Daniel Day-Lewis: How the Greatest Living Actor Became Lincoln

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The shy, soft-spoken actor on the challenge of portraying a man whom everyone and no one knows at once

In the summer of 2011, the actress Sally Field began receiving text messages from Abraham Lincoln.

“I’d hear that twinkle-twinkle on my phone, and he would have sent me some ridiculous limerick,” says Field, who plays the 16th President’s wife Mary Todd in the new film Lincoln. “He’d sign it, ‘Yours, A.’ I would text back as Mary, criticizing him for the waste of his time when he might have been pursuing something more productive.”

In May of the same year, the director of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, received a Pearlcorder tape machine in the mail. “I turned it on, and it was Shakespeare and the Second Inaugural in this voice,” Spielberg says. The voice was Lincoln’s. Not the stentorian tone that generations of schoolchildren have inferred from Lincoln’s gloomy portraits, but the one described by contemporary observers: a gentle tenor, reedy and slightly cracked, the accent a frontier blend of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. “A beautiful voice. I wanted that voice to read me a book. It came with a letter that said, ‘After you listen to this, would you ring me up and we’ll have a natter?’ I immediately got on the telephone and said, ‘Who is this?’”

This is Daniel Day-Lewis, star of Lincoln (opening Nov. 9), who faced the paradoxical challenge of portraying a man whom everyone and no one knows at once. Lincoln is near enough that we can look at the light that fell upon him—he was the first U.S. President to be photographed extensively—but not so near that we can hear his voice or see his odd, flat-footed walk. He is ubiquitous but unknowable, frozen in marble or granite, flattened into currency. Try making him talk or move and you risk creating “an animatronic character at Epcot Center,” as Spielberg puts it. “That’s exactly what we didn’t want.”

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Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter author photo by Adrian Kinloch
Jessica Winter @ Adrian Kinloch

Jessica Winter is an editor at The New Yorker. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with her family.

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