment that they moved from Kentucky to Indiana, he and his sister were struggling to survive almost on their own, as many children did at that time. When his father went back to bring the woman who became his stepmother, he was away for a long, long time. And the two children just had to exist in the wilderness and get on with it. He had to grow up very quickly. His father certainly was not a man who had much tolerance for books and that must have been a great conflict. There was no love lost.
But he made a wonderful statement, and it’s a strange image to use because it conjures up slavery, but he said that love creates the links that chain a child to the family, to the parent. With Tad, he could actually see that born through. There was absolute chaos in the White House, chaos that Tad created. He was armed to the teeth with all sorts of weapons: cannons and flintlocks and swords. The goat-drawn carriage that we show in the movie was accurate. It was always kind of careening about the corridors of the White House… and I think Lincoln really enjoyed watching the bedlam that ensued from all of Tad’s adventures. It came from love. Mary was a bit of an absentee parent at this time because of the loss of their other son, and therefore the bond between Tad and Lincoln became so very precious to both of them.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of historical dramas being made today. What was it about this one that changed that trend?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time making historical dramas. 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 and join the modern world. I may be an exception as an actor, but my experience is been that historical movies actually are well represented.
This isn’t a politicising film and yet it’s easy to read parts of our own history into it. You leave the theater thinking that there are still self-evident truths that are in question and that the government is still voting on who’s equal and who isn’t. Any thoughts about that?
Well, it’s a work in progress, isn’t it? Lincoln was trying to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery… and just the word “Amendment” itself is an encouraging thing, isn’t it? Because it speaks to a system of government that allows for the improvement of itself. Just move forward a little bit, one day at a time. Then you blink and 150 years go by and you see how much progress gets made.
- Transcript by Rob Vaux
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