Daniel Day-Lewis on playing Abraham Lincoln and saying 'No' to Steven Spielberg

Crédit photo: Dreamworks Daniel Day-Lewis on playing Abraham Lincoln and saying 'No' to Steven Spielberg

LOS ANGELES — Not many actors say ‘no’ to Steven Spielberg, but Daniel Day-Lewis did.

Nearly a decade ago, the award-winning director asked the acclaimed actor to play Abraham Lincoln in a proposed biopic of the iconic American president.

“I did not take it seriously,” says Day-Lewis with Spielberg by his side in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. “It seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person, and I did not want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of (Spielberg).”

After the polite rejection, they went their separate ways.

When Spielberg returned to the Lincoln project a few years ago, he thought of Day-Lewis again. By then Liam Nesson had dropped out of the lead role, and the director returned to convince his original hunch he’d be right for the job.

“It was still hard to get him to say, yes,” recalls Spielberg. A smiling Day-Lewis responds: “I didn’t know it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses.”

Fortunately for all concerned, the Abraham Lincoln that Spielberg wanted to show was more clearly defined in a specific time frame.

“And I was at the point, without putting any extra pressure on Daniel, that I would never have made the movie if he had said ‘no’ the second time,” confirms Spielberg.

Opening Nov. 9 in Toronto, and Nov. 16 in selected Canadian cities, the movie focuses on the 16th U. S. president’s pivotal stretch in office before his unfortunate assassination.

In the historical drama, Lincoln’s dealing with the Civil War and the controversial passage of the proclamation to free slaves even while his unstable wife, Mary Todd Lincoln ( Sally Field) becomes unhinged at the tortured memory of their two dearly departed children.

Co-starring is Tommy Lee Jones. He plays powerful Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who may or may not assist Lincoln in his ambitious attempt to pass the Emancipation Proclamation before the war ends. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Lincoln’s adult son bent on fighting in the war. David Strathairn is Lincoln’s key advisor, secretary of state William Seward.

Comic relief arrives when Lincolns’ political persuaders (played by John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson) try to arrange enough votes for the U. S. Congress approval of the key proclamation.

There’s no doubt the behind-the-scenes in-fighting between the Democrats and Lincoln’s Republicans gets maximum exposure. But Spielberg says that the goal was mostly to reveal the man behind the myth, which Day-Lewis responded to the second time around.

The Oscar-honoured actor’s research included Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling 2005 book on Lincoln’s life, Team of Rivals, which the director used as a template for Tony Kushner’s screenplay.

“I think that the book really became the platform for me, as it had been for Steven and Tony, from which I could believe that there was this living being there to be discovered,” Day-Lewis reports.

“And the wonderful surprise with Lincoln is that you begin to discover him. And there are many different ways in which you can do that. He kind of welcomes you in; he’s very accessible.”

Typical of the 55-year-old London actor, he immersed himself in many more biographies, essays and documentaries defining the president. In some ways, it helped that he knew very little about the American historical figure.

“Well, it was easy for me to get in to him because I had to; I knew nothing about him, so I had everything to learn,” the actor says. “Apart from a few images — a statue, a few lines from the inaugural, and a few from the Gettysburg Address — it was my entire knowledge of the man’s life.

“I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was Lincoln’s humour.”

On set in Virginia, Day-Lewis stayed in character as Lincoln, which was occasionally unnerving for the cast and crew because the hours of makeup each day transformed him into an almost exact likeness.

“I called him Mr. President,” says Spielberg. “But I called everybody by their characters’ names.”

As it worked out, Day-Lewis had nothing to worry about on the Lincoln front. Based on early previews, pundits are predicting his performance will likely earn him yet another Oscar nod.

Previously, he won Academy Awards for roles in My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood, and nominations for In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York.

The truth is he’s somewhat of a thespian expert on the American experience, and he didn’t realize the status until now.

“I’m reflecting a little bit on my entire life,” says a smiling Day-Lewis, referring to his film career.

“I’m thinking I spent a certain amount of time in 17th century America (The Crucible), quite a bit of time in 18th century America (The Last of the Mohicans), and so much time in 19th century America (Gangs of New York, The Age of Innocence and now Lincoln) that I don’t know that I’ll ever get out.”

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