IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: James Spader Talks 'Lincoln'

Thursday, 15 November 2012 21:21 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: James Spader Talks 'Lincoln'

Actor James Spader has been entertaining film and television audiences with his impressive and offbeat style of acting for almost thirty years!

The actor first gained attention in the ‘80s for a string of roles in classic movies such as Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, and Wall Street, but it was his role in the groundbreaking Sex, Lies, and Videotape that made him a household name. Since then he has accumulated an impressive resume of film work that includes True Colors, Wolf, Stargate, Crash, 2 Days in the Valley, and Secretary, as well as winning an Emmy on TV for Boston Legal and a recent recurring role on The Office. During his illustrious career, Spader has worked with such legendary film directors as Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Mike Nichols, and David Cronenberg, but now the actor can add another iconic filmmaker to that impressive list … Steven Speilberg! After several years of working on television, Spader finally makes his triumphant return to the big screen in Lincoln, which opened in limited release on November 9th and opens wider on November 16th.

In the film, which is based on the novel Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Spader plays Democratic Party operative William N. Bilboe who helped President Lincoln (brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis) in abolishing slavery and saving the union. As the Civil War continues, Bilboe joins Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathaim), and fellow lobbyists Colonel Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) in assisting our 16th President to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The movie is already a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Picture, as well as Best Director, and there has been talk of possible acting nominations for Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones … and even Spader himself.

I recently had the rare opportunity of sitting down with James Spader on the Disney lot to talk about his work on Lincoln. The eccentric actor discussed the new film, the correlation between the script and the novel it is based on, the research he did into the life of his character, discrepancies between the film and actual history, and what it was like working with Spielberg and Lewis on the epic project.

Here is what the talented actor had to say: 

IAR: To begin with, did you read the book that the film is based on to prepare for your role in the movie or did you choose to just create your character from the script alone?

James Spader: I think there was a great attempt on this film to keep things under wraps and a great care was taken in terms of the script not being exposed or having any exposure to the novel and so forth and beyond, and rightfully so I think. So in fact for me, and I think it was the right thing for me, I didn't even know that this screenplay had any association with Team of Rivals prior to arriving on the set. To be fair, the two entities were developing concurrently. The book was being written really concurrently with the development of this as a film to a great degree, certainly research of the screenplay and so forth. I'm talking about (screenwriter) Tony Kushner who was developing the screenplay concurrently with the book, and also the book is much more expansive than this film is. I think Tony Kushner came in with a first draft of five-hundred pages and Steven was not going to be making a mini-series, so I think it was sort of like pick your month out of these five-hundred pages. Then Steven didn’t pick a month; he actually picked a few weeks. So I had not read the book and have still not read it. 

Did you do any historical research into the actual life of William N. Bilboe? 

Spader: Well, I’m also an actor about to start a film so I align myself with that screenplay. That's my source material first and foremost. But I always look for research material for more pragmatic things, more personal things, and much more subjective things to help me lose myself in the time, place, character or sense of circumstances that I might be faced with. When playing a historical figure obviously you also want to find out as much as you can outside of the screenplay that you can utilize within that drama. If there's a glaring discrepancy, then that obviously should be raised or weighed at least. Then a decision has to be made whether the discrepancy is one that you should ignore because it serves the drama or if it is something that you should embrace. 

Were there a lot of discrepancies that you found during your research?

Spader: There were some. But I also was aware of the fact that these three characters of these lobbyists were composites. There were more lobbyists that were involved in this endeavor. But it would've been a muddle if they'd had everybody and these three were at the forefront of Seward’s lobby. In history, it's always referred to as Seward’s lobby but it was really Lincoln's lobby. In any case they had sort of led the team. The film wanted to depict as much as they could of the behind-the-scenes dealings and political dealings of getting this amendment passed, therefore these characters are called upon to sort of divvy up the goods. I didn't ever find anything in my research that was different from what Tony Kushner found. There wasn't an enormous amount available about the character I played, but I didn't find anything that he hadn't seen already. Anything I saw that deviated from the script or was a discrepancy from the script, and I don't even know if discrepancy is the right word, I really think probably just deviation, was minor. For instance, it implies in the film that Seward and Bilboe are meeting for the first time when he engages them to be lobbyists. I think Seward refers to a friend of his from Albany or upstate New York, and that would have either been Latham or Schell, Bilboe being from Nashville, TN. Bilboe knew Seward prior to this happening, they were both members of the Whig Party, so they knew each other before. Listen, during this time or in or around this time Bilboe was arrested in New York State as a suspected Confederate spy and had to prevail upon Lincoln and Seward to advocate on his behalf, which they did. Also, the film implies that the moment that Lincoln walks into that hotel room, and they sit down and have conversations, that that's the first time Lincoln and Bilboe have ever met. That also I don't think was the case. I think Bilboe and Lincoln had met before then, but I don't know and I'm glad I don't. The truth of the matter is that I also was very aware as soon as I read the script that there was another part of the job description for these three characters and for this character in particular, which was to serve this drama as a whole in the bases of tone. I knew that they were counting on Bilboe to bring a certain amount of levity to the picture and serve as a comic relief to a certain degree. Anything that was going to subvert that I was going to ignore because I felt that was important to the screenplay. I thought this screenplay was lovely and I liked that aspect of it. Listen, give an actor an opportunity to eat a little bit of scenery and why not take advantage of that? The more colorful he could be, the better. I would look for things that supported that and ignore things that maybe wouldn’t. We knew that he was a sort of colorful dresser, and larger than life in many ways and so on. He was a bit of an enigma in terms of his leanings because he had done business with Jefferson Davis prior to this, and he was a very successful attorney in Nashville, Tennessee. These dichotomies were interesting to me. I was fascinated by the fact that he was from a Southern state and yet he was working so emphatically on behalf of the administration in this endeavor. I think he cared desperately about it. He definitely was a Unionist and felt very strongly about that. However, I think he was principled about slavery as well, but that at that time certainly all was marked by a degree. It's even spoken to in the film about Lincoln as well. I think the only character in the entire film is Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) who is absolutely committed and convicted and unequivocal in terms of his viewpoint on that issue

Finally, can you talk about working with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis, and their commitment to making this project as authentic as possible?

Spader: I just can't imagine how working on this film with these people could possibly have been anymore delightful. For me, and I know it wasn't this way for everyone, but for me it was just raw, pure fun. Part of it I think was that Steven and Daniel were both counting on the scenes that we did together to be that. I think those scenes serve as a breathe of levity in this film, but they are also a breathe of levity in the making of the film. The making of a film dictates the tone of the film and its end product. That's how things were during the filming and the set was just so thrilling. Steven picked Richmond, Virginia to shoot in so you were just steeped in that history all around you. Everybody brought their best game to this film and their absolute best work that they could. Whenever you're working across from anybody, and Daniel most of all in this picture, but whenever you're working across from anybody who's at their very best, you're better for it and it's easier. I worked peppered throughout the entire production, so I sort of seemed to be there throughout the whole film. I was scheduled as such, which was great for me and I loved that. I loved the fact that there were a lot of people coming and going, and I loved the fact that Bilboe happened to be around in this film. He happened to be around at all these little crucial points in the film, and I loved being able to be there. I had an opportunity to see so many people working in this film and that was lovely. I just adored it.

Lincoln opens in limited release on November 9th, and opens in wide release on November 16th.

To read IAR's coverage of the Lincoln press conference, please click here.

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