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Spader still in awe over presence of 'Lincoln'

Published On: Nov 21 2012 07:47:22 AM CST
Updated On: Nov 26 2012 08:54:10 AM CST
James Spader in Lincoln

DreamWorks/Touchstone

James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson in "Lincoln."

There have been many portrayals of the life of President Abraham Lincoln over the years, but perhaps none more specific than Steven Spielberg's new historical epic "Lincoln" -- a fascinating look into the 16th president's final months in office based on author Doris Helen Kearns' bestseller "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

James Spader, who plays the pivotal role of lobbyist W.N. Bilbo in "Lincoln," said from the minute he read screenwriter Tony Kushner's screenplay adaptation, he knew he was getting into a Lincoln film like none other.

"I think that so often you look at anybody from history, we see them defined by broad strokes. But even though there's a wealth of knowledge we have about Lincoln in this country and around the world, we feel that we get a new sense of him with this film," Spader told me in an interview Monday. "I think it was so smart of Steven Spielberg and then Tony Kushner to distill things down to just these few weeks of his life -- a few weeks in a great way that defined his presidency, and defined his character. It's amazing that there's this tiny window that says so much about Lincoln and our country at the time."

Opening last week to both wide audience praise and critical acclaim, "Lincoln" not only tells the riveting story of how Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) rallied Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in 1865, it focuses on several crucial people involved in the events leading up to the historical vote in the House of Representatives. Among them were Bilbo, Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), trio of political operatives whose lobbying efforts helped secure the necessary votes to get historic amendment passed.

Another key facet of "Lincoln" is the focus on his family life and his strained marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), as she struggles with the family's past tragedies and uncertain future of her son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as he prepares to join the Union Army.

"Everybody in the film is superb, but Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field's depiction of their relationship at that time -- Mary's and Mr. Lincoln -- was so fraught," Spader said. "It was fascinating to see what he was going through on a personal basis with his sons and his wife at a time that was so tumultuous, publicly, for him, and also for the country."

"Lincoln," for all its star power both behind and in front of the camera, was shot for a modest $65 million and on a much shorter production schedule than films of a similar ambition. The timeline was so tight, in fact, that there was not even time for rehearsals.

"When everybody showed up, they were ready to go. They had to be. It was such a huge cast and a massive story to try and accomplish in the time we were given to accomplish it," Spader recalled. "Forget about the creative process. Just in terms of efficiency, everybody had to be dressed, in character and ready to show up and bring their best, and everybody did. It's apparent when you see the film. There is not a single misstep. Everything in this film works beautifully in concert with one another."

Spader, who has two scenes opposite Day-Lewis, said the two-time Oscar winner's portrayal of Lincoln was so real, in fact, that even after the film, he admitted to having trouble from distinguishing the actor from the character.

"As Lincoln did in so much of his life, Daniel opened his heart and shared with anybody and everybody that he encountered," Spader said in admiration. "Lincoln was incredibly accessible and Daniel was the same in every way -- to the point when I first saw the film. I called up Daniel immediately after seeing it, and told him that the most profound feeling I had was that I just missed him so. "

"And listen, I don't know who the hell I was missing," Spader added, musingly. "Was I missing Lincoln or was I missing Daniel? It didn't matter. It just didn't matter."