On Properly Representing America’s Most Revered President, Abraham Lincoln, on Film
By Sian Edwards / The Interview Feed
Photo Credits: © CAMERA PRESS
"Lincoln had a very interesting attitude towards parenthood which is surprisingly modern, almost."
No stranger to tackling difficult material, Daniel Day-Lewis, 55, plays America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln. Lewis is dressed in a grey jacket, black trousers, and a white shirt. The award-winning actor, often described as a recluse, talks about Spielberg and the daunting task that Lincoln is.
Q: What did you see as your greatest challenge in bringing this iconic character to life?
Daniel Day-Lewis (DDL): Apart from everything you mean? (laughs) I think really the most obvious thing was trying to approach a man’s life that has been mythologized to such an extent that in a way you can’t get close enough to being able to properly represent it. I just wasn’t sure that I would be able to do that. Beyond that, I felt that probably I shouldn’t do it (laughs), and somebody else would do that instead. (laughs)
Q: Obviously when you are creating a character out of a real human being with a tremendous amount of biographical data but also in this case, historical, political information as well, what did you learn about Mr. Lincoln that you did not know previously? What were you surprised by?
DDL: Well that was easy for me because I knew nothing about him, so I had everything to learn and apart from a few images, a statue, a cartoon, a few lines from the first inaugural, a few from the Gettysburg Address, that would be my entire knowledge of that man’s life. I think probably the most delicious surprise for me was the humor. To begin to discover that and that, that was an important aspect of his character.
Q: You spoke about your reluctance to take on this role. What was the depth of that reluctance and talk about the wooing process, how were you won over to this challenge and when did you know it was the right time to say yes?
DDL: Well I don’t know if I ever knew that it was the right choice, but I ran out of excuses at a certain point, (laughs) I understood that for Steven (Spielberg) to put the idea in front of me, not that I didn’t take it seriously from the word go, but it seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person to help him to do that thing that he wished to do. And also, least of all did I want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the greatest President that this country has ever known, (laughs) not just in a self-serving way, but quite literally. It seemed to me a very difficult thing to try and tell that story, very difficult to try and do that
in such a way that it could live. And I just really felt I wasn’t the person to do that.
Q: So what changed your mind?
DDL: It really was for me a combination of meeting with Steven, which was, even if nothing had come from it, it still would have left me with a really wonderful memory at the time spent talking about Lincoln.
Q: After leaving this movie, what do you think about government in this country and what is equal?
DDL: Well it’s a work in progress, isn’t it? It’s the word amendment itself, which is an encouraging thing because it tells of a system of a government that allows for the improvement of itself. And yeah, just move forward a little bit, one day at a time.
Q: One of the most relatable and human elements in the film to me is just seeing Lincoln and Tad. Can you talk about Lincoln as a father and that very complicated relationship that we see play out?
DDL: Some people are much better dads in their second marriage than their first. It certainly seems true that there was a relationship between them, the relationship between him and his eldest son, Robert who you see in the film was perhaps the least involved, the least explored of his relationships. There was a distance there I think, largely because of the work that he had been doing on the judicial circuit which had taken him away for six months, almost a year and also various political campaigns. And also he was in office and with Robert at University and so on, so there had been a certain distance there. By the time we meet him in the story, he’d lost two sons; he had lost a child when they were in Springfield as well.
Q: He was quite a modern father
DDL: Lincoln had a very interesting attitude towards parenthood which is surprisingly modern, almost. It exceeds the degree to which we are able to be modern. (laughs) And he believed in the total absence of any parental authority whatsoever. And that was a conscious decision. It may have well largely been influenced by the very harsh disciplinarian that he had as a father himself and his experience of childhood would have been a very bleak, very difficult one. He was forced to, as many young people were at that time, from the moment I think that they moved from Kentucky to Indiana, already he and his sister were struggling to survive, almost on their own when his father went back to bring Sara, the lady who became his stepmother. He was away for a long, long time and they just had to exist in the wilderness and get on with it. I think he had to grow up very quickly. His father was certainly a man who didn’t have much tolerance for books, and that created I think a great conflict.
There was no love lost, but he made a wonderful statement and it’s a strange image to use because it conjures up an image of slavery but I think he used the image of love to create the links that chain a child to the family, to the parent. But anyhow, to cut a long story short, there was absolute chaos in the White House because I think it was both from a scientific point of view, I think he enjoyed so much watching the chaos that Tad created, he was armed to the teeth apart from anything else with all kinds of weapons, cannons, flintlocks, swords and the goat drawn carriage that he had which was always kind of careening about the corridors of the White House. I think Lincoln really enjoyed watching, observing the bedlam that ensued from all his adventures, but also, I think it was just pure love he felt a love for him. I’m not saying that this is good parenting in contemporary terms, that you just let them do whatever the hell they want, but it’s an interesting choice to make at that time, in that place. And of course Mary again, during this part of the story, is more or less an absentee as a parent. And therefore the bond between Tad and Lincoln became so very precious to both of them, because he was the primary parent at that time. Sorry, that was a rambling account. (laughs) HBM
Lewis had a relationship with French actress, Isabelle Adjani, which lasted six years. Their son Gabriel was born in 1995 several months after the relationship ended. He later married Rebecca Miller with whom he had two sons; Ronan, born 14 June 1998, and Cashel, born May 2002 and they divide their time between the US and Ireland. Aside from acting, he’s a supporter of Millwall Football Club, and in July 2010, he received an honorary doctorate in letters from the University of Bristol.
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