At 'Lincoln' Screening, Daniel Day-Lewis Explains How He Formed the President's Voice

Daniel Day Lewis Steve Spielberg Panel - H 2012
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Daniel Day Lewis Steve Spielberg Panel - H 2012

The star and director of the film about the 16th president spoke in Manhattan on Thursday, revealing an intimate relationship and deep thoughts about their subject.

Hearing Lincoln star Daniel Day-Lewis speak in public is almost as rare as seeing a speech by the late president himself, so the small audience present for a Time Magazine-sponsored Q&A session in New York on Thursday listened as if they were witnessing the Gettysburg Address.

Day-Lewis, a two-time Oscar winner, was dressed in a sweater and jeans, not a longtailed coat and top hat, and he was clean shaven, but with the room having just screened the Steven Spielberg-directed film, the effect of having the actor, along with his director, on stage was jarring.

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Especially because Day-Lewis, a London-native, spoke with a clear British accent, which of course came in stark contrast to the reedy, almost high-pitched voice that he employed as the wise -- and surprisingly jovial -- leader of the Union. While many people, thanks to Lincoln's large stature and famous oratorical skills, assume he had a bellowing, booming voice, it was quite the contrary, Lewis explained.

"Well you look for the clues, as with any aspect of the work," he said of finding the voice. "You begin with the places that would have made a huge difference in his life. Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, and the counties that he came from. There are some early recordings, but no contemporary recordings -- lucky for me, so no one can say positively that it’s not what he sounded like," he continued with a laugh.

"There are also a number of contemporary accounts about the quality of his voice," Day-Lewis explained, "and I’m inclined to think that having had a voice that was intended to be in the higher register, tended to be placed more in the head tones, that helped him reach a greater number of people in his public speaking. Stump speaking was such a huge part of their lives, they spoke sometimes for two hours or more without notes, at that time regularly. And beyond that, I suppose it really was just an act of imagination."

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It took him an entire year to get comfortable with the character, time he requested from Spielberg when he agreed to take the part. The director has said that he did not love the idea of waiting that long to start work on the film, but is now glad that he agreed to do so -- not to mention the fact that he probably wouldn't have gotten his man had he refused the calendar.

When asked what he thought of the fact that, thanks to the lack of other Lincoln films (Vampire hunting outings not withstanding) and the prominence of this picture, he would forever be seen by America's children as the embodiment of Honest Abe, Day-Lewis expressed considerable discomfort.

"It's a disturbing privilege. And for that very reason, I was extremely shy about taking on this wonderful task," he joked. "I’m not keen on history being tampered with to a great extent, or any extent really, and I felt with this man particularly, that it might just be impossible to find the life in him that would help tell this story. And I hope to goodness that people that do see this film will not feel that this part of their history, which is so vital, has been misrepresented."

The film deals not with great battle scenes and dramatic speeches on blood-soaked farmland, but with the few months it took for Lincoln to pass the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery for good. It is in many ways a story of political strategy, interlaced with the president's complicated personal life, based on just a small passage from Doris Kearns Goodwin's famed book, Team of Rivals. Spielberg told the audience that he felt it was important to keep the story contained to truly capture the intricacies of the president.

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"It couldn’t be the cutaway to the Second Wilderness Battle, or the cutaway to the snow melting, the spring thaw before the fourth year of battle was about to commence," he explained. "It couldn’t be just that; that would have been a real movie. That would have been a different kind of a motion picture. That would have been a movie-movie. This needed to be inside Lincoln’s life, inside Lincoln’s process."

The director called himself a Lincoln diettante, having studied the president for 12 years, and addressed head on accusations that Lincoln was a racist in his personal life.

"He believed that people were people. And he believed that from a very, very young age. There was the story where he explains the experience that he had, where his father showed him a slave barge. And that was his first real, less abstract and very visual concept of slavery, which his father abhorred and he abhorred," Spielberg offered.

"But he didn’t claim to be an abolitionist. He never ran on the abolitionist ticket -- he wouldn’t have achieved presidency had he done that -- he knew how to contort himself through political theater. But in terms of his racial outlook, he looked at everybody who is black and said, there is no difference. And as Frederick Douglas said, he had never met a white man who looked at him for the color of his skin."

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