PHILADELPHIA -- Daniel Day-Lewis had done his very best, for a very long time, to avoid Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, the actor had met with Steven Spielberg to discuss the idea of portraying the 16th president of the United States, but that was almost 10 years ago, and Day-Lewis, London-born and Ireland-bred, moved on. He couldn't picture himself in a beard and stovepipe, as the prairie lawyer-turned-commander in chief who saw his country torn apart by the Civil War.
"We had a lovely meeting," says Day-Lewis, seated alongside Spielberg on a couch in a Los Angeles hotel recently, chatting via Skype.
"I really wanted to meet Steven just for the sake of it, but there was no part of me that could conceive of attempting to do that work."
After they talked that first time, Day-Lewis even wrote to explain all the reasons why he was wrong to play Lincoln.
"It was the most beautifully written and most beautifully articulated letter of declination," Spielberg says. "I still have it."
"Initially, I just thought it was a completely outlandish idea," says the two-time Oscar winner (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood). "Maybe for anybody to attempt, but certainly for somebody from outside of this nation to attempt. It's not that I don't like the risk involved, but the risk has to be fairly measured against what benefits there might be. I would never wish to do anything where I felt that I genuinely couldn't be of service to the story, and through the story to the director.
"And I didn't really understand how I could be of any use to Steven."
"Fortunately, I did," Spielberg quips.
Change of heart
And fortunate it is. Day-Lewis' performance in Lincoln -- which opened Friday in the Metroplex -- brings one of the giants of American history to life in haunting and transformative ways. Another Best Actor Oscar nomination seems certain.
Spielberg, who had optioned Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, jettisoned his early screenplay -- an epic biography that traced Lincoln's presidency, intercutting his White House years with virtually every battle of the war between the Union and the Confederacy. The director brought in his Munich collaborator and Angels in America writer, Tony Kushner, to try something different, focusing on the crisis months of 1864 and 1865, when the president brought his political muscle to bear on getting the 13th Amendment passed, abolishing slavery for good. All while the war was still raging.
"Tony's screenplay immediately intrigued me," says Day-Lewis, 55, "but again, I was intrigued as an outsider. I could see the beautiful value that that story might have, but I still couldn't conceive of approaching it."
So what was it that finally pushed Day-Lewis into the part?
"I ran out of excuses," he says with a smile. "I test every reason against myself, every single reason for not doing something -- and I can come up with a lot of reasons! But finally you need to test the strength of your own compulsion. ... And meeting with Steven and Tony in Ireland to talk about Tony's script a year before we made the film, that was a big moment for me in just allowing me to dare to approach the subject a little closer. ...
"And then, finally, I read Doris' book, Team of Rivals, and through that wonderfully eloquent piece of work about not just Lincoln, but the time in which he lived and the people that he was surrounded by, I think I had a sense that he could be approached as a human being, not as a mythic figure."
Parallels to today
In Lincoln, which also stars Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady), Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican Pennsylvania congressman), and Jared Harris (as Ulysses S. Grant), Spielberg describes the intense dance of negotiation and compromise, the Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing to get laws passed. The president struggles to line up the votes to abolish slavery, hiring lobbyists to lure reluctant Democrats into voting "yea" -- and it all seems to resonate with the Washington of today.
Consider that Lincoln named the candidate who ran against him for the Republican nomination, William Seward, as his secretary of state. And that President Obama named the candidate who sought the Democratic Party's top spot, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as his secretary of state.
"Well, history repeats itself," says Spielberg. "But I think to the benefit of our political process, the democratic process. ... It shows what a miraculous system of government was put into place by our Founding Fathers. ... There was such a profoundly intelligent basis for all of this.
"That is still how we do business today in government. We have disagreements -- government has too much power, or the government doesn't have enough power -- and there will always be disagreements about what role the government really has in our personal lives. ...
"But the basic principles of our justice system, of our democracy, still work after all this time."