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Daniel Day-Lewis On Creating A Voice From The Past

Day-Lewis used firsthand accounts of Abraham Lincoln's speeches, along with his personal letters, to develop a voice and a style for Steven Spielberg's biographical drama. (DreamWorks)

Daniel Day-Lewis has won two Academy Awards for fully immersing himself in his characters in There Will Be Blood and My Left Foot.

Now the British actor is taking on one of America's most iconic figures in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, playing the 16th president during the final months of his life. Day-Lewis tells NPR's Melissa Block that it was a daunting prospect — but that ultimately Lincoln was a surprisingly accessible figure.


Interview Highlights

On playing such an iconic figure

"He has been mythologized to such an extent, and therefore dehumanized. And of course the minute you begin to look for him, you find him very easily, because he's so accessible. As he was in his life, so he is now. And part of that great accessibility is through his own words and the richness of his writing, both in the beautiful speeches ... [and] also the letters as well — the very intimate and personal letters. And they create this wonderfully broad avenue that leads you right to him.

"And he welcomes you, I think. It was one of the great discoveries of my life, really. One of the most beautiful discoveries of my life has been the exploration of this man's experience."

On crafting the voice he uses when playing Lincoln

"At a certain moment I choose to believe [that it's a good approximation] because I need to believe. But that doesn't mean that there's no element of doubt lurking there.

"Luckily with something of this kind, no one can categorically say that I didn't [get it right] because there are no recordings, so there's a great freedom there. But you take all the clues that you can. We have a number of contemporary accounts about the pitch of his voice, referring to the fact that he had a high-pitched voice or spoke in a fairly high register.

"That made complete sense because, as a stump speaker, he seemed to appear to be able to reach substantial crowds of people, and I — it seemed to me quite likely that a higher-registered voice would reach further. But, you know ... you kind of break it all down. ... [Y]ou have to allow your instincts to work as the pre-eminent source of most decisions. In other words, most decisions need to seem to make themselves.

"The thing that commonly I look for or listen for, and if I'm lucky, I hear, is the sound of a voice. And if it pleases me, if it seems right, I then set about trying to reproduce that voice, which is a whole other thing. You don't necessarily manage to find that ... with your own voice.

"I learned a few of my favorite passages of Lincoln's, and I spoke his words every day and just kept trying to move towards a sense of familiarity with something that felt right."

On playing a fun Lincoln

"There are so many contemporary accounts, very vivid ones, of his storytelling and his anecdotes. Somebody said to him, you know, accused him of being two-faced, and he said, 'Well, look, if I had another face, do you think I'd be wearing this one?'

"There was humor, really, it was in the forefront of his spirit, I think, humor. I think he probably used it often to buoy his spirits at times when the alternative was just too bleak to contemplate."

On storytellers and Lincoln as a storyteller

"I'm not really a storyteller myself — I tend to get all tangled up when I try and tell stories. ... [S]torytellers are particular people. It's a compulsive thing, they can't stop telling stories. They can't stop telling the same story over and over again. They keep — and they always begin with the, 'Did I — did I ever tell you?' And before you can even begin to, 'Actually, you did yesterday,' they're already in the story. And luckily, you know, in the case of a good storyteller, they can make it come alive time and time and time again. But one feature that I've, I've always noticed with storytellers is that they just love, they love their own humor. And I like that self-indulgence."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And this is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) We're stepped out upon the world stage now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood's been spilt to afford us this moment now, now, now.

BLOCK: The film "Lincoln" directed by Steven Spielberg shows the president in the last four months of his life. He's struggling to get the votes for the constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. In the film, Daniel Day-Lewis becomes Lincoln with an uncanny physical resemblance. And we see him in fascinating dimension, not just as a melancholy brooder or pillar of morality. We also see a crafty arm twister; a tender, devoted father; an enraged husband and a jokester.

DAY-LEWIS: As shy as I was to approach him in this way, and this was the to and fro of the conflict within me before I really believed I could try to take this on. I suppose because he has been mythologized to such an extent and therefore dehumanized. And, of course, the minute you begin to look for him, you find him very easily because he's so accessible. As he was in his life, so he is now. And part of that great accessibility is through his own words and the richness of his writing, both in the beautiful speeches - the first inaugural, second inaugural, Cooper Union - one of my favorites - the dogmas of the quiet past, which I think was his second annual address to Congress in 1862, I think - it's one of my favorites - Gettysburg Address, all these obvious things - but also the letters as well, the very intimate and personal letters.

And they create this wonderfully broad avenue that leads you right to him. You don't have to approach him then as an oblique angle from behind his left shoulder, almost like grandmother's footsteps, he turns around and you (unintelligible)...

(LAUGHTER)

DAY-LEWIS: But you can then just walk straight towards him, and he welcomes you, I think. It was one of the great discoveries of my life, really. One of the most beautiful discoveries of my life has been the exploration of this man's experience.

BLOCK: I've read, Daniel Day-Lewis, that you sent a tape to the director, to Steven Spielberg, of the voice that you hope to create if you did this role. Is that right?

DAY-LEWIS: I did send him a tape.

BLOCK: When you figured out that you had found the voice of Abraham Lincoln, how did you know you had found him? What were you looking for? What were you listening for?

DAY-LEWIS: The truth is, Melissa, I mean, you never do. No. At a certain moment, I choose to believe because I need to believe, but that doesn't mean that there's no element of doubt lurking there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) This settles the fate for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?

Luckily, with something of this kind, no one can categorically say that I didn't because there are no recordings, so there's a great freedom there, but, you know, you take all the clues that you can. We have a number of contemporary accounts about the pitch of his voice, referring to the fact that he had a high-pitched voice or spoke in a fairly high register. That made complete sense to me because as a stump speaker, he seemed to appear to be able to reach substantial crowds of people. And I - it seemed to me quite likely that a higher registered voice, I think, could reach further.

But, you know, and talking about all those things, you kind of break it all down and so much of what you do has to finally - you have to allow your instincts to work as the preeminent source of most decisions. In other words, most decisions need to seem to make themselves. It's a very long-winded answer to a question, but I suppose the thing that commonly I look for or listen for, and if I'm lucky I hear, is the sound of a voice. And if it pleases me, if it seems right, I then set about trying to reproduce that voice, which is a whole other thing. But you don't necessarily manage to find that in - with your own voice. It's a strange paradox.

BLOCK: Ah, so you hear it in your head maybe before you can actually create it?

DAY-LEWIS: I hear it in my head first, and then I, you know, I'm just going to compound this impression. I'm getting this and completely - that's in my mind, I'm sure, but I then talk to myself a great deal every day on the street, in the car, in - walk in the fields, at home.

BLOCK: In Ireland.

DAY-LEWIS: This is all in Ireland, yeah. And I learned a few of my favorite passages of Lincoln's. And I spoke his words every day and just kept trying to move towards a sense of familiarity with something that felt right. And at the end of all that - it's too late now to cut a long story short because it's already a long story.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Don't start now.

DAY-LEWIS: But I made a tape. Another detail about it is actually a neighbor of mine inadvertently destroyed that tape, which really had me in pieces...

BLOCK: Really?

DAY-LEWIS: ...because I'm very, very nervous around that period of time because I knew I'd be sending it to Steven. And by that time, I really felt that it was something that was sort of inside of me. I thought - I'm not quite sure if I can excise this. If he needs something else, I'll do my best, but this is more or less what it's going to be. And I - and when the tape got destroyed, I thought, almost superstitious, I thought, I'm never going to find this again. This is gone now. But anyhow, I made another tape and sent it in a package with a skull and crossbones and - drawn on top of it and a black spot, I think, as well. And, yes, and that was that.

BLOCK: And how are things going with that neighbor?

DAY-LEWIS: We had a - yeah. He was just a young land, and he was messing around. And, of course, he didn't do it on purpose, but I can't pretend I was too happy about it.

BLOCK: The - I imagine that one of the really fun things about this part, about playing this Abraham Lincoln is that he's very funny. He tells yarns. He's the country lawyer. He has anecdotes. He makes jokes.

DAY-LEWIS: There were so many contemporary accounts, very vivid ones, of his storytelling and his anecdotes. And somebody said to him, you know, accused him of being two-faced. And he said, well, look, if I had another face, do you think I'd be wearing this one?

(LAUGHTER)

DAY-LEWIS: But just - there was humor, really. It was in the forefront of his spirit, I think, humor. I think he probably used it often to buoy his spirits at times when the alternative was just too bleak to contemplate.

BLOCK: And what's so fun about is that you see the glint in his eye. You can tell that Abraham Lincoln thinks he's funny. He - I think at one time, doesn't he say, I love that story?

DAY-LEWIS: Well, I have to say, I think that probably - I believe that was also in his character, but it's certainly something. I'm not really a storyteller myself. I tend to get all tangled up when I try and tell stories. And I just don't have the - storytellers are a particular people, and I - but I do - my father-in-law, my late father-in-law was a great storyteller.

BLOCK: Arthur Miller, the writer?

DAY-LEWIS: Yes, yes. He was a great storyteller. And it's a compulsive thing. They can't stop telling stories, and they cant' stop telling the same story over and over again. And they keep - and they always begin with I have a - did I ever tell you, and before you can begin to say, well, you actually did yesterday, they're already in the story. And luckily, you know, in the case of a good storyteller, they can make it come alive time and time and time again. But one feature that I've always noticed in storytellers is that they just love, they love their own humor. And I like that self-indulgence.

BLOCK: And you think Lincoln had - has that trait?

DAY-LEWIS: I think so. I think so. Yeah, I think it pleased him a lot.

BLOCK: Well, Daniel Day-Lewis, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

DAY-LEWIS: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Daniel Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln in the movie "Lincoln." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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