With over $25 million in ticket sales since its limited release bow on Nov. 9, "Lincoln" is just the latest adult-oriented drama to strike gold at the box office. Part of the reason Steven Spielberg's historical epic about Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment has grabbed hold of audiences lies in its sense of humor. Thanks to a game cast -- led, of course, by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president -- "Lincoln" provides a great deal of unexpected laughs, many courtesy of James Spader.
In "Lincoln," Spader stars as William N. Bilbo, who -- along with two other lobbyists (played by John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) -- helps Lincoln procure the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery. Bilbo is a colorful character -- a boozing and duplicitous cad, who happens to be on the side of the good guys -- and Spader shines in the role, relishing in his character's boorish peccadilloes. The veteran actor spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about earning the role in "Lincoln" and what President Barack Obama can take away from his recent viewing of the film at the White House.
Sally Field has detailed how lengthy her audition process for "Lincoln" was; what was your experience like?
Mine was a little more straightforward. Steven called my agent. Steven and I have known each other socially, off and on, over the years, but we had never worked together. They called the office and said that there were these roles of the three lobbyists in the picture and that Steven was interested in me playing one of them. I knew nothing about the film prior to that. He wanted me to come read the screenplay and see what I thought. So I went to his office, read the screenplay and was overwhelmed with what a beautifully crafted story and screenplay that Tony Kushner had written. Steven and I met afterwards, a day or so later, and he asked me which of the three lobbyists I was interested in playing and I said Bilbo, and that was the end of that.
What about Bilbo interested you?
Well, I knew that the lobbyists were providing a certain amount of irreverence and kinetic energy to the film that was very important. A certain amount of comic relief. Bilbo was was just an incredibly colorful character anyway. I was fascinated by the dichotomy in his life. He was a Southerner -- he came from Nashville, Tenn.; he had some business with Jefferson Davis prior to the war -- but he was a very passionate Unionist, and he was engaged by Secretary of State William Seward and the president to lobby to gain votes for passage of the 13th amendment. He, at one point, was arrested and thrown in jail in New York on suspicions of being a Confederate spy and had to prevail upon Seward and Lincoln to get him out -- which they did.
I also really lucked out in that they had no images. They had images of almost all of the other principal characters in the film, but they had no images of him. There was a limited amount of research material available about him, which Tony Kushner was already aware of -- I became aware of it as well -- but there wasn't a great deal. So that gave us great creative license to be able to run with whatever we want to in terms of the character. That was great fun for me to play. Steven, myself, Tony and even Daniel felt Bilbo served the tone of greater whole as a certain amount of irreverence in a very reverential movie.
One of the big surprises of the film is its sense of humor.
That was the thing that I so enjoyed in the watching of the film and reading it. Daniel really embraced that side of the characterization. He felt very strongly about bringing that out as much as he could. Somehow that's fallen away in the historical mythology of Abraham Lincoln. He was a great raconteur! He was very funny and irreverent. Daniel certainly played [the role] as if Lincoln got a kick out of Bilbo and appreciated his irreverence. I love that part of the film. I think the film is very funny, which balances very well with some of the incredibly tense and intense aspects of the story.
Steven Spielberg gets a lot of credit for creating spectacle, but not necessarily for his work with actors. What was he like as a director?
Can I tell you something? He is absolutely stunning working with actors. He is so specific. He's so confident in terms of his eye. He has such a clear vision in terms of where he's headed and where and how best for all of us to be headed together. He has such a sense of the whole. He's the most gracious and generous person -- he truly opens his heart to the process as a whole, but also specifically and individually to everyone he's working with. His natural generosity just comes forth in terms of the work setting. He also has an enormous respect for film as a medium and for the process of making a film. The process of making a film is different on every film, and therefore one must be fluid in terms of how they work. Steven has a real understanding of that. He loves it! He has such enthusiasm and curiosity and a great trust in himself and others. Because of that, he demands an enormous amount of respect to everybody around him. That's infectious. What it does is draw the best out of everyone and everyone rises to the very high standard that he's setting for himself. It could not have been more pleasurable. Listen, he always came to me with the most precise and specific direction. It was always simple and subtle and yet very direct and it just kept me in the right direction. I found him to be absolutely divine to work with.
What do you think Barack Obama and today's politicians can take away from "Lincoln"?
I just saw it while sitting right behind the president, and I saw how moved he was by the film. There's no question that the period of time and the events that are depicted in this film are definitive in terms of the character of what this country became. It set the standard for what the character of this country should be at its very best. Of what a democracy should be at its very, very best. For all of the shady back-room deals and means to an end that this film depicts, ultimately, that's how a democracy works when it's healthy. It works with discourse and argument and compromise. That's very important for a democracy.
It was funny: When I left the White House I was thinking that Lincoln set a very high bar and he was president at a very hard time. I don't mean in terms of the most obvious issues of the day, such as the Civil War, but I just mean that politically, the country was deeply divided. Not just North and South. I mean within the sitting Congress itself. The Republican party was divided on issues; the Democratic party was divided on issues. Today, we have a two-party system where those two parties are divided, but at that time, the two parties were divided among themselves, and deeply so.
President Barack Obama is faced with a similar divisiveness in terms of such a polarization between the two parties. I really think it does relate to today. I think that Barack Obama faces a level of divisiveness, and I don't mean on a national level in terms of the North and the South and the Civil War; I really mean just politically. I think what he's done in the past four years, if anything, is inspired by people who have come before and by history -- people such as Lincoln and the events depicted in this film. So, I hope he's inspired to have the same level of resolve moving forward over the next four years. I was pleased with the outcome of the election and I wish him well and godspeed, but, by the same token, what he faced in the last four years and what he faces today is a herculean effort for any president to face. And, funny enough, the timing is perfect with this film because there are very strong similarities between that level of divisiveness today and Lincoln's time.
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