Long-range paparazzi (and the occasional sneaky fellow diner) grabbed snapshots of Daniel Day-Lewis as he was shooting Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln last fall.
But in this exclusive new image from the upcoming historical drama (out Nov. 9), we finally see the My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood Oscar-winner in full character, and the result is even more uncanny than originally expected.
Spielberg tells EW that Day-Lewis captures not just the likeness of the 16th U.S. president in the below image, but also the intangible, pensive quality that made him a great leader. “Lincoln had a very, very complicated – and at the same time, extremely clear – inner life,” the director says. “He thought things out. He talked things out. He argued both sides of every issue. And he was very careful in making any decision. As a matter of fact, his opponents and his enemies criticized him often for being impossibly slow to a decision.”
The movie has also taken a long time to get to the screen, although Spielberg made a relatively fast decision roughly a decade ago when he optioned the rights to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his combative cabinet, when she was still just researching it. The screenplay, adapted by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner (husband of EW columnist Mark Harris), excerpts just a portion of that 2005 best-seller.
Lincoln focuses on the last four months of the president’s ’s life and the political strategizing he undertook at the close of the Civil War to ensure that slavery would be forever outlawed. “Our movie is really about a working leader who must make tough decisions and get things done in the face of overwhelming opposition,” Spielberg says.
He said the film begins with “Lincoln’s realization that the Emancipation Proclamation, the thing he is most known for, was simply a war powers act that would easily be struck down by any number of lawyers after the cessation of hostilities after the Civil War,” Spielberg says. “He needed to abolish slavery by constitutional measure – and that’s where we start.”
Among the other central characters are David Strathairn, as Lincoln’s loyal Secretary of State, William Seward; Lincoln’s sons, Tad (Dark Shadows’ Gulliver McGrath) and Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field); and “one of his most engaging and challenging adversaries, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a radical member of Lincoln’s own party,” Spielberg says.
‘Establish a little authenticity’
There are numerous reports about Day-Lewis attempting to fully immerse himself in the mindset of someone who lived during the mid-1860s by avoiding the trappings of 21st – not to mention 20th – century life during the shoot, but Spielberg says his star never delved so deeply into character that he refused to acknowledge the modern world. “Daniel was always conscious of his contemporary surroundings,” Spielberg says. “Daniel never went into a fugue state. He did not channel Lincoln. All that stuff is just more about gossip than it is about technique.”
People on set did refer to the actor as “Mr. President,” including Spielberg, but the director says that was just part of the effort to maintain atmosphere. “I was calling [all] the actors by their character names,” he says. “That was something I felt was important to establish a little authenticity, maybe even more for me than for them.”
Spielberg had his own transcendent Lincoln moment years ago, when he toured an archive of the president’s possessions in Springfield, Ill. “I put on white surgical gloves and was given the chance to actually touch the dress that Mary was wearing when Lincoln was assassinated. And I had the chance to also pick up – and hold in my hand – his hat.”
What went through his own mind in that thoughtful moment?
Spielberg pauses, then says with a laugh: “That I would never be as tall as him.”
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