Now he belongs to the ages,” Edward Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, said at the president’s deathbed. “And to the studios,” he could have added. The latest in a long parade of screen Abes, is Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
Day-Lewis, 55, has already won two best actor Oscars, and his performance here, tender and soulful, convincingly weary and stoop-shouldered, will almost certainly earn him a nomination.
Tall and thin, with big hands and a long neck, Day-Lewis physically resembles Lincoln. Yet the first time Day-Lewis opens his mouth in the movie, he’s also a little startling. His Lincoln speaks in a voice that is high, earnest and folksy.
Day-Lewis is famously fussy about what parts he takes, sometimes waiting years between films while spending time in both Ireland and the US with his wife, Rebecca Miller (the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller), and their two sons.
Day-Lewis is even fussier about what he calls “the work”: his process of preparing and then inhabiting a part. For The Last of the Mohicans he taught himself to build a canoe, shoot a flintlock and trap and skin animals. For the opening scene of My Left Foot, about Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy, he taught himself to put a record on a turntable with his toes; he also insisted on remaining in a wheelchair between takes and being fed by the crew.
Day-Lewis, who has a deep voice and a British accent, not in the least Lincoln-like, prefers not to talk much about his method of acting. “There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyse everything,” he said, “and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise.”
Spielberg, who had never directed Day-Lewis before, said of working with him: “I never once looked the gift horse in the mouth. I never asked Daniel about his process. I didn’t want to know.”
They did talk a lot about Lincoln, however, not just on set but also starting in 2003, when Spielberg first approached Day-Lewis. The script then was very different—less presidential and more about the Civil War, Spielberg said—and Day-Lewis didn’t care for it. He also said he thought that the idea of playing Lincoln—or of his playing Lincoln, anyway—was preposterous.
Six years later Spielberg came back with a new script: by Tony Kushner, loosely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham