The 70th annual Golden Globe Awards took place on Jan. 13, 2013, at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. Here is what this Golden Globe winner said backstage in the Golden Globe Awards press room.
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
You’re known as a Method actor. When did you start being Abraham Lincoln, and what qualities did you want to bring to the role?
The trouble with trying to answer a question like that, I find, is that everything that comes out of my mouth seems to be a reductive expression of something … I mean, I still haven’t found a way of understanding, myself, what’s happened in the last couple of years. I’m amazed by the whole thing.
And already, it’s beginning to take on that strangeness that’s not uncommon to me, where you feel really that somebody else did that. I talked to Steven [Spielberg] a good bit before we started making the film. He’s not like he discovered me ready-made as Abraham Lincoln.
That whole thing, which tends to be spoken about on my behalf, I try not to talk about it too much. That whole thing takes on a mystique that is not really representative of the work itself. Because it seems clear to me that I and most of my colleagues really do the same thing in different ways maybe, but we go to these great lengths to try and create a world for ourselves. And within that world, we try and create an understanding of the lives we’re expressing in that world.
For me, that’s where the pleasure of the work is. So what would seem crazy to me is to jump in and out of that world, in and out of the experience of that character, because that’s where I really want to be. I guess there is some kind of mystery because either it works or doesn’t work. I have no idea what makes the difference, but it’s just the joy of that work, really.
Did you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility or fright at portraying Abraham Lincoln, since he is known around the world?
Well, yeah, to the extent that I really circled it for seven years, I think it was, until I finally heard myself, to my own amazement, say, “Yes, let’s try and do this.” I think I was pretty much convinced that I really wasn’t the person he needed to help him tell this story. I cherish my time working here.
I’ve been blessed with wonderful experiences over the years. The last thing I wanted to do was go down in flames, having desecrated the memory of the greatest president in the history of this country. Fear was something that I certainly was aware of.
I suppose the thing is that it’s the work that takes over. Once that decision seems to make itself, which if you’re lucky it does at some point, the curiosity and the work takes over. And luckily — not that it doesn’t come back from time to time — but for the most part, it just gets pushed aside. And then afterwards, you think, “Oh, what was I thinking? Why did I think that I could do that?”
If you could go back in time and ask Lincoln any question, what would it be?
That is so unfair to ask me. I think I would be so paralyzed with all the questions jumping on each other that I want to ask him, that I would probably end up not saying a word. I’d just stand there.
I think one of the things I’d be most fascinated by, in a way, is that so much is known about him and the world that he occupied during that extraordinary period of American history. There are thousands of books written and also many contemporary accounts, his own writing and thoughts and memos and letters. We know a lot about him, it turns out, during that time.
But what we don’t know is what he would have done in the period after the war during the period of reconstruction. That’s something I would be very fascinated to talk to him about. But I had a strange feeling toward the end of my time during the course of that work.
I couldn’t help wondering that even if he hadn’t been assassinated, maybe he wouldn’t have survived for very long. It felt like he spent himself completely in service of that country and that moment in time. Who knows if he ever would have been able to oversee reconstruction? I think history over the next 100 years would have been very substantially different if he had been able to do that.
How much did Lincoln’s qualities affect you and your thought process?
Certainly, part of the discovery for me was the discovery of the system of politics with this country, which I really wasn’t familiar with at all, even feeling the need to go back to the origin of this country — the forming of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence — to get a feeling of how this system of democracy actually functions. In terms of the qualities of that man, these are questions that are really hard to answer because I think I might know more in time to come.
But I still feel, probably from an unwillingness to let go of the experience, I still feel connected to it. I don’t really know. I can’t define what the influence was, but who couldn’t wish to have the influence of that extraordinary man have some lasting impression on their lives. I’d love to believe that was so, but it seems almost presumptuous to assume that it will, but I would hope so.
Bill Clinton introduced “Lincoln” tonight, and he said he is a big fan of the movie. Was Steven Spielberg influential in getting Clinton to present the wards? And what does Bill Clinton’s support mean to the film?
You’d have to ask Mr. Spielberg about that. And I’m sure. I know they’re friends, and their friendship goes back quite a long way. No doubt conversations led to that, but I haven’t had a chance to find a corner somewhere and just reflect on that moment when he spoke about our film.
I was very honored to have a conversation with him afterward and to hear his thoughts about the man, his achievements. I wouldn’t wish to try and put that in a sentence or two. But yes, what an incredible privilege to have him, a Lincoln-ian scholar in his own right, speak about the film I that way.
Bill Clinton’s appearance at this awards show was a surprise to many people. How many of you knew in advance that he would be here?
A couple of us. I didn’t know when though. It still was amazing, because even knowing it, it still was amazing to see him there so graciously taking part in this evening. I’m not quite sure how it came about, but I went to the [White House] correspondents dinner this year, and I daresay I felt utterly bewildered by that experience as he does by something like this, although he’s been around. But it was an unforgettable thing for us that he took the time to do that this evening.
Do you think you’re more cynical now about acting than you were when you did your first movie?
No, I don’t think I am, but I exercise a rare privilege, which is I work when I feel a compelling need to do that work. And when I don’t, I do other things. Now, everyone has a different way of approaching the work that they do. And some people are absolutely compelled to do what they need to do because they have to pay bills.
There’s nothing unworthy about that. It’s an honorable. I think I made a decision many years ago that in the hope that I would never become cynical about the work, which was important to me, there’s a possibility of some nobility in the work, but it’s not easy to find that. Very often, the work falls short of that. Mostly it does. So I didn’t want to find myself in my middle years, as I am now, just doing that because “that’s what I do,” without any real sense of delight.
Nothing changed. I think I had already done “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “A Room With a View” when Saul Zaentz and Phil Kaufman asked me to do “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” It was a whole different kind of experience for me then.
I’m not aware that anything changed, but I think I knew for nothing that I had to allow myself time, not just outside of the work but also within the work. I needed time. I work at a very slow rhythm, and it’s good if you get to know what your rhythm is and just don’t dance to somebody else’s beat.
What are some of the memorabilia that you have collected from your movies over the years?
I have collections of research books that I’ve needed over the years. I would never wish to get rid of them. It’s unlikely that I’ll read any of them ever again, but they are certain kinds of talismans, I suppose. But I’m not a collector in the general sense. I don’t really like the feeling of collecting things. I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I don’t collect memorabilia.
For more info: Golden Globe Awards website
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