PHILADELPHIA — Daniel Day-Lewis had done his very best, for a very long time, to avoid Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, the actor had met with Steven Spielberg to discuss the idea of portraying the 16th president of the United States, but that was almost 10 years ago, and Day-Lewis, London-born and Ireland-bred, moved on. He couldn’t picture himself in a beard and stovepipe, as the prairie lawyer-turned-commander in chief who saw his country torn apart by the Civil War.
“We had a lovely meeting,” Day-Lewis recalls, seated alongside Spielberg on a couch in a Los Angeles hotel recently, chatting via Skype.
“I really wanted to meet Steven just for the sake of it, but there was no part of me that could conceive of attempting to do that work.”
After they talked that first time, Day-Lewis even wrote to explain all the reasons why he was wrong to play Lincoln.
“It was the most beautifully written and most beautifully articulated letter of declination,” Spielberg says. “I still have it.”
“Initially, I just thought it was a completely outlandish idea,” says the two-time Oscar winner (“My Left Foot,” “There Will Be Blood”). “Maybe for anybody to attempt, but certainly for somebody from outside of this nation to attempt. It’s not that I don’t like the risk involved, but the risk has to be fairly measured against what benefits there might be. I would never wish to do anything where I felt that I genuinely couldn’t be of service to the story, and through the story to the director.
“And I didn’t really understand how I could be of any use to Steven.”
“Fortunately, I did,” Spielberg quips.
And fortunate it is. Day-Lewis’ performance in “Lincoln” — which opens across the country on Friday — brings one of the giants of American history to life in haunting and transformative ways. Another best-actor Oscar nomination seems certain.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cast as the president’s son Robert, had this to say about working with Day-Lewis: “It’s amazing what Daniel did. It’s uncanny. I’ve never seen an actor do anything like it. ... I had absolutely no problem believing that I was speaking to Abraham Lincoln.”
Spielberg, who had optioned Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” jettisoned his early screenplay — an epic biography that traced Lincoln’s presidency, intercutting his White House years with virtually every battle of the war between the Union and the Confederacy. The director brought in his “Munich” collaborator and “Angels in America” writer, Tony Kushner, to try something different, focusing on the crisis months of 1864 and 1865 when the president brought his political muscle to bear on getting the 13th Amendment passed, abolishing slavery for good. All while the war was still raging.
“Tony’s screenplay immediately intrigued me,” says Day-Lewis, 55, “but again, I was intrigued as an outsider. I could see the beautiful value that that story might have, but I still couldn’t conceive of approaching it.”
So what was it that finally pushed Day-Lewis into the part?
“I ran out of excuses,” he says with a smile. “I test every reason against myself, every single reason for not doing something — and I can come up with a lot of reasons! But finally you need to test the strength of your own compulsion. ... And meeting with Steven and Tony in Ireland to talk about Tony’s script a year before we made the film, that was a big moment for me in just allowing me to dare to approach the subject a little closer. ...
“And then, finally, I read Doris’ book, ‘Team of Rivals,’ and through that wonderfully eloquent piece of work about not just Lincoln, but the time in which he lived and the people that he was surrounded by, I think I had a sense that he could be approached as a human being, not as a mythic figure.”
In “Lincoln,” which also stars Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican Pennsylvania congressman), and Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), Spielberg describes the intense dance of negotiation and compromise, the Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing to get laws passed. The president struggles to line up the votes to abolish slavery, hiring lobbyists to lure reluctant Democrats into voting “yea” — and it all seems to resonate with the Washington of today.
Consider that Lincoln named the candidate who ran against him for the Republican nomination, William Seward, as his secretary of state. And that President Obama named the candidate who sought the Democratic Party’s top spot, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as his secretary of state.
“Well, history repeats itself,” says Spielberg. “But I think to the benefit of our political process, the democratic process. ... It shows what a miraculous system of government was put into place by our founding fathers. ... There was such a profoundly intelligent basis for all of this.
“That is still how we do business today in government. We have disagreements — government has too much power, or the government doesn’t have enough power — and there will always be disagreements about what role the government really has in our personal lives. ...
“But the basic principles of our justice system, of our democracy, still work after all this time.”
The right to privacy while having one’s lunch might be something that Day-Lewis, although not an American citizen, might want legislators to pursue. During production of “Lincoln,” shot last fall in Virginia and in Washington, the actor was photographed — out of costume, but sporting his Lincolnesque beard — having a meal alone in a restaurant off set.
The picture made its way to the Web, and all of a sudden there he was, in blue jeans and black turtleneck, all over the Internet — Honest Abe having a sandwich.
“That’s just what I look like. I wasn’t in costume at all,” says Day-Lewis, who nonetheless felt betrayed when he found out about the photo.
“I’m naturally a private person, I can’t help it, I would be regardless of the work that I do,” he says. “But there’s a common paradox with a lot of actors, or performers, which is that I actually find myself feeling quite uneasy in public situations. It’s a very odd way of life to choose. ... Maybe it’s through the work that we are able to feel more at ease in public situations, but regardless of that when I’m working, I feel that what we present and hope is that what people will enjoy is a film. ...
“The work itself and what comes out of it belongs to everybody else. But what goes into it belongs to us — it’s an intimate experience, a private experience — and I felt in that moment, on a very, very rare moment that I allowed myself to go out for a breath of air, it did feel like a violation.
“It was sneaky.”