Entertainment & Arts

Transcript: Daniel Day-Lewis on The Andrew Marr Show

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionDaniel Day-Lewis talks to Sophie Raworth about playing Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis, who is Oscar-nominated for playing Abraham Lincoln, the US president who abolished slavery, has spoken to Sophie Raworth about the lengths he went to in preparing for the role.

Here is a longer transcript of his interview about the film, entitled Lincoln, which originally appeared on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 27 January.

Daniel Day-Lewis, congratulations first of all on your Golden Globe, already one under your belt. Next month you could have your third Oscar to go with it. What is it about this film do you think that has gained it so much critical acclaim already?

I don't know, I would hope it's something to do with the fact that we've somehow managed to share the love we felt for that man with the people who are watching the film. I hope it's something to do with that - because it's hard for me to judge it from that point of view. Right up until, and even after, the film was released I was very anxious about it, because it occurred to me that maybe people wouldn't take to it at all. You never know.

You said no to the role, didn't you? A lot. It's taken almost 10 years to get this to the screen. Why did you say no?

I ran out of excuses! It really didn't occur to me to say yes, it just seemed like such an outlandish idea. I was very keen to meet the man who invited me to do it [director Steven Spielberg]. I don't think I asked him why at that time, but I was just astonished that he would consider me for it. I looked at it and thought, "that's a really great job for somebody else".

And the second time it came to me... that was probably about eight years ago. Then it came back about four or five years later and by that time [playwright] Tony Kushner had done a version which was very different.

The first version was much more of an overview of both the White House and the Civil War. It was much more both a domestic drama and very much focused on the important battles of the Civil War and it didn't intrigue me. The man did, but that particular way of telling his story didn't.

You can't account for why you want to explore one life as opposed to another.... [but] at some point I felt that irresistible, almost as if one's being drawn into the orbit of another life, almost a physical sensation. That's usually the warning sign for me.

What was it that finally made you say yes? Steven Spielberg asked you first time, and as you say, you said no twice. What was it that finally made you say "right, I'm going to do this"?

I'm not sure I really even felt that when finally I heard myself say "yes", to my own surprise. But by that time I'd been bitten and that sense of a compelling need to do something is very hard to resist. I really don't know, I'm not trying to avoid answering your question, but I really don't know why. I can only assume that it's mostly true I'm interested in lives very far removed from my own and the mystery of that life is the thing that draws me towards it.

Image caption Lincoln has 12 Oscar nominations

But at the same time... what you're choosing to do is to explore yourself through that other life. For some reason, that was something I felt I needed to do. It was connected to what I'd begun to learn about Abraham Lincoln. It could have been different because I didn't really know anything about the man, except for the scripts I'd read up until the third time of asking. And then, having read Tony's extraordinary script, bearing in mind all scripts are skeletons, Tony's skeletons have a lot more flesh on them than most. So it's already ripe with something.

But I'd also chosen to read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book [Team of Rivals], which by some strange coincidence my 10-year-old son had given me for Christmas, and that was the book which was the springboard for Tony and Steven's collaboration together. And her book, it's a really wonderful history. It's a very broad portrait of Lincoln, a beautiful, brightly lit avenue of understanding carved towards him.

The title and the focus of her work illustrates a very particular quality in Lincoln. Which is that when he accepted his first term of office as president, he surrounded himself with a group of people that - pretty much all of them - had complete contempt for him, a number of whom had been his direct rivals for his nomination, others who just, for no good particular reason, just thought he was little more than a savage.

You had a whole year to get ready for the role. When did you think "I've cracked this"?

I don't know. You don't feel that, really. I think what happens is you make a transition from wondering if you ever will, to not really ever thinking about it again, because you can't afford to. If you continue to think about that, and if the question's still hung over you, you'd more or less be paralysed with a sense of inadequacy, especially in relation to a life like his - because that could bear exploration for the rest of one's days and you'd still feel there was more to learn. As indeed anybody's life would.

So I think what tends to happen is that you learn as much as you can, you absorb what you learn, hope that out of that will grow something that is true. And you forget everything that you don't know... Which is a lot.

What about his voice? You came up with that, didn't you? Some people have said it was startling when they first heard it, his voice was folksy, it was high. How did you come up with that voice?

All the work really is a kind of mining, and you're mining for clues. And there are many, many clues, because his life has been so well-documented. Not just with retrospective histories - some of them very odd - but there are so many contemporary accounts.

Very few people that met him didn't make some documented commentary about it because he was such an extraordinary figure.

Image caption Day-Lewis co-stars in the film with Sally Field, pictured with director Steven Spielberg

And many people mentioned the quality of his voice, really only just to say that it was surprisingly high-pitched, I suppose because a man of his size and his stature, you would expect him to have a rich baritone, and he didn't. So that's a clue, it's not a very instructive one but it's a clue.

I knew which county of Kentucky he spent his first years of childhood, I knew the county in Indiana where he spent the subsequent years of his childhood and then finally in Illinois as a young man.

Those three states and the counties of those states all have very particular sounds. The national archive, although there are no contemporary recordings obviously, there are some early recordings from the turn of the century.

And once you found his voice, the hardest thing I guess must be to keep hold of it. Is it true that you stayed in character for the whole of filming?

Well I don't know what I was! I was something, and not entirely myself [he laughs].

I always feel like I'm digging my own grave if I talk about this because the dangers are so numerous - either sounding self-important or adding to the already fairly comprehensive impression that people seem to have that I'm just very strange when I go to work. But it makes complete sense to me, the way I work.

If you get an Oscar next month, you are going to be the only man in history who has got three best actor Oscars. So it works - you're not digging your own grave, it obviously works. So just tell us. You obviously stay in character, Steven Spielberg says that you talked to him as Lincoln. It must be draining for you, emotionally, to be somebody else for all that time.

Well, part of my job is to be drained. You absorb and you nourish yourself. You feed yourself for whatever period of time, in this case a year, and then your job is to more or less to drain yourself for whatever it is that you have to offer. In this case, literally, because you only have to look at the man to understand that he was probably near death anyhow by the end of his presidency. By the time he was assassinated, I even wondered whether he would have survived very long had he not been assassinated.

Because he was spent. He spent himself in the service of his country and so, of course, that was my job to do that. It's misleading to give the impression that that therefore is a kind of voluntary flagellation of some kind because for me, it's really important to make the distinction that this work is a joyful thing. Even when you're exploring areas that could involve great conflict, could involve emotions that are not easy to live with necessarily, nonetheless the underlying sense is the joy of the work. And it's always been a joyful thing. It's a game that I enjoy playing.

I know you're very conscious of being asked about the way you perform, the way your prepare, but does it irritate you though, the way it's often portrayed?

Well, funnily enough they don't really ask me about that in America. It's interesting, it's in England that I tend to be asked that. It's almost as if you're not playing by the Queensberry rules or something. As if you're involved in something that takes itself a little too seriously, a dark ritual of some kind [he laughs].

Because there's more of a tradition of that kind of work in America, they might remark upon it but I'm not asked about it in quite the same way. I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School; my training there was the basis of it, the Stanislavsky School, which then developed into The Method.

Image caption Abraham Lincoln was assassinated after he abolished slavery

So that was an English training that I had, which was not far removed in many respects from what became The Method. And it's suited me, and the truth is that anyone that trains under any system, these systems are not sciences. It's not a scientific work, and I think one of the misleading things about it is that it seems as if there's a kind of inordinate amount of calculation involved in this way of working, which of course there isn't.

All you're trying to do is lay the groundwork, which might allow the imagination to free itself. When the imagination frees itself, you have no goddamn idea what's going to happen. So it's not a constrictive or restrictive way of working - quite the opposite.

And just to go one further with your question, what would drain me much more, in my case, is jumping in and out of that world that we've gone to such an inordinate length to create for ourselves. You're not discovering anything when you're having a cup of tea and laugh with the grips, as tempting as that would be. There's lots of great people on a film set. And I wore myself out, the first couple of movies I got involved with - the thing that really drained me was the socialising on the set [he laughs].

For some people that helps them, it helps them to shrug off the thing, the character, as if it's an overcoat, and have a laugh and joke around, and that gives them a sense of ease when they put the coat back on again. Well, I don't mind how anyone arrives at the moment of collision in front of the camera - the only thing that counts, really, is whether there's a real communion between those people that have a story to tell.

Sorry to interrupt you but it's fascinating listening to you and talking about how you prepare for these roles. You have done six films in 16 years, and many consider you to be one of the best film actors in the world. Why aren't you doing more?

A lot of other people just think I'm a lazy bum [he laughs]. You're sweet to say that. I think the reason I don't work more often - I have a slow rhythm, a slothful rhythm even. You can't work to somebody else's rhythm.

There was a time, I think, when I was young, and perhaps less discriminate. When you're young, you want to make a part and your ambition is free-ranging, and you could easily give in to the temptation of working one time after another and I just can't do that. Luckily I discovered very early on that it just ate into my resources in a way whereby they just never replenished themselves properly.

Is it something also to do with being in the limelight? I get the sense that you value your privacy enormously. Do you like to step into the limelight and then just step back again, and for a substantial period of time?

No, what I really like it not to step into the limelight at all [he laughs].

But that's a paradox that's fairly common in the performing arts so don't ask me why that's true. Maybe it's quite simply because we can express ourselves through these other vessels in a way that we can't in ourselves. I suppose that's the commonly held opinion.

From the outside... I am, whether I like it or not, a public figure during certain periods. Like now. Then I disappear, it seems. To people from the outside, I seem to disappear. Of course in my experience I don't disappear, I'm just doing other things. What I'm doing is re-engaging with life. And it's that period of time that allows me to do the work. So these two things are indivisible.

Given all that, you possibly could be winning your third Oscar. You're going to have an awful lot of the spotlight on you if that happens aren't you? Are you ready for it?

I have a cave I can retreat to. The thing about the Oscars is that, and this always sounds like actors blowing smoke when they say this, but it seems to me that this is a very, very strong year of films and of performances. I've seen all the films of my fellow nominees and, quite honestly, I think they're wonderful. I'll be the first person to applaud them if they win this thing.

And the Academy loves nothing more than a surprise, and if indeed it appears to be that it's expected that I might win, I'm sure nothing would make them happier than if I didn't [he laughs].

Daniel Day-Lewis, I wish you all the luck next month at the Oscars and thank you very much for talking to us today.

I enjoyed talking to you, thank you, that was a nice interview, thank you.

Lincoln is out now.

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites