When Daniel Day Lewis was first approached to portray what many consider our greatest president in Lincoln, he said no. He told Movie Fanatic that he turned down the offer from director Steven Spielberg three times before saying yes.
Day Lewis reflected what was said in our Steven Spielberg interview about wanting to get beyond the caricature of the iconic leader and get to the heart of the man. That gets to the heart of why the Oscar-winning actor initially turned down the role that could easily see him nabbing his third Oscar. “How do you approach a man’s life that has been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it? I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that,” Day Lewis said.
In fact, the more he delved into the man behind the myth, he discovered someone who almost begged him to be portrayed by the Irish actor. “The wonderful surprise with that man is you begin to discover him -- there are many different ways in which he kind of welcomes you in. He’s very accessible. That took me by surprise."
When first embarking on his Lincoln journey, Day Lewis was a blank slate. “It’s easy for me to start, because I knew nothing about him,” he said and chuckled. “I had everything to learn. Apart from a few images, a statue and a few lines from the first inaugural speech and a few from the Gettysburg Address, that would be my entire knowledge of that man’s life.”
As evidenced in Spielberg’s Lincoln, the man not only had a way with the public -- he was wildly popular -- he also possessed the ability to make people laugh. “The most delicious surprise for me was the humor. That was almost the most important aspect of his character.”
Being a father himself, Day Lewis identified with the serious role Lincoln took in being a father to his youngest Tad. Yet, he found it an interesting dichotomy between the lack of relationship he had with his oldest son, Robert, and his extremely close relationship with his young son -- shown throughout Lincoln.
Perhaps it had something to do with Lincoln’s own upbringing that was tough to say the least. “The relationship between him and his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt), was the least resolved. There was a distance there I think largely because of the work that he’d been doing on the judicial circuit -- which had taken him away for six months of any given year. He also had the political campaigns and then he was in office and Robert was at University,” Day Lewis said.
Not many people know, but Lincoln and his wife Mary had already lost two sons by the time Spielberg’s movie starts the story. “He had an interesting attitude towards parenthood, which is surprisingly modern. He believed that there should be a total absence of any parental authority whatsoever. And that was a conscious decision,” Day Lewis added.
All one had to do is look to Lincoln’s upbringing to see where that emanated from. “His experience of childhood was a bleak, difficult one. When his father moved from Kentucky to Illinois, he and his sister had to exist in the wilderness and get on with it while his father went out to make a living. He had to grow up very quickly.”
So where Lincoln had let his relationship with Robert suffer due to his professional demands, once in the White House, Day Lewis became fascinated with how he treated his young boy Tad. “He enjoyed watching all the chaos that Tad created in the White House,” Day Lewis said and laughed. “It was just pure love.”
After talking about his fascination and admiration for the Great Emancipator, Day Lewis returns to his initial reluctance to tackle the role. He’s still not sure he nailed it. “I don’t think I ever did know it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses,” Day Lewis said and laughed.
Given how incredible the man was, not to mention his place in our national lore, there were plenty of reasons to say no, but this writer can say that there was no one else more suitable to portray the man.
“It just seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person to help [Spielberg]. Least of I did not want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the greatest president this country’s ever known,” Day Lewis said. “It seemed to me a very difficult thing to try and tell that story. I just really felt I wasn’t the person to do that.”
Now that the experience is in the actor’s rearview, can Day Lewis articulate why he decided to become the centerpiece of Lincoln? It had everything to do with Spielberg’s vision, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals (the book the film is based on) and the script by Tony Kushner.
“Reading Tony’s script and Doris’ book, I think that became the platform for me. Through that, I could believe that there was a living being to be discovered. Doris makes that so beautifully clear,” he added.
“That had been a great problem for me, not just the responsibility of taking on that task, but because of the iconography surrounding his life.”