After much anticipation for Steven Spielberg’s biopic about Abraham Lincoln, news came that Daniel Day-Lewis was cast in the lead role. The film has been on Spielberg’s back burner for nearly 10 years and actor Liam Neeson has long been his expected choice.
As a matter of opinion, Spielberg’s choice to cast Daniel Day-Lewis instead of Neeson is already the right step in producing a new American Classic. Where Liam Neeson and Spielberg brought “Schindler’s List” into iconic status, their collaboration on Lincoln seemed too obvious. How do the actors weigh-in for the role of Lincoln and why is Daniel Day-Lewis the better choice for Spielberg?
Neeson’s lead in “Schindler’s List” was that of a German man torn between civil distress in his country, as were his roles in “Michael Collins” as an Irish Revolutionary and the Scotsmen in “Rob Roy”. With this we often attribute a foreign mystique about the actor. He has taken on a number of historical American roles, notably as Alfred Kinsey in “Kinsey”, but Liam Neeson’s growl comes from across the pond.
As for Daniel Day-Lewis, while some of his best known roles were as Irishmen in “My Left Foot”, “The Boxer” and “Gangs of New York”, he diversified into quintessential American men. His roles in “The Last of the Mohicans” and “There Will Be Blood” gave him this reputation as an actor.
As Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans”, Day-Lewis played the adopted white son of the Mohican tribe. Then with his role as Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” the actor portrayed the pinnacle of American greed. His roles as Americans are deeply rooted and drum up both the best and worst of American men.
Abraham Lincoln was American born, but descended from English lineage. Both Neeson and Day-Lewis are towering Irishmen, which genetically give either actor an advantage. Though, as far as resemblance the deep sunken eyes and bony face of Daniel Day-Lewis bare a striking similarity to Lincoln.
Both Liam Neeson and Daniel Day-Lewis have portrayed men faced with having to lead others from a lonely position. This often came with playing characters forced to make unpopular decisions, something essential to the role of Abraham Lincoln.
Neeson’s style seems to carry a sympathetic weight that the world had inflicted on his characters, like the mythological Atlas. Daniel Day-Lewis always seems to be at a strange peace with his heaviness, like the mythological Sisyphus accepting his uphill battle. This becomes relevant to Lincoln in that the President accepted that what were moralistic decisions, became political necessity.
There is finally the consideration of complexity as an actor and why either would choose to play Lincoln for Spielberg. Since 1978 Liam Neeson has done a film, sometimes two, every year. Why wouldn’t he take the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg again? Daniel Day-Lewis has a reputation for being one of the most selective film actors, having only done 18 films since 1971. Day-Lewis probably has a list of reasons not to play Lincoln almost as long as his reasons to take the part.
Daniel Day-Lewis has never worked with Steven Spielberg and this challenge is doubled by taking on a role written by Tony Kushner. The actor has huge expectations to meet; namely in the footsteps of John Ford’s 1939 canonical film, “Young Mr. Lincoln” starring Henry Fonda. There is also pressure in that Abraham Lincoln is continually voted as America’s favorite president.
With almost 30 best actor awards for his role as Daniel Plainview alone, Day-Lewis has a tremendous follow-up to pull off in a lead role. In many ways he is one of the only actors, perhaps Neeson being a close contender, who can evoke the complexity needed for Abraham Lincoln. There is a darkness to Lincoln that must be handled with the greatest care, enough that it does not overshadow a man who still inspires America.
Award winning Playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner is attached to craft the American President’s story. Spielberg also purchased the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.