Academy Awards Interview With Daniel Day-Lewis For ‘Lincoln’
Steven Spielberg directs 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. The film has been nominated for twelve Academy Awards - the most nominations held by a film at today’s ceremony, including Best Picture, Best Director for Steven Spielberg and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis.
When you first start to consider to play a role like Abraham Lincoln, what makes you say “absolutely not” and then what makes you say “maybe”? Is there a process for you of learning about the man and satisfying yourself about certain questions you might have about who he is, or what makes him tick?
Daniel Day-Lewis: I think my first impulse was a very clear one. When Steven and I first met about 9 years-ago to talk about it, it was before Tony Kushner had re-written the script, or written an entirely different script. The script itself wasn’t appealing to me personality, which gave me one good excuse not to do it (laughs). I met with Steven, and that was more tricky because I felt this was certainly a man that I wanted to work with and spend time with, in the abstract sense I would have loved to work with him. But it seemed like such a preposterous idea to me, an outlandish idea to take on that man. So I fled (laughs).
Over the course of time, then reading Tony’s script – when I read Tony’s script it was intriguing to me, I could see objectively at least that there was something to be done, by somebody else probably (laughs). I didn’t honestly feel that I was capable of doing that work. And finally, to cut to the chase, Steven, Tony and I, we had a meeting in Ireland where we spent a couple of days talking about it by which time I had re-read the script. For whatever reason, and I can’t explain what, but that moment at which one is drawn into the orbit, irrevocably, of a life, I felt the tug of that orbit. I didn’t know why, I was quite alarmed by it. And at the end of that meeting, which I felt was very fruitful and just a beautiful time spent together, Tony went away to reconsider ways to re-write the script, which had more or less been frozen in time. I began to read Doris’ book, which was probably the springboard for all of us and I essentially ran out of excuses and that was it (laughs). I can’t account for why in that moment why it appeared inevitable to me, but I think it has in common with all the moments in my life when I have taken on any piece of work. I really have to feel there really isn’t a choice. Of course there is a choice, it is an illusion, one of many (laughs). But in this case, in that moment, I felt I had no choice but to try and understand this thing.
Do you find fear useful, is it more useful thinking “I know I can do this”, or is it more useful thinking “I’m not sure I can do this”?
Daniel Day-Lewis: The work that I’m proudest of is the work I was afraid of. And it’s funny, it reminds me of a moment many many years ago when I was still a kid. I read an account of my father’s life, my father who I never really got to know very well. But in this autobiographical piece of writing of his, there was a moment in his boarding school in England where he had been confronted by something that was tremendously fearful to him. He found that he was drawn to walk towards the fear rather than retreating from it, going towards that thing that was fearful. I recognised that and I found that was something we had in common, and it has not always served me well in my life (laughs). But in terms of the work, after all, what do we have to lose? We talk of the danger of taking on a piece of work in the creative field, but the worst thing that can happen is you become a fool. That’s a risk everyone takes pretty much all of the time. It was a very difficult lesson to learn when I was student, because I had a certain sense of dignity and pride, and I didn’t like the idea of being foolish, but I learnt pretty soon that it was essential to fail and to be foolish. That’s all that we risk in the end.
Can you talk about the director-actor relationship with Steven Spielberg. As an actor, what kind of direction do you like?
Daniel Day-Lewis: I think it’s a huge advantage for an actor to be able to spend at least a considerable period of time before they ever have that moment of confrontation with the camera and their colleagues – both for their own sake, but also a period of time during which they might become closer with the director that they’re working with. And certainly by the time we came to the ‘Lincoln’ set, I felt from my point of view, more or less, that we had done all the talking that we needed to do. I think that’s ideal, but then that’s a very personal thing. I think the less that needs to be said on a set, the better. But that’s not to say that Steven as a director, I think initially he had…. he’s a modest man, and he had a certain shyness around the people that he employed to do the job, but I think as he gained a confidence around us, there wasn’t a moment in any of the scenes that we were working on that he didn’t feel that there was something that might be pursued that needed to be pursued, an exploration that needed to be done. Like all good directors, he had a way of suggesting it which avoided definition, declaration, delineation, whatever it is. He was able to make his suggestions in an imaginative and a very subtle way. As an actor, that’s food and drink. It’s almost impossible for me to honour any kind of direction that is too clearly expressed (laughs).
One of the things that stood out to me about your portrayal of Lincoln was his humour and love of storytelling….
Daniel Day-Lewis: Yeah, he was a joker. It doesn’t take long to discover that about him, there were numerous contemporary accounts. He was a storyteller, and I’m not personally a storyteller, that’s one aspect of his character that was a great distance from my own experience. But I’ve been around storytellers, I know what they’re like (laughs). He was a great storyteller and a jokester and was quite capable of those moments of levity. Simultaneously, as he was dealing with moments of very intense responsibility, in that national crisis that he was trying to navigate. It was an extraordinary juxtaposition that he was able to achieve that balance. That’s one of the many interesting things about him as a character.
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. 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. In a general way, in attempting to approach this man’s life, I felt shy around him. I felt that he existed at a great unbridgeable distance from my own life. I didn’t really know how to approach him. One of the great surprises and delights for me, was to discover accessibility as a human being, a sense of welcome.
After you’ve invested so much time in this character and this story, what is it like for you after 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.
It’s been suggested to me, a number of times, that somehow I take a long time between one piece of work to another, and its been suggested to me that maybe I’m so possessed with the work I’m doing that it takes some time for the exorcism to work (laughs). But I think conversely, it’s much more a case of me being reluctant to let go of something that has been a part of my life. I can say, in this case, it will remain, to the end of my days, one of the great privileges of my life. My gratitude to Steven is boundless, that I was able to spend that period of time exploring the life of this man.
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