Daniel Day-Lewis, known as a picky film actor, on playing Abraham Lincoln
“Now he belongs to the ages,” Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, said at the president’s deathbed. “And to the studios,” he could have added.
The latest in a long parade of screen Abes, coming right on the heels of Benjamin Walker’s ax-swinging, martial arts version in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is Daniel Day-Lewis, who, though he grew up in England and Ireland and had to learn about Lincoln almost from scratch, plays the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opens Friday.
Day-Lewis, 55, has already won two best actor Oscars, and his performance here, tender and soulful, convincingly weary and stoop-shouldered, will almost certainly earn him a nomination. He’s neither as zombified as Walter Huston in DW Griffith’s 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln, nor as brash and self-assured as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln (1939), nor as stagy and ponderous as Raymond Massey, a year later, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, in which he sounds, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a lot like the TV evangelist Harold Camping proclaiming the end of the world once more.
Tall and thin, with big hands and a long neck, Day-Lewis physically resembles Lincoln more nearly than many of his predecessors. Yet the first time Day-Lewis opens his mouth in the movie, he’s also a little startling. His Lincoln speaks not in Massey’s stentorian baritone, or in the echoing, ballpark-announcer tones of the Disneyland animatronic Lincoln, but in a voice that is high, earnest and folksy.
Day-Lewis is famously fussy about what parts he takes, sometimes waiting years between films while spending time in both Ireland and America with his wife, Rebecca Miller, and their two sons. For a while he seemed to give up movies altogether and apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker and a cobbler.
Day-Lewis is even fussier about what he calls “the work”: his process of preparing and then inhabiting a part. Day-Lewis, who has a deep voice and a British accent, not in the least Lincoln-like, prefers not to talk much about his method of acting. He doesn’t entirely understand it himself, he says, and doesn’t want to. “There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyse everything,” he said during a recent interview in New York, “and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise.”
He added: “It sounds pretentious, I know. I recognise all the practical work that