James Spader might be best known for his television roles in Boston Legal and The Office, but Spader began his career in film. Though he’s only been in a handful of movies in the last decade, Spader plays a key role in Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln as William H. Bilbo, a committed abolitionist. While speaking with NBC New York about the film, Spader talked about playing the eccentric character and working with Daniel Day-Lewis and his immersive portrayal of the 16th president.
One of Spader’s main concerns was that since some of his scenes were with a limited number of cast members he wanted to make sure his acting would mesh with the rest of the film, especially since Bilbo is essentially a precursor to today’s cable news talking heads. He explains, “At one point after we’d shot a couple of scenes – a handful of my scenes were sort of in a vacuum in that I was shooting with one other person. In some cases, they were a very small cameo and they’d be isolated little scenes – I saw an opportunity with this character to be able to take advantage of his vibrant colors. And I remember pulling Steven aside in, I think, maybe the third scene I did and said, ‘I just want to make sure that as I’m eating a small amount of the scenery.’ I wanted to make absolutely sure that I was making the same film that everybody else was making, and that the tone that my part of the film was going to balance well with the tone of the rest of the film. And he just told me to have at it. He just said ‘Absolutely.’”
With Spielberg’s encouragement, Spader felt more comfortable with the character. He continues, “And he was so confident, that he’s such a wonderful director to work with, I just completely trusted him to put on the brakes, or help me to put on the brakes when necessary which he never did [Laughs]. There definitely were a couple of times where in my enthusiasm, my accent might get a little bit stronger than other places, and he would make me aware of it, but he really was so supportive of all the colors. In conjunction with the makeup and hair department and the costume department and myself and [screenwriter] Tony Kushner and everybody, we were given a certain amount of free rein with Bilbo. There was not as quite as much research material available on this character as there were with some of the other characters in the film. They didn’t have any images of him, so it gave us a poetic license that we took full advantage of.”
Although other actors in the film expressed that by working with Daniel Day-Lewis they felt they were actually working with President Lincoln, Spader dismisses the idea and suggests that those other actors are actually selling their own performances short. He says, “I find that every actor – every good actor that I have ever worked with – is immersing themselves to different degrees. And in the moment that the camera is rolling, they’re making an attempt to immerse themselves to the greatest degree. And some are more successful at that than others. And some are able to pick it up and put it down, and some aren’t. I do not suffer from any form of schizophrenia. I have many other mental incapacities and many other issues and idiosyncrasies, but I am not schizophrenic in any way shape or form. And therefore, I absolutely, do not believe that I was at any point talking to Abraham Lincoln. But in every scene I had with Daniel, I felt that we were all – and not just Daniel, everybody in the film – being the truest that they could be to that time and place, and those people set within those circumstances. But it may just be in the prism through which I see the world, including my work life, I’m still aware of the fact that I’m making a film.”