Daniel Day-Lewis Interview For ‘Lincoln’
Steven Spielberg directs two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Lincoln,’ a revealing drama that focuses on the 16th President’s tumultuous final months in office. Based on the best-selling book ‘Team of Rivals’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and adapted for the screen by Tony Kushner and Goodwin himself, ’Lincoln’ focuses on the life of the former President, focusing on the man’s rise to politics and his role in the Civil War.
Alongside Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, ‘Lincoln’ stars Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, John Hawkes as Robert Latham, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Walton Goggins as Wells A. Hutchins, James Spader as WN Bilbo, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens. David Oyelowo, Tim Blake Nelson, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, David Costabile, Byron Jennings, Dakin Matthews, Boris McGiver, Gloria Reuben, Jeremy Strong, David Warshofsky and Lee Pace also star. In the US, ‘Lincoln’ will hit limited theaters on November 9th before expanding wider on November 16th. The film lands in UK cinemas on January 25th. My interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for ‘Lincoln’ can be read here (more to come).
How did you find the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” as a source for understanding and encapsulating this man?
Daniel Day-Lewis: I loved everything about that book, so that was a great beginning. But reading objective accounts about the life only take you so far. Most of what becomes more interesting to me at a certain moment is to try to grow towards a subjective understanding of that man’s experience – whoever it may be. In that case, with Lincoln, the legacy of his writing was hugely important, you get such a sense of him through not just his speeches but also stories that he told. There are many contemporary accounts of those stories, which one assumes are fairly accurate, I mean, give or take (laughs). But to get a sense of his thought and the movement through his thought to a conclusion, that’s a unique treasure, to have that available.
During your research process for Abraham Lincoln, what did you find most interesting? Something that helped inform your performance?
Daniel Day-Lewis: It’s the man himself that invites you, because he was so open. That was one of the most beautiful surprises of getting to know him, finding how insanely accessible that man was (laughs). At the time it was very dangerous, in his case, to be accessible. But the White House was an ever open door, people could come and go. It was bedlam in there. But he was accessible – some parts of him were. So that became an opening in a way I think. One almost felt welcomed. He put me at my ease, strangely (laughs). Having first made me very uneasy, it was learning about him that put me at my ease (laughs). It gave me the thought of, “Maybe I could try to do this.”
In such a rich way had Tony Kushner’s script already suggested the man through his intellect, through his humour, through his melancholy – both domestically and in public office. The contrast between those two things, that’s something like food and drink to me, seeing somebody who’s life is lived at one and the same time in that strange paradox of public and private.
You share some fantastic scenes with Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in ‘Lincoln,’ how was it acting opposite them in particular?
Daniel Day-Lewis: With Sally, the best thing I can say is that it was easy. It was what it needed to be, in the very best sense. I enjoyed every moment spent in her company, even when we were tearing each others eyes out I enjoyed every moment of that because she was real to me. And Tommy Lee Jones, who I’ve not worked with before, and apart from the shake of a hand I’m not sure we really had a conversation outside of the work. But I don’t expect to have a days work that excites me as much as that day did. He seemed so completely open and fluid and trustful of the work. I would say that was truthful of every working relationship in ‘Lincoln.’
After you’ve invested so much time in this character and this story, what is it like for you immediately after you completing the film?
Daniel Day-Lewis: You’re not quite sure what to do with yourself when it’s finished (laughs). The investment is usually, for most of us, if not total, close to a total investment of that period of our lives in the process of telling that particular story. It’s very hard to conceive any kind of life after it, but of course there is one waiting – usually quite impatiently (laughs). But in this particular case I felt two things at one and the same time, one was a sense of immeasurable privilege in having been enabled to explore that man’s life. And the other, directly as a result of that, was a sense of great sadness and loss that that time allowed me was now over. Because he did become for me….there’s never been a human being that I never met that I loved as much as him, ever. I doubt there ever will be.
How was it collaborating with Steven Spielberg? I know you two started speaking together about the film and the role a long time before filming….
Daniel Day-Lewis: Yes. We worked together for the best part of a year, which was a godsend. Between the time that we shook hands on it and the time that we began to shoot the film, a full year had elapsed. I didn’t need to know anything more about him after that period of time, I just couldn’t wait to start. And Steven, he’s just open, the best thing anyone can be in any creative work place. To have that degree of openness alongside his sense of structure is a pretty powerful combination. He can do the structural work standing on his head, I don’t know if it comes easy, but he makes it seem like it does (laughs).
I’d assumed each role you take on presents its own set of unique challenges. What was it in particular about playing Abraham Lincoln that was demanding?
Daniel Day-Lewis: Each day, certainly on ‘Lincoln, presented great challenges. That’s the food and drink for all of us, that’s why we love to do it. But I think it’s a mistake to allow any sense of self-importance to creep in about what you’re doing. Of course, if you began to think about the subject that you’re taking on in the case of Lincoln, you’ll never get out of bed. So in a way I think you have to create for yourself a certain irreverence – it’s not disrespectful, but it’s just necessary to be able to do the work.
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