Daniel Day-Lewis on Portraying the 16th American President in ‘Lincoln’
WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.
While there are many actors who physically and mentally transform themselves for a role, none are as fascinating to watch or as serious in their concentration as two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether he’s playing poet Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” or portraying Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Lewis disappears so deeply into each character he takes on to where it’s almost like he ceases to exist. With “Lincoln,” he gets his biggest challenge yet as director Steven Spielberg convinced him to portray the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Lewis spent a full year preparing to play President Lincoln by reading through his speeches and writings. The actor also lost quite a bit of weight to look more like the rail-thin leader, and he took a tour of Lincoln’s home and law office in Springfield, Illinois along with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for the physical side of playing Lincoln, Spielberg indicated Day-Lewis had many of the President’s features when he arrived on set.
“That was his hair, his beard, he had very light makeup on his face. And we added the mole, of course,” Spielberg said of Day-Lewis. “I don’t know how much (weight he lost), but he was as lean as I’ve ever seen him.”
In the process of reading Lincoln’s writings and speeches, Day-Lewis became delighted at his use of certain words like “disenthrall.” The actor’s father was once England’s poet laureate, and he taught his son a great love of language which lasts to this very day. As a result, Day-Lewis strongly encouraged Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for “Lincoln,” to include those words into the script.
“I’d never seen that word (disenthrall) before and I’m always looking for a context ever since where I can use that word, I love it so much,” Day-Lewis said. “The richest source, which creates a very broad, illuminated avenue towards an understanding of Lincoln and his life is through his own words and his own language.”
One aspect of Day-Lewis’ performance people are desperate to know more about was how he came up with Lincoln’s voice. Since Lincoln died long before audio recording became a reality, no one can ever truly be certain of what this American President sounded like. Looking at him in historical pictures, most people came to assume Lincoln had a deep booming voice. Day-Lewis, however, went with a high-pitched tone instead which came about when he read Lincoln’s writing aloud.
“I began to hear a voice that, as I grew closer to the man, that seemed to give me the full expression of his character,” Day-Lewis said. “You look for the clues, as within any aspect of the work, you search for the clues, and there were plenty of them, but for me, if I’m very lucky, at a given moment, I begin to hear a voice, not in the supernatural sense, but in my inner ear, and then the work begins to try to reproduce that sound.”
As with his previous roles, Day-Lewis stayed in character and kept the accent even when the cameras were not rolling. This was not lost on his fellow co-stars which included James Spader who plays political operative William N. Bilbo.
“He’s doing an accent and voice that he held onto all day because I think that’s really the only way one could do that,” Spader said of Lewis.
While doing his research, Day-Lewis’ biggest surprise was discovering Lincoln’s sense of humor and what an important aspect of his personality it was.
“I think it was tactical (Lincoln’s humor), in the political sense. At times, it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense, for some purpose and to make some point,” Lewis said. “There were accounts of people that came to ask him a question of great importance to them, found themselves in his presence, got a handshake and a story, and were out of the room before they even realized [they never asked it]. That’s good politics. But I think that was innately part of him.”
Daniel Day-Lewis never ceases to amaze us with his unsurprisingly brilliant performances, and the one he gives us in “Lincoln” is just the latest example. While he was initially reluctant to play this American President in Spielberg’s film at first, it is clear he did his homework which led to his unique interpretation of this unforgettable historical figure. It would be utterly shocking if he were to be denied an Oscar nomination for his intense efforts here.
Bryan Alexander, “Daniel Day-Lewis: A true ‘Lincoln’ transformation,” USA Today, November 9, 2012.
Rebecca Keegan, “‘Lincoln’ was a tall order for Spielberg, Day-Lewis,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012.
“Daniel Day-Lewis’ ‘Lincoln’ voice historically accurate?” CBS News, November 9, 2012.
Christina Radish, “Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg Talk LINCOLN, Showing Lincoln as Politician and Father, and Release Timing around the Election,” Collider, November 10, 2012.