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Daniel Day-Lewis: 'Lincoln Was an Absentee Father'

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Recently on "Oprah's Next Chapter," Oprah sat down with Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, star of the film "Lincoln" -- and with the film's director, Steven Spielberg. During the course of their conversation, the three went deeper into the life and mind of the iconic past president. Read on...

OPRAH WINFREY: I read that when you were first approached some nine years ago about [playing Lincoln], that you said no. What made you finally say yes?

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: I'm not sure I can really account for it except that so much is always to do with the timing of things. Because I read Tony [Kushner's] script and recognized immediately what a wonderful possibility it was...

OPRAH: Mm-hmm.

DANIEL: Or you can feel irrevocably drawn into the orbit of the greater life of the piece and the specific life of that character. I've been prey to it all my life -- that compelling need that one finds somehow irresistible.

OPRAH: So it was irresistible. Was it the words?

DANIEL: The words, certainly. The richness of the language. The astonishing thing about that particular man is that the preconceived notion we have of him is that he's inaccessible. Well, the reason he's inaccessible is because he's been mythologized.

OPRAH: Yes. He's that monument.

DANIEL: That's what he is. And that process also dehumanizes.

OPRAH: The thing that really I was astounded by is the voice you [used while playing Lincoln]. How does the voice arise? Or do you rise to the voice?

DANIEL: I think probably some combination of the two. With the voice being such a deep personal reflection of character, of who we are -- and that voice may be quite a surprising reflection of who we seem to be in some cases. It is, undoubtedly, kind of a fingerprint of the soul, I think.

OPRAH: Yes. Fingerprint of the soul. Very good.

DANIEL: What I hope for at a certain moment, if the work is going the way you hope it will go, is to begin to hear a voice. Not in the supernatural sense, but just as we have an inner eye, we have an inner ear as well. I begin to hear a voice and if that voice pleases me, I then have the problem of trying to reproduce it -- which is a whole other thing.

OPRAH: I love this quote from you that says, "I like taking a long time over things and I believe it's the time spent away from work that allows me to do the work itself."

DANIEL: There are all kinds of different things that have taken me in all different directions over the years. But I have a great curiosity about the world. I get distracted by life sometimes.

OPRAH: No small distraction that life is. But taking time away from the work actually helps you do better work.

DANIEL: Yes. I do believe that in my case, at least, I would very soon become threadbare if I were only lurching from one film set to another without any nourishment.

OPRAH: I need that lesson. You took a year for this, right?

DANIEL: A year, yeah.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: And that was the best thing. I think one of the greatest first contributions of many contributions along the road, but the first greatest contribution, because I was raring to go. I wanted to shoot in three months after Daniel said yes.

DANIEL: That freaked me out.

OPRAH: That's barely time to get the book read.

DANIEL: Exactly.

STEVEN: It was a conditional yes. It was, "Yes, I want to work with you. I want to play Abraham Lincoln in Tony Kushner's script, but I want a year. Not just because I need a year to prepare for it, but I have a life. And I can do this in a year."

DANIEL: It's been one of the great privileges of my life, and I don't expect to have a greater one -- to explore the life of this man who I grew to love very, very dearly.

OPRAH: What do you think was his great character flaw?

DANIEL: A flaw?

OPRAH: Yeah, did he have one? Of course he had to. He was human.

DANIEL: Oh, that's a really good question... I look to Steven.

OPRAH: Steven, what was his flaw?

STEVEN: I think one of his character flaws was the amount of attention he paid to one child, Tad, and the lack of attention to another, Robert.

DANIEL: I do agree with that in a practical sense, there's no denying that that's what happened. But when Robert, his first son, was born, Lincoln was on the judicial circuit in Illinois which took him away from home for six months at a time. He was an absentee father and absentee husband. It's very hard to make that work. Something's just occurred to me: A real character flaw is implicitly a flaw that we don't recognize in ourselves.

OPRAH: Right.

DANIEL: The thing about Lincoln, it was very hard to catch him out. I think he knew himself so well that he was aware of his weaknesses. He was aware of his mistakes.

OPRAH: Okay. Can I ask you, what are you proudest of?

DANIEL: I'm proudest of having been -- I get this may sound like an evasive answer, but it's not -- I'm just so glad that we did it.

STEVEN: I feel the same way.

OPRAH: I'm so glad you did too. I'm so glad you did this. May I say, thank you for the gift. Thank you for the offering of this film.

Tune in to "Oprah's Next Chapter" each Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on OWN.

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Filed by Joan Podrazik
 
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