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Daniel Day-Lewis has a couple of Oscars on his mantel, so it's not easy for a movie role to scare him. He freely admits, though, that he was intimidated by his latest one.
"My greatest fear is that I felt very shy around Abraham Lincoln," the 55-year-old actor says during an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. "Lincoln has been emblazoned in our minds. He has been recreated in ways that have made him dehumanized. Lincoln is on money, on Mount Rushmore, on statuary. There are cartoons about him, jokes about him, parodies of him.
"It occurred to me that I felt this shyness around Lincoln, combined with this reverence."
Reverence is often a good thing, the Irish actor says, but not in someone trying to play a part.
"Reverence is of no use to you at all when creating a character," Day-Lewis says. "If anything, you have to be a bit disrespectful when creating a life on film. It's as if you have to walk straight up to a stranger and say, ‘Do you want to spend some time with me? Do you want to hang out with me ... for a couple of years?' I was asking one of the great historical figures of all time to hang out with me."
Accordingly Day-Lewis — whose two Oscars as Best Actor were for My Left Foot (1989) and There Will Be Blood (2007) — turned down the part when it was offered to him by a fellow two-time Oscar winner, director Steven Spielberg. Then Spielberg came back ... and Day-Lewis declined again. And again. And again.
"It was more like five years of avoidance when it came to me playing Lincoln," the actor says. "I had too much respect for Steven Spielberg at first to even try to do it."
Nonetheless, here he is starring in Spielberg's Lincoln, out Nov. 16 in area theares, with serious Oscar buzz surrounding both men.
What changed his mind, he says, was Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" (Simon & Schuster, 2005) and playwright Tony Kushner's script for "Lincoln," which is based on Goodwin's book.
"She allows you to begin to see the human being in Abraham Lincoln," Day-Lewis says.
For his part, Spielberg was willing to go the extra mile to get Day-Lewis, who was the first actor he approached to play Lincoln.
"It wasn't just that I saw a physical resemblance to Lincoln," the director says in a separate interview. "I saw an actor I wanted to work with ever since the world discovered who this man was through ‘My Left Foot.'"
The first day on the set, Day-Lewis saw himself in costume and makeup and was shocked by his resemblance to the 16th president.
"I've always been slightly reluctant to talk about my process," the actor says good-naturedly. "But I will say that we did have a really remarkable team of makeup artists who worked on me first thing in the morning.
"Luckily I came with a nose," he adds with a laugh. "They didn't have to waste any time giving me one. I also had the hair for the role. The only trouble was that I looked a little bit too youthful for it, so the makeup department gave me a little bit of assistance. They gave me less and less help as the schedule wore on!"
Famous for the depth of his research, Day-Lewis made the trek to Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln grew up and where his home has been restored as a museum. He spent his time in the Lincoln house reading the president's letters. They helped him understand the public man, but also gave him a window into the private Lincoln as well.
"My favorite letter was one where Lincoln was really worried about his fourth son, Tad, who was such a little savage," Day-Lewis says. "Lincoln really did not believe in exercising any parental authority. He had an unusual attitude toward parenting for the time. He really believed that love created the links and chains to the parents.
"I read a letter where Lincoln had a dream that his son found a real pistol and shot himself by accident," the actor adds. "In real life the boy was given real pistols without bullets for his play. Lincoln wanted to make sure that the pistols the boy had in real life were rendered unusable."
The letters also provided many instances of Lincoln's famed sense of humor, especially in his exchanges with Gen. George B. McClellan, chief of the Union's armies during the Civil War. McClellan fancied himself a presidential candidate, and didn't want to give Lincoln any battlefield victories to campaign on.
"General McClellan was a continual thorn in Lincoln's side because he didn't want to fight," Day-Lewis says. "In one of Lincoln's letters was an excuse from McClellan, indicating that he couldn't fight because the horses were tired.
"Lincoln wrote the most wonderfully acerbic note where he asked him, ‘Can you tell me exactly what the horses have done all day, then, to make them this fatigued?'"
"I delighted in Lincoln's sense of humor and knew that I had to use that in his character," he says. "One line I particularly loved in the letters was when Lincoln wrote, ‘If General McClellan isn't going to use the Army of the Potomac, then does he mind if I borrow them?'"
Another challenge was finding a voice that worked for an iconic president who, of course, died decades before his voice could be recorded. Day-Lewis has imbued him with a folksy, Midwestern twang whose slightly high pitch conforms to contemporary reports.
"So many people who met him after coming from overseas found him a bit uncouth because of his voice," the actor says. "For Americans meeting Lincoln, it was an encounter with a fellow citizen. I think they felt an ease in his company. He enjoyed meeting people. He wanted to talk to the people he represented. He didn't lord it over you that he was the president."
Lincoln is most famous today, of course, for signing the Emancipation Proclamation and ending slavery.
"He was not a radical abolitionist," Day-Lewis says. "He believed deeply and for ethical reasons that there was a moral sin called slavery. Frederick Douglass said that the only time he ever felt like he was seen just as a fellow human being was in the company of Lincoln."
At the heart of Day-Lewis' Lincoln is the president's relationship with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his four sons. The actor has three sons of his own, two with his wife, writer/director Rebecca Miller, and one from an earlier relationship with actress Isabelle Adjani.
"I wanted to represent the beautiful relationship he had with his sons," Day-Lewis says. "Of course Tad was absolutely destroyed when his father was killed. It gave me such delight to do scenes where you see a destructive force in a go-cart, led by a real goat, tearing through the White House.
"It gave him a moment of peace during a time of war."
There are few Lincolns among today's political leaders, but Day-Lewis says that it's not entirely a bad thing.
"I long for his moral compass," the actor says, "but I don't long for the circumstances that brought the greatness out of Lincoln. It took a historic and grotesque event like slavery and the secession of the states to give Lincoln the opportunity to find in himself something no one knew existed. It was the same as how Kennedy was tested and brought us back from the Cuban missile crisis and Roosevelt was tested by World War II and the Great Depression.
"Sometimes greatness only comes when you are tested."
Day-Lewis and Miller, who is the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, live quietly in New York with their boys, 10-year-old Cashel and 14-year-old Ronan, and his son, 17-year-old Gabriel. The family was parted during the filming of "Lincoln," which according to Day-Lewis doesn't happen often, whether or not he or Miller is making a movie.
"This was an exception for me," he says, "because Rebecca and I made a decision, when the kids were born, that we would always stay together, no matter what the work was for either of us. We've achieved it without exception — except for this movie, because I couldn't take the boys out of school. They have lives now. We were in Richmond, but they were home.
"Just for very selfish reasons, I don't like being away from my family," he says. "I think I can be of some use to them when I'm around. I'm really lonely without them. It's a lonesome thing, working away from one's family and coming home to no one.
"In this case it actually worked for me to feel that isolated," Day-Lewis adds. "I can't pretend that I didn't make use of that to play Lincoln, who was very alone at times."