Daniel Day-Lewis on Lincoln | Interview

Poised to win his third Oscar, Daniel Day-Lewis offers a glimpse into how he found Lincoln.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

In Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th President as a curious, persuasive mix: canny politician, rural lawyer, loving husband, bereaved father, entrancing storyteller, flat-footed and physically awkward. “He looked like a bag of hammers to most people,” says the actor who seems likely to take home his third Oscar Sunday 24. “He considered himself to be hideous and made numerous comments and jokes about himself.”

At 55, Day-Lewis is known for the preparation he puts into each role. With every film comes the inevitable tales of extreme behavior. Clearly the last thing he wants is to push that reputation further with careless talk. “I’ve been reluctant to talk about how I work because I don’t really feel one should talk about it,” he reasons when we meet in New York. “But I suppose the problem with that is then a lot of other people talk about it on your behalf, and by a process of Chinese whispers it sounds like some strange satanic ritual is taking place.”

The star prefers to explore the extremes of human experience, embodying men like Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. There were accounts of Day-Lewis insisting on being called “Mr. President” on the set of Lincoln—though it later emerged that Spielberg suggested that way of working. “What’s completely misrepresented is the fact that I take a long time [preparing each character] because I enjoy the work and it pleases me to take time over it,” he says. “It’s a game, and I’ve never thought to obscure that fact. But, for whatever reason, that image persists of some sort of lonely, strange figure going about an unholy business.”

For Lincoln, he began by reading, starting with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, on which the film is partly based. “The hard thing is to choose what to read,” he says. “I could still be reading now and for the next 15 years and not make a dent in the literature about that man.”

Much discussion has centered on the voice Day-Lewis adopts, a soft, slightly high, conversational lilt. It’s warm and steely, stressing Lincoln’s famed personality as a storyteller. “If I’m really lucky, I begin to hear a voice,” he says. “That has always been part of my experience—listening for that sound of the voice in my inner ear. If that pleases me, and I live with that for a while and the internal monologue feels right, then I go about the work of reproducing it. Lincoln always spoke aloud when he read, so that was a lovely clue.”

He recalls sending Spielberg a tape late in the process. “I’m not sure what I’d have done if it confused him, because at that stage it was very familiar to me,” he says. “I sent it with great trepidation and drew a skull and crossbones on the envelope saying that no one else should open it!”

Despite the acclaim, he says he doesn’t look for reviews. (“I’m a sucker when people say nice things, and it’s unpleasant when people write unpleasant things.”) He shows some of this sensitivity when I mention his makeup in the film: “Don’t say that!” He admits I’ve hit a sore spot. “Aging makeup is a dangerous thing,” he argues, adding it’s the first time he’s agreed to wear it onscreen. “One often sees it on film and thinks: Wow, that looks amazing.”

He sighs. “And, of course, then you’ve already lost the battle.”

Lincolnis in theaters now.

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