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How it took years before Daniel Day-Lewis would agree to do ‘Lincoln’

Meriah Doty
Movie Talk
December 7, 2012
Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln'
Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln'

Now that Daniel Day-Lewis has proven to critics and audiences alike his almost freakish ability to breathe life back into U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, it's hard to believe the 55-year-old actor did not want the role at first... or second. It took several years, a new script and even convincing from none other than Leonardo DiCaprio before director Steven Spielberg could get Day-Lewis to even consider taking on the weighty, historical role.

"I approached Daniel first to play Lincoln. He turned me down. That was about eight, nine years ago. And then Liam [Neeson] and I had a very healthy flirt about possibly doing this together," Spielberg said with a laugh at a press conference in Beverly Hills in late October, attended by Yahoo! Movies. Spielberg's chuckles seemed to confess that he and Neeson were more than flirting -- the actor was attached to the project for roughly five years.

[Related: Lincoln to Mary Owens: I'm just not that into you]

When Neeson and Spielberg parted ways in 2010, the director returned to courting Day-Lewis. "It was hard to get him to say yes," the 65-year-old director said.

His reason for avoiding "Lincoln" like the plague? It just seemed too daunting. "Trying to approach a man's life that has been mythologized to that extent in such a way that you can get close enough to properly represent it -- I just wasn't sure that I would be able to do that," Day-Lewis told a room full of reporters while sitting next to Spielberg. "I felt that probably I absolutely shouldn't do that and somebody should do it instead," he added with a laugh.

When it came to Spielberg's second go-around with Day-Lewis, the director revealed: "At that point I had just accepted the fact that I would make 'Lincoln' if Daniel decided to play him, and I would not make 'Lincoln' had Daniel decided not to play him. It was as simple as that. It had gotten to that point with me."

[Related: Amid Oscar buzz for his 'Lincoln' role, Tommy Lee Jones sheds light on Thaddeus Stevens]

Spielberg was so bent on getting Day-Lewis that he even put Leonardo DiCaprio up to courting him, the director recently told Deadline. DiCaprio told Day-Lewis that the film was not going to be made without him, and that's when the Oscar-winning actor agreed to take another look. "What really, really did the trick was when he read the Tony Kushner script and I was able to get a take two," Spielberg told Deadline, adding that Day-Lewis also read and liked the Doris Kearns Goodwin book on which the film is based.

In that interview, Spielberg intimated he has never campaigned for an actor before that. "...I pretty much take no for an answer. It's one of the few times in my entire life where I was not willing to accept that answer." (Who exactly says "no" to Spielberg, anyway? Actually, here's one known instance.)

[Related: Sally Field to Steven Spielberg: 'I won't let you walk away from me']

Once Day-Lewis was on board, he was fully committed. "The wonderful surprise with that man [Lincoln] is you begin to discover him," the actor said during the late October press conference in Beverly Hills. "And there are many different ways in which you can do that... He kind of welcomes you in. He's very accessible. That, that took me by surprise."

"Lincoln" is in theaters now.

[Related: See showtimes for 'Lincoln']

Watch Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg discuss 'Lincoln':

'Lincoln' Q&A: Finding the Voice 'Lincoln' Q&A: The Role of Fear


Watch the 'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer:

'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer
Follow me on Twitter (@meriahonfiah)

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