Many who've seen Steven Spielberg's Lincoln likely can't imagine the title role being played by anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis, who is so good, so fully human, that he seems credible even though we've no recordings of the actual Lincoln to go by. The movie would be completely different without Day-Lewis, so it's now strange to find out that he turned down the role several times. At last night's New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Spielberg read the audience a letter sent by Day-Lewis, in which the picky and somewhat reclusive actor gently turned down the role. It's an interesting little glimpse into an alternate reality that almost was.
Dear Steven, It was a real pleasure just so sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I’ve since read the script and found it in all the detail in which it describe these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principal characters, both powerful and moving. I can’t account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore life as opposed to another, but I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there is no choice; that a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told, rather than that of a participant. That’s how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can’t be sure that this won’t change, I couldn’t dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility. I do hope this makes sense Steven, I’m glad you’re making the film, I wish you the strength for it, and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered to me.
That's the transcript of what Spielberg read last night, so let's hope that a few of the grammatical oddities in there are the fault of transcribing and were not in Day-Lewis' actual letter, which we like to imagine was written on old parchment that smelled of the Irish Sea.
Hollywood lore is littered with stories of since-famous projects that almost never happened, or ones that almost did but fell apart in the last minute. (This 1991 New York Times profile of Meryl Streep which was recently brought to our attention reminded us that Streep was once thisclose to playing Evita until Madonna snatched it away.) We're glad that the Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln is in the former category. And we respect him for having the stones to say no to Steven Spielberg and such an auspicious project. The man has convictions! Now if all other directors could please release similar letters from actors, the world would be a more transparent and interesting place. You first, David O. Russell. How many people turned you down before Bradley Cooper got Silver Linings?