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Just as the weight of history begins to make President Lincoln — and the audience — sweat, there is W.N. Bilbo to save the day, and crack a few jokes while doing so.
The irreverent Southerner with mutton chops and an elaborate mustache is portrayed by James Spader in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg‘s new biopic of the 16th president, and he plays as crucial a part in the ending of slavery as nearly anyone else in American history. As the movie shows, Bilbo headed up a team of three political insiders that, during the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, lined the congressional trenches with bribes to help convince on-the-fence representatives to vote aye. It was dirty work, and Bilbo’s efforts helped keep Lincoln’s hands clean. There was nothing clean about the crab-smashing, chain-smoking Bilbo, though, and as Spader tells The Hollywood Reporter, the ruffian image was all by design.
The Hollywood Reporter: You offer a lot of comic relief. Did they tell you that you needed to bring laughter?
James Spader: Absolutely. It was apparent from the first read of the screenplay, but I think there was certainly an effort on my part, with the full support of Steven Spielberg. And he urged me. I embraced that and went as far as I thought would be still within the boundaries of the tone of the film and counted on him to keep me on track. And he urged me further and further.
THR: It reminds one of the fact that, while Lincoln was so sophisticated, it was still the unrefined 1860s.
Spader: True, but Lincoln was quite irreverent too. He loved to tell stories and jokes at seemingly the most inappropriate times. But ultimately, I think it was the way for him to unburden himself a bit at times of incredible weight on his shoulders. But he was very funny and is very funny in the film.
THR: Although Bilbo was a real person, did you have leeway with how you portrayed the character?
Spader: We had an enormous amount of creative freedom with this character. There was a modicum of research materials available about him, not very much. They had images of almost every principal character in the film, of which there are so many, but they didn’t of him. So we took advantage of that creative freedom.
THR: So was the mustache your choice?
Spader: I really wanted that. But it was a concerted effort. Lois Burwell, who did an absolutely stunning job on the makeup for the film, she also thought it’d be great. And everything was coordinated together, from the costume to the makeup. And it was all sort of in support of the idea of this character: larger than life, great lust for life, very colorful. It all came together as a piece.
THR: I know this film was shot during the GOP primary season. Did that impact it at all?
Spader: Well, considering how much irreverence and comic relief this character was bringing to the film, it only helped that the primaries were so tremendously entertaining. That was actually some of my favorite TV watching that I think I ever witnessed, the Republican primary debates. I loved those; I wish they never ended.
THR: Herman Cain could have a TV show.
Spader: Just everybody. Really, the entire cast. The entire field, one was just as entertaining as the next.
THR: The film felt like I was watching the birth of the lobbyist industry.
Spader: It was still sort of by the seat of your pants at the time, but don’t have any illusions about it: Lobbying was going on from the formation of the first Congress. Lobbying was a practice that was active in the 18th century certainly and then throughout the beginning of the 19th century. It was still by the seat of their pants, and everybody had a different profession and then would work their way through that, but it really wasn’t until that we started moving from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century that it really became more institutionalized and a profession.
THR: It reminded me of John Boehner handing out checks on the House floor.
Spader: I don’t know if I know how to relate to John Boehner.
THR: You had to wait a while to do the film, right?
Spader: Yeah, I think I agreed to do the film around seven or eight months before we started shooting. But I was quite busy; I was visiting for a year on the television show The Office, and they were very accommodating, I did a year on The Office and they let me out for about two and a half months in the fall to accommodate the scheduling on Lincoln.
THR: So you shot this movie before or after?
Spader: I shot before and after. The day before I flew out to Richmond, Virginia, I was shooting on The Office — doing a night shoot, actually. And I think I left the next day and flew to Richmond and started to throw together what we needed to throw together to do Lincoln.
THR: So was waiting for Lincoln the impetus to do The Office?
Spader: I was very excited to do both of them, but the timing was perfect. I had just done a play for a year in New York, so I was flat broke by the time they offered me Lincoln. And it was a labor of love on Lincoln, and it was so far in advance, I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills, but The Office came in at just about the same point, and that answered that question for me.
THR: Was the plan always to do one year on The Office?
Spader: Yeah. I don’t know if the intentions of the producers were different, but that’s always what I wanted to do. … I think they’re on their last season on the show now. They have a lot to wind down.
THR: Do you still watch?
Spader: I don’t really watch much television, so I haven’t seen it. When they asked me to do the last episode of the season before, I watched a few episodes. But I’m not a fantastic TV viewer.
THR: Even on Boston Legal, you acted but didn’t watch it?
Spader: Well. I was lucky on that because they gave me DVDs so I could run through them quickly over the course of a work day, while I was on the set. I could run through an episode quickly and check it out before it aired. But there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done that I’d like to, so by the time I get around to watching television, usually it’s collapsing on the couch late at night, running through the stations for half an hour and then turning it off.
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