Last updated: February 19. 2013 4:41PM - 400 Views

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Daniel Day-Lewis was so reluctant to take on the title role in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that he turned down the project more times than he can remember.

It just seemed inconceivable to me that I could be the person to help Steven (bring Lincoln to life), says the two-time Oscar winner for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood. I didn't want to be responsible for irrevocably staining the reputation of the man.

Initially, Day-Lewis was worried about embodying a lawmaker who's come to represent all that's good and just in American politics.

It's very challenging to try and approach this man's life because it's been mythologized to such an extent and in such a way that you feel as if you can't get close enough to properly represent it, the actor says.

I just wasn't sure that I would be able to do that. Beyond that I felt that I probably shouldn't do it, and somebody else should do it instead.

So, why did Day-Lewis finally wind up saying yes to the role of the 16th president?

I ran out of excuses, the actor says with a laugh.

As he was mulling over joining the film, Day-Lewis read Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, Team of Rivals, which helped him see Lincoln less as an icon and more as a man.

There was a living being to be discovered, Day-Lewis says. She makes that so beautifully clear in her book.

Adapted from Goodwin's tome, Lincoln (opening Friday) focuses on the last four months of the president's life. It was during this time that Lincoln used his knowledge of politics to secure a victory for the Union and hammer out the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

The movie co-stars Sally Field as Mary Todd, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, David Straithairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son Robert and in, a scene-stealing turn, Tommy Lee Jones as lawmaker Thaddeus Stevens.

Spielberg has been trying to make a movie about Lincoln for a dozen years. The trickiest part was figuring out which chapter of Honest Abe's story to put in front of the cameras.

With over 7,000 books written about Lincoln, it's hard to find any five books that agree on every single facet of his life, Spielberg says. But the thing that really surprised me about Lincoln was the weight of his responsibility. He took a Constitutional oath to preserve the Union and remains the only president in history who had the Union ripped out from under him and torn in half.

Over the course of making the movie, Spielberg came to respect Lincoln even more than when he began the project.

I don't know how he didn't crack up in the middle of his first term with the Civil War raging around him and with over 600,000 lives lost … and with his wife on the edge herself.

He suffered the loss of his son (Willie, to typhoid fever) two years before our film begins, and there was a son lost in infancy before that. The fact that he came through this with a steady moral compass and an even keel just amazes me.

Day-Lewis first passed on Lincoln about eight years ago, when Spielberg was taking a Greatest Hits approach to Lincoln's life. After Day-Lewis said no, Liam Neeson was considered for the title role.

I approached Daniel first, and he turned me down, Spielberg says. And then Liam and I had a very healthy flirt about possibly doing this or that together ... and then we both decided to do other things, and then I came back to Daniel.

Last year, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels of America) flew over to Dublin, where Day-Lewis lives with his family (including wife Rebecca Miller and his children, ages 17, 14 and 10) to try to persuade the actor to give the project a second look.

The other script I had shown Daniel was way more about the Civil War and all the battles than it was about the presidency, Spielberg says. So when Tony had written his draft, that was sort of the our shoe in the door that really got us together with Daniel in Ireland.

Daniel was almost doing a feasibility study to see whether he would allow himself to go near a script that was clearly on the verge of brilliance. Without trying to put any extra pressure on Daniel, I had decided that if he said no, then I would never make the movie. It just wouldn't have been in my life anymore. It would have been gone.

After Day-Lewis signed on, he immediately began reading every Lincoln biography he could get his hands on.

It was easy for me to start because I knew nothing about him, so I had everything to learn, the actor, 55, says. The wonderful surprise with that as you begin to discover him, he kind of welcomes you in. He's very accessible.

Of all the things Day-Lewis learned about Lincoln during the making of the movie, none shocked him more than discovering that the president wasn't as serious-minded as his gloomy portraits might suggest.

The most delicious surprise was discovering that Lincoln had a great sense of humor, Day-Lewis says. I discovered that (humor) was a most important aspect of his character. … It was innately a part of him. I think there was great joy (in his life).

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