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In 'Lincoln's' beginning was the word

Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner talk about the story, the voice and the feelings that created their portrait.

November 15, 2012|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

"On any given day, I learned quite a number of pieces of Lincoln's writing, so that I could live with those every day and speak them every day," Day-Lewis said. "The voice is a very deep, personal reflection of character in one way or another."

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Physically, Day-Lewis, 55, was well equipped for the part — he is naturally long and angular, like Lincoln, who was 6 feet, 4 inches.

"I was already bearded and pretty slim by the time I got to the makeup room," Day-Lewis said. "Even though the work they did was quite beautiful and took a considerable amount of time ... nonetheless, the canvas before they worked on it, it wasn't like there was a huge transformation."

For 53 days in 2011 on the movie's Richmond, Va., set, Spielberg addressed his actors by their characters' names, including Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son, Robert. The historical spirit of the set fit well with Day-Lewis' natural way of working, in which he often stays in character throughout a shoot.

"There certainly was a feeling of a time and place that was maintained throughout the shoot, which wasn't hard," said James Spader, who plays a garrulous lobbyist named W.N. Bilbo in the film. "Nothing ever felt contrived."

Day-Lewis spoke in his Lincoln voice even when cameras weren't rolling, and his cast mates developed an affection for his warm, wry version of the president, Spader said. "I just found him to be lovely from beginning to end. Daniel wasn't playing Mr. Plainview from 'There Will be Blood.' Lincoln was a delightful guy, a real raconteur."

Because of the movie's compressed narrative, Lincoln is shown performing the kind of day-to-day tasks that can't be squeezed into a traditional cradle-to-grave biopic, Kushner said.

"I got very excited in the early days of filming when Daniel got down on all fours and started rummaging around in the fireplace," he said. "There was enough time in this movie ... to watch Abraham Lincoln on the floor picking up his kid or changing the logs in the fire."

For Day-Lewis, it was ultimately an opportunity to bring a human face to a mythic figure.

"Lincoln felt it was important for people to have ideals which they might aspire to," Day-Lewis said. "He believed it was important to have those figures, and he became one himself, and also a good man that you discover was so much more interesting than the ideal."


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