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James Spader on His Eccentric Lincoln Character

James Spader. Photo: Getty Images

Hey, did you catch James Spader in Lincoln? He plays W.N. Bilbo, one of the trio of political operatives that President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hire to do much of their dirty work as they attempt to get Congressmen to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. As such, Spader actually gets a lot of screen time, not to mention some of the film’s funniest, most slapstick moments. But he’s virtually unrecognizable, often dressed in bright but disheveled clothing. Spader gives one of the film’s most memorable performances, pretty much disappearing into his role in a way that almost matches Day-Lewis’s far more publicized transformation. Vulture spoke with him about how he came up with that character, and what Spielberg thought of it.

How much research did you do for the part?
Well, there’s obviously an enormous amount of research available about that era, but there was relatively little research I could do into W.N. Bilbo, my specific character — much of which was frankly redundant given the enormous amount of research that Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg had already done. That’s always where my devotion lies: Regardless of whether it’s based on fact or fancy, the most important part of my job description, besides showing up and staying in the light, is a real dedication to the intents of that screenplay. The script is the coloring book that you’re given, and your job is to figure out how to color it in. And also when and where to color outside the lines.

So where and how did you color outside the lines?
The lines were blurry. W.N. Bilbo was one of the only characters in the film that they did not have any pictures of. There was a certain amount of correspondence between him and Seward, but not too much beyond that. That afforded us some freedom to expand on that. And from the first read, with every discussion with Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, and even with Daniel Day-Lewis, it was about how important the irreverent tone of that character was for the requirements of our melodrama. Whoever played Bilbo was always going to be responsible for shouldering that, which made it so much fun for me. And my take on the character was different from Steven’s take for it.

How so?
When I read the screenplay and I saw these scenes with Bilbo out trying to hunt quail with people he was trying to convince, and in the backrooms of taverns and whatnot, I tried to reconcile that with this guy who is described — in the small amount of research we have — as someone who liked to dress very smartly and who liked expensive, colorful waistcoats. So, he was a bit of a dandy. But in the screenplay he was depicted as being very bawdy and colorful, and he certainly has the most irreverent language in the film. So, I thought it would be great to try and put all those pieces together — and I imagined him as a dandy in decay. So, he’d have all these expensive clothes but they’d be a little disheveled. Steven just loved this idea, and he urged me to go as far with that as possible.

Bilbo’s demeanor and his appearance really do make him one of the most memorable characters in the film.
His appearance reflects a tremendous lust for life. He was a very colorful guy. He had been a very successful attorney prior to the war. And I love the dichotomy that he was a Southerner, from Nashville, Tennessee, who’d known Jefferson Davis. He was even arrested in New York State on suspicion of being a Confederate spy, and he had to prevail upon Lincoln and Seward to get him out and advocate on his behalf. So there were already these dichotomies within him. All we really did was add another, with him being a colorful dresser but with food stains and crazy hair and whatnot. I think he had more changes of costume in the film than anyone except maybe Mary Todd Lincoln!

Was there ever concern you were taking it too far?
Steven said to me at one point, “I really want a strong delineation between Bilbo and the other two operatives, who are more team players. So whenever they go left, you go right.” And I said, “The only way I might change that is, I’ll go right before they even go left.” I thought it’d be great if Bilbo was very adept at getting the job done, and if he had a great knowledge of everything he had to do. And yet he did it with a certain amount of gusto. So in that scene where Lincoln shows up unannounced to talk to them, our costume designer asked, “What do you want him to be wearing?” And I said, “I want him in his stocking feet, and he should be in his undershirt. And I think he should be half-undressed.” So, I don’t even know if you can see it, but here’s this guy who takes pride in his clothing, and then he’s in real disarray when the president finally comes to visit.

James Spader on His Eccentric Lincoln Character