Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar Card?

The man audiences get to know in “Lincoln” is a hero, but a complex, contradictory, even flawed hero in the modern sense of the term. Lincoln’s battle to pass the 13th Amendment was not only a turning point for the nation but also a personal precipice for the man. While craftily winning power struggles in the Capitol, on the home front Lincoln was confronting the loss of a son, a fragile rift with his complicated wife and the fear of losing another child to a conflict that weighed daily on his soul.

Both sides of Lincoln are intertwined by two-time Academy Award® winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Says Spielberg: “I think Daniel, like Tony Kushner, understood Lincoln on a subatomic level, one that goes beyond anything I could articulate. I never asked Daniel about his process, I never questioned it; I never looked the gift horse in the mouth. I just received it with tremendous gratitude. With Daniel and Tony, I felt I was in between two giant figures in the landscape of theater and performances and I was constantly saying to myself, ‘Don’t get in the way; celebrate these words, capture these performances, get it in the best way you know how.’ And let the actors cast their long shadows.”

Day-Lewis’ depiction began with Kushner, who in turn took his cues to the Lincoln personality from Doris Kearns Goodwin. “The film’s conception of Lincoln is very much in the spirit of Doris’ embryonic idea of Lincoln,” Kushner explains. “I read an immense number of books and articles on Lincoln, but I always felt Doris’ take on him really went the distance. She understood him as a hardheaded politician, who could have a terrifying degree of calculation and could sacrifice friendships when it was necessary—but also as someone lyrical, poetic and with a love of jokes and humor. As Walt Whitman said, he contained multitudes.”

Like many people, Day-Lewis was initially familiar with Lincoln only in broad strokes, mostly through speeches like The Gettysburg Address. “But as a human being, I had little sense of him whatsoever until I began to learn,” he says. The screenplay kicked off the learning process. “In a very rich way, Tony suggested the man through his intellect, his humor and his melancholy, both domestically and in office. The contrast between those two things is something that’s like food and drink to me. In Tony’s script you see a man in that strange paradox of being both public and private.”

He then undertook an intimate engagement with “Team of Rivals,” as well as many other writings about and by Lincoln. But this gave way to something more organic. “Doris’ book was a great beginning,” Day-Lewis says. “But reading accounts of a life can only take you so far, and what became even more interesting to me at a certain point was trying to grow towards a subjective understanding of Lincoln’s personal experience. And in that, the legacy of his writing was hugely important. You get such a wonderful sense of him not only in his speeches but in the stories he told.”

Another key to Lincoln became what Day-Lewis calls “the rhythm of the man.” He explains: “He did everything at his own pace and could only do it at his own pace. He needed to arrive at his decisive conclusions by a logical process that he relied on. What looked to others like inaction or paralysis was just the physical impression that he gave. In his own mind he was traveling as he needed to do, through each step of the process, after which he could see things clearly.”

A different side to Lincoln’s rhythm was found in the way he relished spinning a tale to a variety of effects—to bring levity to a hard moment or move people in ways they had not seen coming. “There was somebody very dear to me who’s no longer alive, but who had that similar storyteller quality, and I’ve known a few storytellers, but I’m not really a storyteller myself,” says Day-Lewis. “That was something that kind of worried me a good deal, finding those qualities. There was an immediate sharpness to Lincoln’s wit that was so beautiful. It was something I loved about him.”

The spotlighting of Lincoln’s humor gratified Goodwin, who had found that part of him so compelling during her research. “It was really important to me that Lincoln’s sense of humor come across in the movie,” she says, “and that was built into the script and Daniel’s performance. Sometimes it was said that Lincoln could be sitting in a room and he would look so sad, but then he would start to tell a story, and suddenly he would come to life and he would get funnier and funnier, and his eyes would twinkle, and his voice would take on whatever the story he was telling. That’s how I always want to think of him: in motion, telling stories.”

While a few recent historians have posited that Lincoln displayed features of medical depression, Kushner believes his gravity of mood was more reflective of the events in the nation. “He was a man of immense empathy and compassion,” he says. “He could articulate people’s sorrows in a very human and likable way. Also, he was president during a shockingly deadly war, which changed America’s relationship with death. So there was a darkness to him, but the circumstances called for it.”

Kushner adds: “I think that’s one of the things that Daniel Day-Lewis was able to capture: the terrible burden of responsibility that Lincoln struggled with and also the kind of loneliness that comes from being a rarified person who truly understands that responsibility and what must be done.”

Then there was Lincoln’s eerily lean, craggy physicality and his voice, which was not the baritone often imagined, but said to have been more of a higher-pitched tenor voice, especially the more impassioned he became. Day-Lewis embodied both, lending the character a rough-hewn, unadorned humanity that makes him feel truly accessible. “Daniel embodies Lincoln’s physicality in a remarkable way,” says Kathleen Kennedy, “but he also dug deep to get to a place that makes you feel like he had access to who Lincoln was as a man. And the rapport that he and Steven developed on set was second to none. I haven’t seen Steven work with someone that closely and intimately ever before.”

That rapport centered on a shared respect for Lincoln, says Day-Lewis. “I was left with a sense of immeasurable pleasure at having been enabled by Steven and Tony to explore this man’s life. There has never been a human being I have loved as much and I doubt there ever will be.”

Of the working relationship with Spielberg, Day-Lewis says: “He’s very open. The best thing anyone can ever be in any creative workplace is open. And to have that degree of openness alongside his sense of structure is a powerful combination. He’s also very confident. But his confidence allows for the needs and energies of everyone around him.”

Spielberg and Day-Lewis were in agreement that the set should be a kind of oasis where only Lincoln’s world was alive. To maintain the totality of this world, Spielberg asked his actors and crew to fully inhabit 19th century Washington, D.C. “To represent the mood of the nation at the time, we had to create that sense of authenticity on set,” Spielberg says, “where the only imposition from our times were the camera and monitors—but everything else was part of Lincoln’s reality.”

Indeed, production designer Rick Carter recalls a feeling of tumbling through time when Day-Lewis first came to the set: “I haven’t gotten over the first time I saw him,” muses Carter. “Daniel Day-Lewis was not who I saw in front of me. I saw the man who was the President of the United States in 1865. I saw Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t see any distinction or gap between them.”