Daniel Day-Lewis is one of Britain’s most talented, selective, and most dedicated actors. His roles in the films My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood have garnered him Oscars for Best Actor and has been nominated for Best Actor Oscars for the films In The Name Of The Father and Gangs Of New York.
Now the 55 year-old’s latest role is as the nation’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Day-Lewis talks about what he felt was the greatest challenge in bringing a larger-than-life, inimitable figure like Lincoln to life.
“The most obvious thing is trying to approach a man’s life that has been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it,” Daniel believes, “And I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that.”
“More than beyond that I felt that, probably, I absolutely shouldn’t do that and somebody should do it instead,” he adds, “But the wonderful surprise with that man is you begin to discover him, and there are many different ways in which you can do that, um, is that, uh, he kind of welcomes you in. He’s very accessible, that took me by surprise.”
Daniel divulges on what he learned and was surprised by the most about Lincoln during his research into the character.
“It’s easy for me to start, because I knew nothing about him,” Day-Lewis says, “I had everything to learn and probably, because of part 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. I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was the humor, to begin to discover that almost an important part that important aspect of his character that was.”
Day-Lewis was then asked if he felt Lincoln’s humor was tactical.
“At times it could be, but not necessarily, I don’t think, no,” he says, “I think it was really tactical in the political sense. I think at times it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense for some purpose to make some point.”
“There were accounts actually,” Daniel continues, “It’s not exactly what you’re asking, but there are accounts of people that came to ask him a question, of to them great importance, found themselves in his presence, got a handshake, a story, and were out of the room before they even realized, and that’s good politics, but, no, I think it was innately part of him. I think there was a very joyful element to that actually, yes.”
Daniel talks about having played plenty of period characters in the past from adopted Mohawk, Hawkeye, in The Last Of The Mohicans to Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Gangs Of New York to Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.
“I’m just sort of reflecting a little bit on my entire life,” Day-Lewis says, “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 and to join the modern world. So, something’s been going on during these years, but my experience is been that, um, that historical movies actually are, are well-presenters.”
Day-Lewis talks about Abraham Lincoln’s complex and often very different relationships as a parent in the film with his youngest son Tad, played by Gulliver McGrath, and his oldest son Robert, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“It certainly seems to be true that the relationship between him and his eldest son, Robert, who you see in the film was perhaps the least resolved, the least, uh, explored of his, uh, relationships,” Daniel believes, “There was a distance there I think largely, because of the work that he’d been doing on, on, on the judicial circuit, which had taken away from six months of any given year, and also, very political campaigns and then in office and with Robert at University and so on, but there had been a certain distance there. By the time we meet him in the story, he had already lost two sons. He lost a child when they were in Springfield as well. He had a very interesting attitude towards parenthood, which is surprisingly modern almost. I think it almost exceeds the degree to which we’re able to be modern. And he believed that there was 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 kind of harsh disciplinarian that he had as a father himself, and his experience of childhood would’ve been a very bleak, very difficult one. He was forced to, as many young people were at that time from the moment, I think, that they moved from Kentucky to Indiana already, he and his sister were struggling to survive almost on their own. When his father went back to bring what the lady became Sarah, who became his stepmother, he was away for a long, long time, and they just had to exist in the wilderness and get on with it, and I think he had to grow up very quickly. His father certainly was not a man who had much tolerance for books and I think a great conflict, it was no love lost.”
“But he made a wonderful statement,” he continues, “It’s a strange image to use because it conjures up an image of slavery, but I think he used the image of love, creates the links that chain a child to the family, to the parent. But, so, anyhow to cut a long story short, there was absolute chaos in the White House, because, because I think it actually was both through sort of scientific point of view. I think he enjoyed so much watching the chaos that Tad created. He was armed to the teeth apart from anything else with, with all kinds of weapons, cannons, and flintlocks and swords. And he hit the goat, the goat-drawn carriage that he had, which he always kind of careening about the corridors of the White House. And I think Lincoln really enjoyed observing the bedlam that ensued from his all his adventures, but also I think it was just pure love. I think he felt such a pure love for love. I’m not saying that this is good parenting in, in contemporary times that you just let them to do whatever the hell they want, but it’s an interesting choice to make at that time in that place. Of course, Mary, again, during this part of the story is more or less an absentee as a parent. And therefore, the bond between Tad and Lincoln became so very precious to both of them because he was the primary parent at that time, a rambling.”
Daniel talked about what ultimately convinced him that he was indeed the right person to play Abraham Lincoln.
“Well, I don’t think I ever did know it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses at a certain point,” Day-Lewis replies, “I mean, I understand that it was Steven to put the idea in front of me, not that I didn’t take it seriously from the word ‘go’, but it seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person to help him to do that thing that he wished to do, and at least of all did I want to be responsible for irrevocably, um, staining the reputation of the greatest President this country’s ever known. I mean, not just in a self-serving way, but quite literally I wouldn’t have wished to, it seemed to me a very difficult thing to try and tell that story, very difficult to try and do that in such a way that it could live, and I just really felt I wasn’t the person to do that.”
“Hmmm. I mean it really was for me a combination of that meeting,” he adds, “Which was even if nothing had come from it, it still would’ve left me with a really wonderful memory of the time spent talking about Lincoln, with Steven and [screenwriter] Tony [Kushner] who had so much become such an important part of their lives. Reading Tony’s script, discussing what it might become if Tony were to carry on working on it, because he more or less stopped writing it. It was still an incomplete vision. And then, when Tony went away to begin to continue that work I read Doris’s [Kearns Goodwin’s] book [Team Of Rivals], and I think that really became the platform for me, uh, as it had been for Steven and Tony from which I could believe that there was a living being to be discovered there, because 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 it has he now been removed for all time from that possibility, because of the iconography surrounding his life.”
Day-Lewis was asked about the signicant historical legacy of Lincoln pushing to have slavery abolished in the Constitution and whether he had any thoughts about the notion that there are still self-evident truths that are being questioned in American society even now and whether or not the government is still voting on who is considered equal and who is not.
“Well, it’s work in progress, isn’t it?” Daniel replies, “And just the words amendment itself is an encouraging thing, isn’t it? Because it tells of a system of government that allows for the improvement of itself and just move forward a little bit one day at a time.
Daniel also comments on the fact that Lincoln and its titular role had been attached to Liam Neeson for a period of time.
“Liam is a friend of mine,” he says, “And Liam was committed to Lincoln for a period of time working with Steven, and there came a moment when for reasons that were clear to both of them that Liam needed to do other things. Steven was going to do other things, but Liam for that period whilst Liam was committed to that project, of course, it wouldn’t haven’t occurred to me to consider it. From the moment that Liam decided it was not no longer something that he would be engaged with, he has been in touch with me about it since, and has given me incredible encouragement and just in the most generous possible way.”
“And encourage me when I was undecided about whether I should do it he gave me a lot of encouragement towards that decision as well,” Day-Lewis adds, “And I can say unequivocally that I know for a fact that Liam’s Lincoln would’ve been something I would’ve wished to see, these things are haphazard. You ask about timing. It’s worked out this way. It could easily have worked out the other way, and I think Liam would’ve been quite wonderful.”