Daniel Day-Lewis finds playing Lincoln a tall order
BY CINDY PEARLMAN November 2, 2012 4:44PM
Daniel Day-Lewis (center) as President Abraham Lincoln, looks across a battlefield in the aftermath of a terrible siege in director Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln." | DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, David James
OTHER ABES ON SCREEN
Almost as long as there have been movies, there have been movies about Abraham Lincoln, a statesman whose historic import and distinctive look have made him an irresistible dramatic figure. Here are five notable portrayals:
1. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915)
As Abe: Joseph Henabery
Though Henabery plays Lincoln as a heroic figure sympathetic to the vanquished South, it’s hard to take seriously the ideas of D.W. Griffith’s silent landmark, rife with stereotypes and misguided in its celebration of the Klan.
2. ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’ (1939)
As Abe: Henry Fonda
In a role that helped define young Fonda, the Rail Splitter discovers the law, studies it and masters it, culminating in his courtroom rescue of the wrongly accused. John Ford directed.
3. ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’ (1940)
As Abe: Raymond Massey
Though Canadian, Massey was embraced in the role he created first in a Pulitzer-winning play, then in the film adaptation, for which he was Oscar-nominated. He would wear the beard again in later TV remakes as well as “How the West Was Won” (1962).
4. ‘Star Trek’ (1969)
As Abe: Lee Bergere
What’s Lincoln doing aboard the Enterprise, played by a future “Dynasty” star? He’s a replica conjured by beings trying to lure Kirk and crew into an experiment on good vs. evil. But Honestly-Not-Abe acts the part, admiring the newfangled invention of taped music and anachronistically calling Uhura a “negress.”
5. ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ (2012)
As Abe: Benjamin Walker
What a man’s man: He can both brawl alongside Capt. Kirk and swing an ax at the undead. Last summer’s straight-faced adaptation of the 2010 novel posits that the Confederate army had a batallion of bloodsuckers and would have overrun the Union if not for Lincoln’s supernatural skills.
Updated: January 3, 2013 1:26AM
Honestly, Abe finally came to life for Daniel Day-Lewis when he arrived in the Land of Lincoln.
Very quietly last year, the Oscar-winning actor slipped into town to hang out with the memory of the 16th president of the United States.
“We made a trip to Springfield, Ill., right at the beginning with [Lincoln biographer] Doris Goodwin, which is like going to New Jersey with Bruce Springsteen,” says Day-Lewis.
His thin, handsome face becomes animated and those blue-gray eyes blaze when he talks about ... doing research.
Day-Lewis is legendary for his commitment to realism, from staying in character as a disabled writer during “My Left Foot” to living off the land while shooting “The Last of the Mohicans.”
“What an experience to be in this town and have this experience,” Day-Lewis says. “I sat in his house. I read his letters. I found a man ... not just an icon.”
He brings that man to the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which opens Nov. 16 and also stars Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The script was written by Tony Kushner (the Pulitzer-winning playwright behind “Angels in America”) and based on Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.”
Day-Lewis, the winner of Oscars for 1989’s “My Left Foot” and 2007’s “There Will Be Blood,” originally resisted the role. “It was more like five years of avoidance when it came to me playing Lincoln,” he admits.
He says no much more often than yes, and in this case, “My greatest fear is that I felt very shy around Abraham Lincoln.”
Shy is an odd word.
“Lincoln has been emblazoned in our minds,” he explains. “He has been re-created in ways that have made him dehumanized. It occurred to me that I felt this shyness around Lincoln combined with this reverence.
“Reverence is of no use to you at all when creating a character. If anything, you have to be a bit disrespectful when creating a life on film. It’s as if you have to walk straight up to a stranger and say, ‘Do you want to spend some time with me? Do you want to hang out with me … for a couple of years?’ ”
There was the rub: “I was asking one of the great historical figures of all time to hang out with me.”
What swayed him to put on the stovepipe hat and save the Union?
“I grew older, which helped,” Day-Lewis says. “I also felt very differently with age in terms of taking Lincoln on. It was a different time in my life when I said yes, and timing has always been vital to me.
“For me to feel compelled to take on a role requires me to discover it in a very particular moment. That’s why when Steven came back, I was able to be receptive in a way I hadn’t been able to be before.”
Once Day-Lewis committed, he committed fully, down to sending texts in the character of Lincoln. “I called him President Lincoln on the set, which was my choice,” says director Spielberg.
Gordon-Levitt, who plays his son, says, “I don’t think I ever met Daniel Day-Lewis until the film wrapped, he put on jeans and shed the character for good. On the set, I was meeting Abraham Lincoln every single day.”
Day-Lewis says his time spent in Springfield reading Lincoln’s letters deepened the role — especially when it came to finding the surprises in Lincoln’s personality.
“Gen. [George] McClellan was a continual thorn in Lincoln’s side because he didn’t want to fight,” Day-Lewis says of the chief of the Union armies. “In one of Lincoln’s letters was an excuse from McClellan indicating that he couldn’t fight because the horses were tired.”
“Lincoln wrote the most wonderfully acerbic note where he asked him, ‘Can you tell me exactly what the horses have done all day then to make them this fatigued?’ ”
Not only was Day-Lewis’ uncanny resemblance to Lincoln an asset, it’s something he jokes about.
“We did have a really remarkable team of makeup artists who worked on me first thing in the morning,” he says. “Luckily, I came with a nose. They didn’t have to waste any time giving me one.”
The actor lives quietly in Ireland with his wife, writer-director Rebecca Miller (daughter of writer Arthur Miller) and their two sons. He also has a 17-year-old son with actress Isabella Adjani.
“It’s a lonesome thing working away from one’s family and coming home to no one,” he says. “In this case, it actually worked for me to feel that isolated. I can’t pretend that I didn’t make use of that to play Lincoln, who was very alone at times.”
Long breaks between making screen classics inform his process.
“I love the work,” he says. “I do feel that the time I spend away from the work is what allows me to do the work.”
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