Tommy Lee Jones on Playing a Fiery Congressman in ‘Lincoln’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

t’s not just Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field who give excellent performances in Steven Spielberg’s well-received “Lincoln.” The entire cast is superb in a variety of roles which helped bring to life the tale of how the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was passed. One performance which really stands out in particular is Tommy Lee Jones’ as fiery abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Time Magazine put Jones at number nine on their list of the Top 10 Movie Performances of 2012 with Richard Corliss describing him as giving “a flinty, inspiring turn.”

Whenever Jones is onscreen, he is a powerful presence and injects this role with both seriousness and a sense of humor as we watch him disassemble the egos of his fellow congressmen for daring to go against the idea of abolishing slavery. Stevens proves to be as obsessed about getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard was about capturing Dr. Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive,” and Jones is as entertaining to watch in “Lincoln” as he is intense.

While most people are aware of whom Abraham Lincoln is, many are not as familiar with Thaddeus Stevens. Known as a Republican and one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives, Stevens was described as being witty, sarcastic and quite the flamboyant speaker. Jones did a lot of research on Stevens and described him to Bill Goodykoontz of AZcentral.com as “a radical Republican abolitionist during the (Civil) War, with a very severe policy of Reconstruction during the war.” But Jones really got at the heart of his character when he described Stevens to Randee Dawn of Variety.

“Stevens was looked on as a wild man for his belief in freedom,” Jones told Dawn. “It was a backward time. It doesn’t surprise me that he had to fight the way he did.”

History also states how Stevens suffered from alopecia, a disease which results in the loss of body hair and baldness. This explains Jones’ use of his black wig to portray Stevens, a wig which in any other movie would look completely out of place on any other actor. Learning of Stevens’ unfortunate ailment, Jones wanted to shave much of the hair off his body to present a more honest portrayal of this congressman. A certain person, however, was deeply involved in making “Lincoln” to put an understandable stop to that.

“I originally suggested that we shave my eyebrows,” Jones told Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times. “Steven (Spielberg) would have nothing to do with that. He said, ‘Your eyebrows are the most expressive part of your face.'”

It goes without saying Jones deserves serious awards consideration for his performance in “Lincoln” but, like Anthony Hopkins who is currently earning praise for “Hitchcock,” he is not interested in mounting any sort of Oscar campaign. As Jones bluntly told Lee, he doesn’t think about or even talk about it. All the same, it is a rousing performance that reminds us of the great actor Jones can be when he is given top rate material. The actor’s talent is certainly not lost on Spielberg who ended up describing Jones quite beautifully.

“Tommy is not just a subtle solo instrument,” Spielberg said. “There is an entire symphony orchestra inside that man, and I knew this when I cast him in the hope that he would represent the Thaddeus Stevens that history tells us was flamboyant, volatile, radically determined and, to some, even tender-hearted. Tommy gave me everything I asked for and much, much more.”

When it comes to talking about the endeavor of making “Lincoln,” Jones described it to Madeleine Marr of The Miami Herald in a way that was both respectful of the movie and very down to earth in regards to his profession.

“It’s a fine undertaking – entertaining and educational with a great respect for American history,” Jones says of the movie, adding, “But I’m always happy to have a job.”

SOURCES:

Richard Corliss, “Top 10 Movie Performances: Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in ‘Lincoln,’” Time Magazine, December 4, 2012.

Bill Goodykoontz, “Q&A: Tommy Lee Jones, in time, talks ‘Lincoln,'” AZcentral.com, November 15, 2012.

Randee Dawn, “Tommy Lee Jones in ‘Lincoln,'” Variety, December 1, 2012.

Chris Lee, “Tommy Lee Jones on playing a real firebrand, in fake hair,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2012.

Madeleine Marr, “Tommy Lee Jones talks ‘Lincoln,’ his career and charity,” The Miami Herald, November 6, 2012.

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.

SOURCES:

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.

Michael Clarke Duncan on Acting in ‘The Green Mile’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

The news of Michael Clarke Duncan’s untimely passing has us all feeling very sad, and I could not agree more with his “Green Mile” director Frank Darabont when he said “Michael has left us far, far too soon. We lost a great man and a great spirit.” That big, warm smile of Duncan’s always seemed to exude a kindness that was genuine, and he is a man who achieved his dream of becoming a movie star and earned the right to be one. This makes his death all the more painful to accept.

Duncan left us with a number of unforgettable performances, but many agree his greatest role was as the gentle giant John Coffey in “The Green Mile,” and it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Special thanks need to be given to Bruce Willis, who he co-starred with in “Armageddon,” who recommended Duncan for the role to Darabont.

The toughest scene for Duncan, however, in “The Green Mile” came when Coffey tries to save the two young girls he is later convicted of murdering.

“I had a lot of crying to do, a lot of howling to do, and it took a long time to do it and it really drained me,” Duncan said. “I’ll remember that day more so than anything else because as we were filming that, everybody was rushing toward me.”

What made the scene work for Duncan is how everything around him felt “so real,” and he remembered getting incredibly scared every time Darabont said “roll.”

When it came to preparing to play such emotionally charged scenes, Duncan credited the training he received from noted acting coach Larry Moss who taught him “how to dig within myself.”

“I’m an emotional person, a very emotional person,” Duncan said. “All those tears you see in the movie were mine.”

Darabont still vividly remembers how “immersive and incredible” the experience of making “The Green Mile” with Duncan was:

“What sticks most in my mind was his (Duncan’s) devotion to his craft and the strides he made as an artist during that time, which was beyond inspiring to those of us who took the journey with him,” Darabont said. “Never has an actor more richly deserved the recognition of an Academy Award nomination than Michael did for his performance as John Coffey.”

Rest in peace Michael, you will be missed.

SOURCES:

Kimberly Nordyke, “‘Green Mile’ Director Frank Darabont Remembers Michael Clarke Duncan,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 3, 2012.

Meriah Doty, “Bruce Willis helped Michael Clarke Duncan get his Oscar caliber role,” Movie Talk, Yahoo! Movies, September 3, 2012.

Dennis McLellan, “Michael Clarke Duncan dies; Oscar-nominated ‘Green Mile’ star was 54,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2012.

Anne Hathaway on Becoming Catwoman in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Anne Hathaway being cast as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises” raised a lot of eyebrows when it was announced. Some screamed she cannot act, but those naysayers forgot she earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance in “Rachel Getting Married.” Hathaway has come a long way from her days of making Disney movies like “The Princess Diaries,” and she is more than ready to play tremendously complex characters. But above all else, the homework she put into transforming herself into Catwoman illustrates just how seriously Hathaway took this role.

While this famous comic book character has been given various interpretations over the years from actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer, Julie Newmar and Halle Berry among others, Hathaway said she did not look at any of the previous Catwomen for inspiration.

“What’s come before doesn’t limit or even affect this new version. It doesn’t affect me because each Catwoman – and this is true in the comics as well – she is defined by the context of the Gotham City created around her. Catwoman is so influenced by Gotham and whoever is creating Gotham at the time. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was informed by Tim Burton’s Gotham and Eartha Kitt was informed by Adam West’s Gotham. You have to live in whatever the reality of the world is and whatever Gotham is.”

From the start, director Christopher Nolan made it clear to Hathaway that Catwoman would be doing a lot of fighting. Hathaway said she “went into the gym for 10 months and didn’t come out,” during which time she toned her body and learned the various martial arts her character uses. She said her training “wasn’t just about looking a certain way. I had to learn how to fight. I had to become strong.”

Hathaway’s other big challenge was being able to fit into the infinitely sexy leather suit Catwoman is famous for wearing. Eventually, she came to describe the suit as “a psychological terrorist” as the thought of it dominated her time in the gym. Once she put it on, however, her mood towards it changed significantly:

“I love the costume because everything has a purpose,” Hathaway said. “Nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.”

As for filming the fight scenes, Hathaway ended up having to do them while wearing spiked heel shoes. The way she saw it, wearing heels was “part of being a woman in this world.” She credited her role in “The Devil Wears Prada” as great preparation for this as she had to run up and down the streets of Manhattan in spiked heels for that movie. Now she gets to do the same thing in the streets of Gotham.

Former Catwoman Julie Newmar has given her blessing to Hathaway, and she believes the actress will be “marvelous” in the role. Judging from the early reviews “The Dark Knight Rises” has gotten so far, many critics are in agreement. Hathaway’s interpretation of Catwoman looks to be wonderfully unique and well thought out, and it should stand proudly alongside the other interpretations. But in the end, Hathaway is not here to outdo everyone else in this role, but to add her own take to a famous character which is bound to see another actress playing her again when Warner Brothers reboots the “Batman” franchise in the future.

SOURCES:

Geoff Boucher, “‘Dark Knight Rises’ star Anne Hathaway: ‘Gotham City is full of grace’,” Los Angeles Times, Hero Complex, December 29, 2011.

Molly McGonigle, “HOW ANNE HATHAWAY SLIMMED DOWN TO BECOME CATWOMAN,” Wonderwall, MSN.com.

Mary Margaret, “Anne Hathaway: Becoming Catwoman ‘Was a Complete Transformation’,” Parade.com, July 9, 2012.

Cindy Pearlman, “‘Dark Knight’ star Anne Hathaway adds heels to Catwoman’s arsenal,” Chicago Sun Times, suntimes.com, July 16, 2012.

Booth Moore, “Catwoman’s blessing: Julie Newmar says Anne Hathaway will be ‘marvelous’,” Los Angeles Times, Hero Complex, January 24, 2011.

Exclusive Interview with Jonathan Gold on ‘City of Gold’

Jonathan Gold photo

For those of you who see Los Angeles as an infinitely shallow and superficial city bereft of culture, try looking at it through the eyes of Jonathan Gold. Food critic for the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Gold is known for his robust writings of Los Angeles restaurants, and he has gone out of his way to review small family owned eateries in the city’s ethnic enclaves as well as the trendier eateries in Beverly Hills. In the process, his reviews have changed the lives of many immigrants who continue to cook the food of their countries, and they have provided readers with a deeper understanding of the cultural landscape of Los Angeles which continues to astonish new visitors and longtime locals.

Gold is the subject of the documentary “City of Gold” which was directed by Laura Gabbert whose previous works include “No Impact Man” and “Sunset Story.” It follows the award winning critic around Los Angeles as he checks out restaurants, and we get to meet many of the chefs whose careers really took off after he reviewed their restaurants. In the process, the documentary also comes to reveal Gold’s deep love of this city and of how it has brought many different kinds of people together.

It was a pleasure to speak with Gold during time off from his day job, and he talked at length about the challenges he experienced making this documentary and how it affected him as a food critic.

Ben Kenber: How were you approached to do this documentary? Was it something you were open to doing or were you hesitant about it at first?

Jonathan Gold: Oh I was absolutely not open to doing it. It’s a tradition of anonymous restaurant critics in the United States. I’ve been approached by reality TV a lot, but I always said no. The filmmaker, Laura Gabbert… It’s sort of a weird story. I donated a dinner with a critic to a silent auction at a school a friend’s kid went to and she bought it. We went out to dinner at the first iteration of LudoBites, Ludo Lefebvre’s pop-up restaurant, and she brought it up and I laughed it off, and she called and we had coffee a few times and it was still not going to happen. And then my kid ended up going to that school, and somehow when you see somebody every day at the drop off line it becomes inevitable in a certain way. I had been thinking a lot about anonymity. It had almost been an impossible concept at the moment, restaurant criticism, with the very, very, very few exceptions. The restaurants that really need to know who the critics are know who the critics are, and nobody stays anonymous for more than a couple of months. I had been reviewing restaurants for more than 20 years and I just figured that it was okay to give it up. It was less a question of actually being anonymous then pretending not to notice them pretending not to notice me noticing them and noticing me. Very meta (laughs).

BK: I have heard restaurant workers have a very high mortality rate. Is that a subject you have ever dealt with in your reviews?

JG: No, not so much, but it’s really physically demanding work. You get up really early, you’re on your feet all day, you are around things that are very sharp and are very hot, and you’re breathing in vapors and smoke and things all day. You’re in a place that has a ton of alcohol because that is why it exists. So I admire the people who could do it as much as a sports writer admires athletes. It takes a lot of stamina.

BK: In the documentary we learn early on you were originally a music critic and later became a food critic. What were the differences of being a critic for each?

JG: Well I’ve actually always done both. I would go to dinner on the way to the show, and then I would review the restaurant and I would review the show. That’s how I did it for years and years. I didn’t think they were incompatible at all (laughs). But one of the things I liked about writing about food just as a profession is that when you write about music you deal with layers and layers of publicists, and I remember I did a Rolling Stone cover on Snoop and Dre. I counted at one point because it started to get weird, but there were more than 1100 phone calls to the publicists. When you are dealing with the restaurant you just go to the restaurant, so it was easier that way. It was a good piece but man, it seemed like a full time job dealing with that.

BK: Once filming began, did it take a long time for you to get used to the cameras following you around?

JG: I wouldn’t say that it took me a long time, but it may have actually taken me a long time. It was like one day a week, one day every other week, and Laura Gabbert, the director, would show up with the cinematographer and someone doing sound and they would crowd into the back of my pickup truck and we’d drive around and we’d stop somewhere. I didn’t really know what to do at first. It’s hard to talk freely when you just have a camera pointed at you and a boom microphone like tickling you, but I think over the course of filming it, it became a little less strange and a little more natural. The people I had lunch with and dinner with never got used to it quite as much as I did just because it was an inherently awkward situation. But it must be said that I laid down guidelines at the beginning for filming. I didn’t want her to fill me actually reviewing a restaurant. She would’ve liked that and it would’ve given the movie an arc, but I didn’t want to give her an arc actually because I didn’t want anything dramatic to happen. And I put down for a long time that she couldn’t film my kids because they deserve their privacy, and of course it turned out that they wanted to be in the film so they were. There were probably a few others, but with those boundaries drawn and the fact that I wasn’t actually going to have to interview anybody, I wasn’t going to act as a journalist and I was just going to be a person doing possibly journalistic things.

BK: The movie starts with you sitting in front of your computer and looking pensive, and then you begin to type something. Were you actually writing a review at that moment?

JG: Yeah. Actually I refused to have it staged and they shot it in a lot of different ways, but I was actually always writing a piece when I was doing it. Not necessarily the piece that was coming on the voiceover because… I don’t know if you’ve done it, but pretending to type looks like somebody pretending to type, and it’s always bothersome in movies.

BK: Did you have or want any artistic control over the documentary, or were you content to have Laura just have her way with it?

JG: I had essentially no artistic control over it. I’m the subject in the way that you are interviewing people. The people that you are interviewing don’t have any input into the story you are writing and they shouldn’t, and she was committing an act of journalism and I was the subject. I saw a rough cut of it and I’m not sure there was anything I objected to. Sometimes I wish I had combed my hair (laughs) and sometimes I wish I’d said something in a more articulate fashion, but I talk the way I talk.

BK: Was there anything taken out of the documentary that you wish had stayed in?

JG: There was a scene that I loved where I was giving a presentation at the MAD conference in Copenhagen, and that’s a conference that happens every couple of years. They couldn’t send anybody but they lent my daughter a camera and she took footage and she put it together in a certain way. It’s sort of a beautiful scene, but ultimately it didn’t really fit into the narrative of the film and it was cut. I will always become exercised on behalf of my children (laughs). I think it’s almost demanded.

BK: How would you say you ever evolved as a critic over the years you have done this work?

JG: I think I understand that there’s more and I think I understand that there is less. The more I do this, the more I write, the more it feels like I actually know.

BK: You are so good at describing things in your work to where you give the reader very vivid images of the stuff you are writing about. How do you accomplish that?

JG: Actually that was maybe one thing I worked at pretty hard. I thought that describing food was my one weakness when I first started writing about food. I was good at getting you into the room and I was good at describing the context and telling you why you were there, but sometimes my descriptions of the food were a little bit tough. I actually worked at it and worked at it, and I figure it’s like Kobe Bryant taking 1000 free throws a day. It’s like eventually he’s going to figure out where the basket is.

BK: Has doing this documentary changed the way you write about food at all?

JG: No, not at all.

I want to thank Jonathan Gold for taking the time to talk with me. To find out more about “City of Gold,” be sure to visit the documentary’s website at www.cityofgolddoc.com.