Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis shows us how good we can be when we apply ourselves. He is the crazy-artist actor, infusing iconic movie characters with combustible soul. He cares about these characters he plays, so he works (and works and works and works) to become them.

Like in “Lincoln.” Steven Spielberg called it “the most performance-based film I’ve ever made.” Day Lewis isn’t in every scene, but he’s in most, and his Lincoln is both the mythic hero of American history and a sad, tired man aged by grief much too quickly.

Check out this great interview with Day-Lewis and Spielberg on AMC. This is partly how the actor explained his method for working with Spielberg to make the best Lincoln he could:

“Quite often, when the set was just ours to play with at the end of a day, um, and it was quiet, we would start to explore the ideas we might share about what the next day’s work would bring. Some of the best times that I remember having with Steven were just the two of us trying to figure out…. And of course it’s an unforgivable thing to do when you don’t have your colleagues around you. And it’s not to say that when they arrived the next day we weren’t open to the possibilities that they brought with them, but at least we had a sense ourselves of how we might approach that piece of work.”

Based on what we know about Day-Lewis, he was almost certainly dressed as Lincoln and speaking in his Lincoln voice during these late-night hang-out-and-brainstorm sessions. Spielberg must have loved that.

“In my eyes, Daniel’s the Holy Grail of actors. To work with somebody that is gonna be that focused and dedicated, without question, to what he’s doing… So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on him, really. You think ‘Oh boy, I hope I can do as well for you as I know you’re gonna do for me.’”

That’s Paul Thomas Anderson, talking to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about directing Day-Lewis in the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis won an Oscar for the roll of Daniel Plainview, a soulless, furious, murderous, drunken oil man feuding against an evangelical preacher in an early-20th-century town sitting above an ocean of oil. Rolling Stone said “Daniel Day-Lewis gave the best and ballsiest performance of the last 10 years.”

Dedication, like Anderson said, is Day-Lewis’s key to being the best. In “My Left Foot” his character can only control his left foot because of cerebral palsy, so Day-Lewis insisted on being pushed around in a wheel chair between takes, which reportedly got on the crew’s nerves. Before filming “Last of the Mohicans,” he spent months living in the wilderness, hunting and fishing and surviving off the land. Before playing Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York,” he actually trained as a butcher. On set for that flick he got pneumonia and, for a while, declined to wear a warmer coat because it wasn’t of the right time period.

He’s crazy like the greatest artists are crazy, so anyone surprised by the touching performance as Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s new movie hasn’t been paying attention. Spielberg said the movie is based on part of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Day Lewis called the book “the springboard for us all.” Luckily for Day Lewis, and for us, the book gives fascinating insights into how Lincoln looked and moved. He walked with arms straight or folded behind his back, for instance, and “lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel.”

Beyond these more technical aspects of his appearance, though, is what makes the performance really special. From the book: “His features, even supporters conceded, were not such ‘as belong to a handsome man.’ In repose, his face was ‘so overspread with sadness,’ the reporter Horace White noted, that it seemed as if ‘Shakespeare’s melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois.’ Yet, when Lincoln began to speak, White observed, ‘this expression of sorrow dropped from his instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile, and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship.’ If his appearance seemed somewhat odd, what captivated admirers, another contemporary observed, was ‘his winning manner, his ready good humor, and his unaffected kindness and gentleness.’ Five minutes in his presence, and ‘you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward.'”

Day-Lewis mastered this. Repeatedly, we watch his Lincoln staring ahead, seemingly lost in thoughts of the war or his young son who died. Then he’ll engage with other characters and somehow transform into the smartest, sweetest, funniest man in the room, his manner soothing and inviting. We don’t get wild Day Lewis in “Lincoln” – the guy we saw in “Gangs” and “Blood,” who’s face and speech are scary as a hissing, coiled cobra, who brags about cutting out his own eyeball or drunkenly screams “I drink your milkshake!” This is more nuanced stuff, a portrayal of the singular dignified figure in American history.

In “Lincoln’s” first scene, Spielberg shows us a Civil War battle in driving rain and deep mud. Men are shooting, stabbing, punching and choking one another. We see a face, in closeup, being driven to drown below the muddy water by a furiously stomping boot heel. The Civil War was a nightmare, and Lincoln wore the strain of leading in that time like a stone around his neck. Daniel Day-Lewis, in his singular way, does justice to the man and his times. He has given some incredible performances over an incredible career, but “Lincoln” might just be his best.

Now, hopefully, Quentin Tarantino will put him in a movie as the bad guy.

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