We've all heard the stories about Daniel Day-Lewis's method of acting. He stays in character throughout the entire production, and sometimes goes to extreme lengths to live out the experiences of the characters he portrays. And as we learned in this press conference with his Lincoln co-stars Sally Field, who plays his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays his son Robert Lincoln, he also texts his co-stars in character as a 19th century president with no working knowledge of such technology. Field and Levitt have a lot of fascinating things to say about working with their famously committed co-star, but also about their own unique experiences on the set of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and their screenwriter, Tony Kushner, who fielded many of the actors' questions due to his nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the 16th President of the United States.
Lincoln opens in limited release on Friday, November 9, before expanding to theaters nationwide.
Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt describe their research and what most surprised them about the characters they play.
Sally Field: Let’s see. You know, Mary is an incredibly complicated, I think, underexamined, underappreciated women in American History. I read every biography that I could find on her, and read her letters and visited her home and other places and visited extensively people who had mass collections of Mary Todd memorabilia. She’s such a wonderfully complicated character to play, thanks to this genius of a man [gestures to Kushner] who wrote her that way. She was very, very complicated and I think he will say and Steven will say and I think Daniel will say as well, in all the research that we did, had there not been a Mary Todd, there would not have been an Abraham Lincoln. She was so responsible and contributed so much to what Abraham Lincoln ultimately was. I mean, they were like two sides of what ultimately became the same coin, and she served him always, I mean […] deeply and desperately devoted to him as he was to her. What I learned from her that surprised me, I don't think anything really surprised me because I don't think I came in there with expectations that were going to then therefore be surprised when I was wrong or you know, found out something that I hadn't guessed. I was really ready to learn and try to figure out how to put the pieces together to accurately bring alive someone who had so many colors to her and where did they fit into, you know, her psychology. How did that happen, that she turned out like that, and without having any kind of judgment on her. And that was my task and I was certainly aided and abetted by the director and the writer, and the actors around me so…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: My experience was that the research that I did, to be honest, paled in comparison to to the research that was done by those around me. Daniel and Tony and Sally amongst others and I found I learned the most just by having conversations with them. And I found Robert to be a really fascinating character myself, for a number of reasons. Personally, the strained relationship between father and son, between a father who worked so much that he wasn't really around to be a dad when Robert was young. As well as the more public struggle that's really on the surface of the story of our movie, where Robert wants to enlist in the Union Army and his parents [who are] concerned for his safety don't want him to. And he feels ashamed and cowardly because everybody his age is fighting and that's a really fascinating struggle, and I think one that points [to] one of the greatest virtues of this movie, which is it doesn't paint Abraham Lincoln as a deity or as, you know, an absolute, perfect man. It really portrays him as a human being with flaws and hypocrisies because it is sort of hypocritical for a president to be perpetuating a war while at the same time, keeping his son from fighting. That is hypocritical and the movie doesn't shy away from pointing out that hypocrisy and I think that's really important because we tend to deify Abraham Lincoln and think of him as this sort of, angel almost. And he wasn't. He's a human being. And I think that's a really important lesson to learn.
Tony Kushner on why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals was used as the basis of the film over the many other books written about Abraham Lincoln.
Tony Kushner: I think Steven had acquired the rights to Team of Rivals before he hired me. But I had known Doris' work, I'd read everything else she'd written and I've always thought she's an extraordinary writer and shaper of narrative. Of the many, many books about Lincoln that I've read, there are 5 or 6 biographies that really stand out, and each one of them presents a rather different person. They're all recognizably Lincoln but there are many ways to interpret what Lincoln did. He left both an enormous amount of information, an enormous amount of observational information for people who were there with him, and also left very little. There are no diaries. He famously refused to talk about his childhood, and he left few personal letters although a lot of his letters as President had an enormously personal component to them. He was a very private guy, and so it makes him a figure that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, really legitimately, and I think you sort of have to find the Lincoln that speaks most to you, and seems the most persuasive and for both Steven and for me and I think then for Daniel and for everybody else who was working on it.
Doris' sense of who Lincoln was and how he did what he did became really the kind of guiding spirit for the film. I mean, her direct relationship and her husband's direct relationship to modern democratic administrations to the Johnson administration, to the Kennedy administration, her scholarship in terms of FDR, really sort of connect him to a tradition of American Progressivism. That I think is without any question, where he absolutely belongs: a believer in government, [a] tax and spend liberal, and a leader rather than a a passive sort of poll reader. And so, I think it's the Kearns Goodwinian Lincoln that we really sort of follow. I talked to Doris two or three times a month, the whole time I was working on the script, and with great joy. She's an extraordinary person as well as a really great writer so….
Sally Field is asked about a particularly dramatic scene she has with Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Thaddeus Stevens, holding up a reception line at the White House.
Sally Field: Well, I had several big dramatic scenes in the Film. That was one of them and like all the other scenes that I had in the Film, we had no rehearsal whatsoever. He's laughing. [Laughter] Yeah, we just didn't rehearse. I was given the most eloquent monologue of my life, and it was a mouthful, and we worked all day long with everyone in the Cast, you know, everybody and I was the only one who spoke all day. Remember that day?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I do remember that day.
Sally Field: And it was just an interesting way to work. By then, we were so these people. We were so in the era. We were so, I was so aware of the fact that my darling Mr. Lincoln was standing behind me and I knew. And I knew very well what I felt about Thaddeus Stevens and there he was. And it was a fascinating and really just remarkable way to work in the bubble was created for us and respected for us actors. And we just stepped up and did it, and we did it many, many times and you know, it was a piece that had to be covered because of the nature of how many people are in this scene and blah, blah, blah. But we didn't work anything out. I just, we just, you trust the text, and know who you are playing and there it was.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: One thing I'll say about that day is it's a common thing when you have a big dialogue scene, you have to do it over and over again all day for all the different camera angles. And pretty invariably by the end of the day, you know everybody's lines. And this is, I think the only time I can ever remember in the 25 years I've been doing this where by the end, I still could absolutely not have done your lines. No. It was, you say a mouthful but I mean, but you also, I remember, I understood it every time, even the first time you said it, I was like it’s, as you say, I mean, really extraordinary verbiage.
Sally Field: Verbiage.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: But a really clear and strong train of thought. And so well communicated.
Sally Field: Thank you.
Tony Kushner: It's a shock to hear you say "in the 25 years I've been doing this." [Laughter]
Sally Field: He's only 25 years old.
Tony Kushner: In utero.
Sally Field are asked to describe the experience of working with Daniel Day-Lewis, whose methods and performances are so distinctive and lauded.
Sally Field: Let’s see, how do I answer that question? Well part of my task was to be, I mean, all of my task was to be Mary. And I had no room for that. It simply could not be there. I had no room for that. So I could not allow that to be in the mix in any way, shape, or form because all the people in the film with him, Mary is the one who will just not put up with it, anything from him, and gives him a run for his money. And if I could not do that then I would let him, I would let Daniel and Steven and Tony and everyone else down. So I worked a long time to be Mary but the day before we started shooting, Daniel and I had really not spent, not really spent any time together. And we, the only relationship we had, and I had to create a marriage with the man who you are intimate with on every single level of your being, you know, had children with, and children died in your arms. You have a tactile relationship with this person, and I had not spent any time with him. I had no way of creating it but except we had texted each other. Daniel started it, I didn't do it. Texted each other since I had had the role which had been like seven months or something, but totally in character, which was very difficult to do because you had to figure out how to say what you wanted to say within the vernacular of the time, which I, many times, wanted to call him up and say, how would I say this? It was very hard to do but we would text each other all the time over the seven-month period.
But then right before we started shooting, I was down in Richmond. I arrived a week earlier than I start to shoot but Daniel was to start shooting the next day. I texted him as Mary and trying to figure out how I would say it and said something to the extent of I knew that the task before him was an enormous one, meaning almost like we were talking about the presidency. But my task was him. And that was my sole task. And so then therefore, I would be on his porch the next morning. His choice was to let me in or not. And whether he left me in or not, I would not go. And I said, I, in lieu of a carriage because Mary would take him out for carriage rides, I said, in lieu of a carriage, find your shoes. And he wrote me back graciously and said, you know, okay, fine. And then he's notorious for not really wanting to, you know, having any socialization. I don't like socializing so trust me, this was not me either. I was really Mary and going, "Come on, Mary, come on baby. Get it out here."
So I went to his house, knocked on his door, and where he was living in Richmond, and you know, hello, hello, hello. We were both sort of in character but sort of semi-not totally. We were allowing the dialect, I wasn't as thick as I was but and he was, you know. Then he said, would you like to come in and have some coffee and some eggs? I said, No, I don't want to be trapped behind a table, let's get going. And he was gracious and generous enough ‘cause I know he was under the gun in a very big way now. We went out and we walked around Richmond for about two hours. And it saved my life because I said I have to create something that doesn't exist right now. First of all, I have to touch you this way. Okay. I went… [Pantomimes patting Daniel Day-Lewis down; laughter]. I laid my head on him. I had to. I had to. I said I can't be worried and and be shy about owning your body cause married people don't have that. So you know, his eyes got a little bigger, and um, [laughter] he said okay. But he was… he was Daniel. He is so generous and so, such a deeply honorable loving man, and we knew that we were all there for the same thing, and that I would kill myself to arrive at the spot I needed to arrive. If it called for me to be bleeding all the time I was doing it, I would have sliced my wrists, you know.
And so we walked around, and he knew what I was doing. I would touch him, I would grab his arm, I would take his hand, and we talked. We talked about the character but we talked about our real lives. We talked about our children. And then at the end, he said, do you want to come in? "No Thank you, I think I've, I think we've done enough." It served its purpose, and it did, so that when we landed in the first day, the first scene, which was an enormous scene, which is the first scene in the film, Daniel was not Daniel anymore. I had no feeling of that. He was Mr. Lincoln. I was not in any way intimidated of him. It's, you know, he was the man I devoted my life to, and that's all I knew. And one false move and he was gonna hear it from me.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Well the story that I'll tell I guess is, I was fortunate enough to be working on the last day of filming, and so I got to sort of witness him shed this character because I also had a really warm, although not probably as extensive exchange via text message with Daniel. But when I, the first time I met him, I never met him, never met Daniel in person. I only ever met the president, only ever heard his voice, the president's voice. Called him “sir,” he called me Robert, and I loved that. On the last day of shooting, I got to watch him get up out of his deathbed and start to shrug it off. And later that night, we all went out to celebrate and that was the first time I personally met Daniel. And he showed up in jeans and a t-shirt and had a completely different voice and posture and he was like one of my friends. You know, this kind of cool artist guy. And having a Guinness and just laughing and having a great time, and it was really something to behold and I feel really lucky that I got to be there on that day.
Tony Kushner is asked about writing a film focused on human rights and equality, and how far we’ve come today.
Tony Kushner: I can just say really, really quickly, just one last thing about the acting situation is the two people sitting next to me are two of the most extraordinarily talented actors on the planet. And we made a huge effort, Steven made a huge effort, after Daniel said yes to playing Lincoln, to finding an astonishing company of actors, and people who like Joe and Sally really have a great comfort with language processing skills and can really like act through words. And I've certainly seen Sally Field capture plenty of lightning in plenty of bottles and Joe as well. […] Daniel is a very great actor, and we [were] surrounded by and he wanted to be surrounded with a company of just astonishing talent, and I think that that's what makes the movie as good as it is, is these people create that world and create this intensity and concentration and integrity and intelligence that makes it. It was just a thrill to watch both of these guys working. They're astonishing artists and you know, in terms of the question of Human Rights, the struggle for justice is never ending, and one wishes in certain ways that we had made much more progress.
I believe that the murder of Abraham Lincoln in April, 1865 was a great catastrophe for the human race. I think that we would have been a lot farther, a hundred years of Jim Crow segregation that followed, might not have been entirely avoidable by Lincoln but I think he would have been able to use the time immediately after the war a great deal better. I think there's no question among historians that had people actually listened to the last paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address which you hear in the Film, and actually understood that he was literally intending malice towards none and charity towards all, had the South been treated better in the early days of Reconstruction it might have progressed a great deal more than it did and certain elements of South, of Southern resentment, which became breeding grounds of a kind of race hatred, might never have happened. And I think that with the genius on the level of Lincoln, it's quite possible that the shape of Reconstruction which he saw as being a much greater and more difficult task, and was clearly gonna be a task of his Second Administration, more than the Civil War itself, [was] something that he would have undertaken with the same kind of phenomenal acuity and perspicacity and wisdom and command and we really needed him.
Sally Field & Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Perspicacity, acuity.
Tony Kushner: And mellifluousness.
Sally Field: I knew that one.
Tony Kushner: But you know, saying all that, on the other hand, this country has made enormous strides. And I think that one of the things that Steven really wanted to do with this movie and I was really happy to be a part of, is not to show this kind of… I mean, people like Abraham Lincoln come along once every, as Mary says, once every, five or six generations at best. This is somebody on the level, I think, of Michelangelo or Mozart, or Albert Einstein. I mean, this is a human being of the highest order, and to say to people we had him then and we don't have him now so we're screwed, is nothing but an exercise [in] demoralizing people. The real trick I think of telling this story is to show that he may have been the greatest virtuoso of the machinery of democratic government that ever lived. I think he probably was, but that doesn't mean the machinery doesn't work without him. And the machinery does work. And we're living in a period now where there is an African-American who's President of the United States and you know, I'm not speaking for the Film but God willing will be re-elected. [Editor’s Note: He was.] And same-sex marriage has now become, increasingly, the law of many States, and [the] Defense of Marriage Act was overturned by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by a Reagan appointee, which is part of the thrill of democracy, is that sometimes things like that even happen. And you know, I think there's great cause.
I guess what I'm saying is, there's an optimism in this film that I think ultimately originates in Doris' book; in Doris, in Steven, who is a deeply optimistic as opposed to a shallowly optimistic person, and an artist of profoundly democratic, “small d” Democratic impulse. He believes in people. He believes that people's entertainment should be rich and deep and complicated, and that that will provide entertainment that people really want to be challenged and to learn things and to grow as well as to have fun. And I think that I'm really proud of the movie because I find that watching it is somewhat empowering. It says, you know, even the House of Representatives can do something revolutionary and world changing.