To paraphrase a Star Wars phrase about the force being strong with this one, when it comes to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the Oscar buzz is just as powerful surrounding James Spader. The acting veteran is earning the best marks of his career, as we point out in our Lincoln review, for his role of political operative W.N. Bilbo. Movie Fanatic caught up with Spader at Disney studios in Burbank for an exclusive conversation about all things Lincoln.
Knowing he was joining a Spielberg picture starring the chameleon-like legend that is Daniel Day Lewis in the title role, Spader dove into Lincoln history and admitted that it is too early to tell how much he truly learned about our greatest president.
“I learned a lot, but I don’t even know if I have the objectivity to even be able to know to the extent,” Spader said.
A bulk of the film takes place in the final weeks of Lincoln’s life as the Civil War rages. He had just won re-election and he was making his number one priority passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The president knew that if he made slavery illegal, the entire reason for the war would cease to exist and peace could be achieved in one fell swoop.
“I was unaware of a lot of the circumstances of what’s depicted in the film,” Spader added. He appreciated Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner for their ability to sharpen the focus on a historical figure. “Unless you’re a student of history, you tend to think of history in broad strokes and this film is painted with the finest of brushes. It’s a very, very small slice. The politics of the day I saw for the first time through the prism of this screenplay.”
As seen in many of the eloquent monologues through the Lincoln trailer, Kushner’s work is a piece of art and its power is only further resonating with Spader since witnessing the entire film. “I’ve seen the film twice now and the first time it washed over me like a wave. It was just glorious. I saw it last night for the second time and you’re right, there were just certain moments all of a sudden where it’s just art,” he said.
Spader also was allowed to take a step back and marvel at the uncanny performance by the film’s lead. “I was even more drawn in by Daniel than I was the first time, although the first time I was just stunned at what a beautiful, beautiful performance it was. But last night I was even more drawn in. I remember I saw the film for the first time and called Daniel and said, ‘It just made me miss you terribly.’”
Even though it is a story that is almost a century-and-a-half old, Spader finds Spielberg’s work as timely as ever, especially in these deeply divided times. “That little period, just those few weeks, were such an incredibly dramatic time and it was such an incredibly brutal time in our history where one could focus on such a broad spectrum of issues of the day -- ultimately all those issues of the day could be distilled into this idea. I think in a way the film speaks to that sort of defining of our country right up to today,” Spader said.
Countries throughout the globe are going through what America went through during those trying final weeks of Lincoln’s life. “Other nations are struggling with things. I’ll travel to Europe which is struggling with things that we struggled with and how to live in proximity with people that you do not understand. You must be patient, must be tolerant, must be curious, or at least understanding,” Spader added. “I love the fact that this film delves into that.”
Not only does Lincoln show the final weeks of an American icon, it truly depicts a turning point in U.S history where a marked shift in policy would reverberate throughout time and geography. Spader remarked that many felt that when slavery was abolished that the race discussion in America was perceived to be completed. Yet, when President Obama was first elected in 2008, that same sentiment was also expressed.
Spader shared a story about his time on David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal and how the brilliant creator of that show handled that issue, and it reminds him of what Kushner and Spielberg have done with Lincoln.
“I remember I was doing Boston Legal right before the 2008 elections. We were shooting an episode that dealt with President Obama winning. [In that episode] there was this great argument that was sort of the center of the thing about whether this answered the question of race in our country. I remember the argument that my character was putting forth was that it’s a ludicrous notion that the election of a black president puts to rest the issue of race in our country,” Spader recalled.
“It’s just so funny that however many years prior to that, in this film Lincoln, the depiction is of a time where one might say, ‘Does this put to rest the issue of race in our country?’ And of course as the decades unfolded after that, it has always been an issue in this country.”