Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis Preview 'Lincoln' in New York

'I honestly didn't feel I was capable of doing that work,' actor tells audience

Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Mark Harris at a special screening of 'Lincoln' at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 in New York City Credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

In Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis voices the 16th president in a high-pitched tenor. The actor chose to honor contemporary records of what Lincoln truly sounded like, despite the deep, resonant baritone often associated with his character. At an advance screening last night in New York, Spielberg told an audience of students and teachers that Day-Lewis developed the voice naturally, on his own. One day the director received a sealed envelope with a skull and crossbones drawn on it, containing a tape recorder. 

"It was like Mission Impossible – I didn't know what was going to explode first, the envelope, the tape recorder or me," Spielberg joked at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13. "I turned on the tape recorder, and without hesitation my eyes welled up. Abraham Lincoln was talking to me on that little tape recorder."

In a Q&A following the screening, Spielberg and Day-Lewis told Entertainment Weekly's Mark Harris they were both intimidated by the legend of Abraham Lincoln when they began discussing the film nine years ago. After much revision, the screenplay was adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

"I honestly didn't feel I was capable of doing that work," Day-Lewis says, "I began to read Doris' book, which was probably a springboard for all of us, and I essentially ran out of excuses."

The film is true to historical accounts of Lincoln on many occasions, from his voice to his mannerisms. The solemn Lincoln that most people imagined was brought to life by a quick-witted, surprisingly lighthearted portrayal.

"He was a great storyteller and a joker, and quite capable of those moments of levity simultaneously as he was dealing with moments of great responsibility," Day-Lewis said.

Both Spielberg and Day-Lewis said they experienced a tremendous sense of sadness when it came time to bid Lincoln farewell. Spielberg said he paid a visit to Day-Lewis' trailer on the last day of shooting to quietly celebrate their achievement.

"He said to me, 'Yeah, Skipper, I think this is just about it,'" Spielberg said. "And that was a little bit like I had fallen through an elevator shaft and hit a cement floor."