STEVEN Spielberg is far too polite and politic to deal in absolutes so will not therefore confirm that Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor with whom he has worked. What the iconic director will concede, however, is that Day-Lewis is one of two actors who has granted him a life-changing experience. The other is Tom Hanks.
In the case of the latter, it was the work they did on Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, in particular, which was Spielberg’s dedication to his father who had served in the Second World War. Father and son were estranged for a while and made up around the time of the film’s 1998 release.
With Day-Lewis, meanwhile, the experience is fresher. The actor looks a sure-fire winner of this year’s best actor Oscar (the film is nominated for 11 other awards including best film and best director), courtesy of his performance as the 19th century US president in Lincoln.
“I have worked with many fine, wonderful actors,” begins Spielberg, “who all bring different values to their characters. I have learned how they arrive at those very private and personal moments of consolidation where they are really able to imprint on a character, to deliver the message, convince us they are that person.
“Everybody has a different technique and I quite frankly don’t care how anybody gets to where they need to go. But I will say that I think Daniel and Tom Hanks are the two actors who I have had life-changing experiences with as a director.”
The director says making Lincoln has reminded him that he loves his country and that he is a staunch patriot. The character of the towering president has loomed in the director’s life since childhood.
“Sometimes, once we accept the fact that there is a monument to the work of great men and women, those monuments tend to become invisible to us,” he says of his drive to make the movie.
“The larger the contributions of the individual, the more they are deified, nationally, the more we tend to forget that they ever even existed. We overlook the $5 bill and we only visit the Lincoln Memorial when we are on a field trip with our kids. Yet Lincoln was such a spectacular human being, and did such ennobling and courageous things, that I just felt it was time to find his voice.”
Spielberg says that there were two steps he needed to make to bring the film to life. “The first was to get a great, great screenplay based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book.”
The book is a meaty tome called Team of Rivals, which focuses on Lincoln’s bid to push through the 13th Amendment, thereby ending slavery and terminating the Civil War in one strike. Spielberg hired playwright Tony Kushner for the job.
“And the second step,” continues the 66-year-old filmmaker, “was to find an actor to play Abraham Lincoln. For me it was Daniel Day-Lewis.”
The actor is quite formidable in the role and some of his co-stars, who include Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field and James Spader, marvel at his dedication to the role.
“Working with Daniel is a phenomenon,” says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays one of Lincoln’s sons in the movie. “I was lucky enough to be on set the last day, and I never heard his real voice or saw him out of costume until that night.
“He showed up in jeans and T-shirt and was the fun, sensitive artist guy. Prior to that I had only interacted with ‘The President’.”
The film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, meanwhile, marvels at Day Lewis’s ability to capture “the terrible burden of responsibility that Lincoln struggled with and also the loneliness that comes from being a person who understands responsibility and what must be done.”
The actor is so good in the role, Spielberg adds, that he “wouldn’t have made the film” without Day-Lewis’s contribution. “I would probably have turned the script over to HBO and done a mini-series,” he says, “and I would have produced it.”
Indeed, it seems that those with Irish roots do well when it comes to portraying Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis is the son of Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Day-Lewis, the former Poet Laureate of the UK, while Spielberg almost worked with Liam Neeson on an earlier Lincoln movie that didn’t quite get off the ground.
“Liam was involved with another Lincoln script that I developed with another set of writers and when I went off that script Liam and I had a very friendly parting of the ways, because we are very solid friends,” he explains.
Neeson starred in Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List. “We don’t see each other that often but we had an experience on that movie that has us joined at the hip no matter where we are geographically,” he says.
“Liam and I are really joined, not even by the hip; we are joined at the heart. So we had a very amiable parting of the ways but I had gone to Daniel before Liam. Eight or nine years ago I had gone to Daniel on that same script that Liam said yes to. But Daniel had said no in a beautifully written letter.”
So how did Spielberg persuade Day-Lewis to agree to his next bid to get a Lincoln movie made? “I didn’t think I’d have a chance to get Daniel to reconsider a brand new Lincoln movie,” he concedes. “But I tried to get to him in various ways. I tried to get to him through his manager.”
It was, however, family friend Leonardo DiCaprio who rode to the rescue. “We were having dinner,” Spielberg recalls, “and I told Leo the whole story with Daniel about how I had tried to do a Lincoln movie and the next day Leo called me in the office and said, ‘Take this number down. That’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s cell phone and he is expecting your call’. And that’s when the train started pulling out of the station.”
That train is now hurtling for Oscar glory leaving Spielberg free to concentrate on his next offering, Robopocalypse. The director, however, is remaining tight-lipped on what we can expect from the film. “I will talk about that later,” he says. “It doesn’t come out until 2014.
“We will have an interview about that and then you can say, ‘Wow! This movie you have just made is in wild contrast to Lincoln. What possessed you?’ Then we will get into that conversation.”
The filmmakers have yet to confirm who will star in the movie but if the actors earn just one jot of the praise that’s befallen Day-Lewis, they will be happy indeed.