Interview: James Spader Immerses Himself in the Past in Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’


James Spader in Lincoln

James Spader in Lincoln
Photo: Dreamworks Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln expands nationwide this week with big time Oscar buzz after a very successful one week limited run in 11 major markets. It makes sense that people would be talking awards with with the names attached to this film. Past Oscar winners and nominees including Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner are all in the running for major awards, but I hold out hope for one more name to be added to the list… An all time favorite of mine, James Spader.

Recently Spader has been linked to small screen roles in shows like “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” and his wild stint last year on “The Office”, but he originally made his name as a film actor in films ranging from Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape to his role as Mr. Grey in Secretary.

In Lincoln, Spader returns to his film roots with one of his finest performances to date playing one of Abraham Lincoln’s Democratic operatives W.N. Bilbo and I had the great fortune to set down with him on the Disney lot last week.

The actor had plenty to say about the film, the history of Lincoln the man and what it is that makes America great.

This was a film where you got to play a completely different role than you usually do…

James Spader (JS): Different from what?

I mean, it just seems that…

JS: I think what you may have been speaking of, was that the last eight years of my life, I’ve been on television, playing the same role…


JS: Prior to that I did film roles and for the last eight years I’ve been doing television. And the first, well, I did one small thing in a Robert Rodriguez film [Shorts], near the end of [“Boston Legal”], a little kids film that he did, but beyond that Lincoln is the first film I’ve done since the television show ended. I left the show, went to New York, did a new David Mamet play called Race, came back here to Los Angeles. Then I did “The Office” for a year doing that crazy guy, but then Lincoln was the first film I did after doing the TV show for a bunch of time.


JS: So instead of seeing Allan Shore you’re seeing Bilbo.

And it is a throwback to some of work you did earlier in your film career. Was it fun to do?

JS: It was great fun. I loved doing the TV show I did and I loved doing “The Office” for a year, but, it’s funny, I remember when I lived in New York and I first started coming out to Los Angeles. When you’re a young actor with a certain amount of success and you’ve just moved from one city to another, there are always a spate of questions about what it is like to transition from one city to another. One of the things I found that was so stark was I loved New York because you walked everywhere and you never got in a car. You were either walking or in the back of a taxi cab but you could walk the city. And what I loved about Los Angeles was that you drove everywhere. I loved getting in my car and getting on the freeway, I love driving out of town, I loved that.

What I find now is that after having done some television after years of doing film and now doing film again. I love each medium for their dichotomy. I loved television because I could work on one character and watch the evolution of that character, but I love that in a film you are plunking yourself down in a time and a place and a location and immersing yourself in that and then you leave it after two to three months and you put it behind you.

David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader in Lincoln

David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader in Lincoln
Photo: Dreamworks Pictures

In this film you were really immersed in the world of Lincoln.

JS: To a certain degree. Remember we shot in Richmond, Virginia. Which is a place that embraces that time and place. That
time specifically. You breath it, you smell it. You probably smelled it a little more when we were there because of all the horse shit we brought to the city. That time period is much honored in that city, and much remembered in that city. The monuments and historic sites are in an around that city everywhere. So you feel it the moment you get off the airplane.

Then to be shooting a movie there… Our stages were set up right next to a handful of battlefields. Civil War battlefields right in the same neighborhood. And we were shooting in the state capitol, doubling ironically as the House of Representatives and the White House. Set in the city that was the seat of the Confederacy.

I arrived ten days into shooting and my first day was in the House of Representatives. Hundreds of people all in period clothing, wigs, hair and make-up. All the rest of it. Arguing the issues of the day. And everybody in this film, in every capacity, every department from the top to the bottom and every actor, the director, Tony Kushner who had been researching, Steven and he had both been researching this film for seven years or longer, everybody was already immersed in it.

In terms of the subject matter of the film, obviously the film was very political, and we’re also steeped in politics in real time. We were filming right during the primaries — the Republican primaries — and like all political seasons, that informed everything that was written about in the papers and television. So the subject matter of this film was something that was informing the outside world that I was being exposed to the entire time we were filming.

Your character was integral to humanizing the character of Lincoln in the film. It showed that he wasn’t just some mythical figure, he actually got involved in down and dirty politics to accomplish his goals. Was that appealing to you when you read the script?

JS: Very much so. The fact that everybody in this film, including Lincoln himself, were amateurs in the circumstances that they faced. What they were faced with at the time which this film depicts, which was a very short period at the beginning of 1865. Everybody was sort of shooting from the hip. They were having to make profound and fundamental decisions that affected our country, and have defined and informed our country ever since, and yet no one could have imagined they would be faced with these decisions prior to that time. Including the character I play.

[W.N. Bilbo was a] successful attorney from Tennessee who also made a lot of money in some land deals down there in coal country. He was political and had been involved in the political process, and he had known [Secretary of State William] Seward in the past, they had both been members of the Whig Party. He had been recruited by Seward. Lobbying wasn’t institutionalized at that point. That’s one of the great things about those three characters in the film, the lobbyists. They were amateurs. They had to figure out how to make things happens.

I love that concept because there is no blueprint for holding the Union together. You’re absolutely correct in saying everyone was an amateur because no one had ever done the things that Lincoln had to do to accomplish his goals. That is probably why people admire him to this day.

JS: Exactly. Holding the Union together was never one of the job descriptions for the Presidency.

Hopefully he’s the only President that will become a professional in that area.

JS: True, but then he assured us of that. That is the thing you can’t forget. The idea that the Union could split and that we would have a 3,000 mile border with two separate nations. That would have meant war for all time. And I think he had a sense of that.

The movie is about Lincoln and the passing of the 13th Amendment, but even my character — a southerner from Nashville, Tennessee — had done business with Jefferson Davis and he was very active in reconstruction. After the war, probably very self-servingly so, he found a lot of property, but he was a unionist. He believed passionately in that. And slavery was part of life in the South, the idea that that has been diluted over the years, that this was all about state’s rights or about the industrial North against the very agrarian South. Yes, to a certain degree it was that, but at its core it was about slavery. Because the agrarian South functioned on slavery.

But the thing that struck me when I saw the film — which I don’t know if I had a sense of when I first read the script, and I don’t know if I had a sense when I was making it — was how it defined the best of the American character for the rest of time. That argument and compromise and yet resolve to hold onto one’s ideals, define us as a country. And that act was the only thing that was worth so many people in this country living and dying for, and I don’t know that there has ever been wholesale death of American citizens on the battlefield since then that was ever as worthy.

I think Lincoln saw the passage of this bill was absolutely necessary, to give value to all that death and dying. I think the movie speaks so eloquently to that. That the only thing that could give the Civil War and all the death and dying any value at all was the abolition of this scourge upon the earth. And it defines us still.

Let’s face it, race and division are things we still face in this country. Religion even more so, because we’ve become even more of a melting pot than we were at that time. Those are the issues we still debate and I think that’s what defines who we are. We are a mixed bag. And how do you live together and not apart.

One last quick question before they throw me out. Would you like to do more period films in the future?

JS: I base all decisions about a film I want to do on two things, the script and how badly my bills need to be paid.

Lincoln is in theaters now and you can read Brad’s review of the film right here.