Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is a film rich with memorable performances from some of our finest living actors, so it is anything but faint praise to say that James Spader steals just about every scene he's in as the wily Republican lobbyist W.N. Bilbo. Without the coercive efforts of men like Bilbo, it's highly unlikely President Lincoln would've been able to secure enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States. This is obviously serious stuff, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner depict the political maneuvering with a great deal of energy and humor. LINCOLN isn't some stuffy history lesson; it's a surprisingly lively depiction of government being roused to act in the best interests of the people.
Most of the biggest laughs in the film come courtesy of Spader, who plays Bilbo as a charmingly profane operator. Spader has always had a penchant for bringing strange little flourishes to his characters, but aside from his recent run on TV's THE OFFICE, I can't think of a time when he's been able to play someone this unapologetically broad. It's an enormously entertaining performance that helps to elevate one of the year's very best films.
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Spader. It's a quick interview, but hopefully it'll get you more interested in checking out LINCOLN (which, I can't stress enough, is far more entertaining than you expect).
Mr. Beaks: Mr. Bilbo seems an odd character for you.
James Spader: I've always liked odd characters.
Beaks: Indeed, but it's a particular pleasure to watch you sink your teeth into such a broad character. How did you respond to the character when he was initially presented to you?
Spader: I immediately said "Yes." Steven's office called me up and said, "Come over and read this script. There are these three lobbyist characters. Come over and read, and you decide which one you'd like to play." I read it, and knew immediately.
Beaks: How much research did you do personally? How much is known of Bilbo historically?
Spader: Everything I do on a film ultimately starts and ends with the screenplay, and this screenplay was exhaustively researched. I was redundant in my research. I read through the minimal amount of archival materials that were available about him, which was confined to a certain amount of history about who he was and a limited amount of correspondence between Bilbo and [William] Seward at the time. There was other stuff that was available that did not pertain to the film that just allowed coloring, but I was also very conscious of the fact that there was a certain amount of creative license to be taken advantage of with this character because he also had to serve something tonally in the film. The fun of making the film for me, which is always paramount... I like to enjoy my work. I like to serve it well, but enjoy it in the process. And I knew that embracing that was going to serve the film as a whole well.
Beaks: I believe Tony Kushner was on set for the entire shoot. Was he of particular assistance?
Spader: I spoke to Tony fairly soon after I agreed to do the picture. I spoke to Steven immediately about the film and this character and his place in the larger whole, but communication with Tony started long before I ever showed up on the set.
Beaks: As for being directed, how does Spielberg differ from other directors with whom you've worked?
Spader: Every director I've ever worked with... they're very different. That's part of the fun of making films: working differently yourself with different people and accommodating other people's varying processes. I found Steven to be an absolute delight. His direction was so concise and so simple and crystalline. He has an incredible eye in every way, shape and form in terms of capturing the right moment, and juxtaposing that moment to the next, and just knowing intuitively from which angle - and I mean specifically in terms of camera, but also in the more abstract sense of what angle to best capture and then therefore be able to tell that moment of the story. But his vision and his eye is also crystalline in terms of performance. [Bilbo] is a very robust character, and Steven was always so helpful to me in making sure I was the right track. He has a great understanding for actors and a great respect for that - which comes from a great respect and love for film, and a great excitement for making films and working with actors. That is the best that it could possibly be.
Beaks: I know every actor has their different preferences in terms of how many takes you need, and how much rehearsal you'd like to have. How do you like to work?
Spader: It's always different. It depends on the character, it depends on the film, it depends on the scene, but it's always different. I'm fluid in terms of that. I've worked on so many different sorts of films and so many different, very specific sets of circumstances in terms of which the film is being made. I've worked on many films that are massive things where time and money have not been the main concern, and then I've worked on films where time and money was the constant concern. That dictates flexibility and how you work, and I'm adaptable. That's what actors have to be.
LINCOLN is currently in limited release, and opens wide this Friday, November 16th. See it.