Talking politics and ‘Lincoln’ with James Spader


There’s no two ways around it…getting to interview James Spader is a bit of an intimidating experience. Just look at the roles that he’s played over his career, and it’s hard to not think of those characters when you sit down to speak with him. Luckily for me, when I was invited to interview him about ‘Lincoln’ (a film I loved, and my review of which you can find here), I was delighted to learn he’s of course nothing like those individuals and was a gregarious and talkative guy, eager to chat with me about the likes of Nate Silver, the politics of ‘Lincoln’, and of course his scene stealing part in the film. It was a good, if short talk with an incredibly fascinating man.

Joey Magidson: Pleasure to meet you.

James Spader: Hello.

(I then sat in a chair across a table from him, but he motioned for me to come closer and sit on a couch near his seat)

James: Might be best if you sit over here.

Joey: You’re the boss. First of all, congratulations on the movie.

James: Thank you.

(I then briefly mentioned my admiration for a little seen film of his called ‘True Colors’ where he stars with John Cusack and there’s some role reversal going on, as he’s the hero and Cusack is the scummier character, but I’ll keep to ‘Lincoln’ as much as possible here. Suffice to say though, that tickled him to hear)

Joey: I’m sure you’ve gotten this all day, but I’ll ask it hopefully for the last time…how did you wind up in ‘Lincoln’?

James: It was very straightforward. Steven (Spielberg) called and his this screenplay and wanted me to come over to the office and read the screenplay. He was interested in me for one of three roles in the film. I went, I read it, I was stunned, the movie, the script alone, regardless of the performances, the script alone was incredibly moving and powerful and moving and funny and depicted a very very small window in our history that, as small as that window was, and the events depicted, I felt were definitive in terms of telling the greater story of the man Abraham Lincoln, but also the story of our country and the character of our country to this day. I met with Steven after and he asked me which lobbyist I was interested in playing, I knew right away that W.M. Bilbo was the character that I felt I was most suited and could bring the most to. He said yes, and that was that.

Joey: Great, and it’s a great combination of actor and part. You’re definitely right in saying that it’s funnier than people expect, not just your character, though you’re in some ways the comic relief with…

James: Irreverence!

Joey: Exactly, and I somewhat lighter subplot that really kind of fits in when you compare it to current politics.

James: And I think Lincoln was just, you know Lincoln was funny, and a great storyteller. I think that’s a big part of the film, not just in telling who he is, but in bringing the human element to that iconic figure. I think also just in terms of the tone of the film, a very important part of it…this was a tumultuous time in his life, both politically and personally, so I think he relied on humor and the appreciation thereof. I think it’s the reason that in the scenes with my character and Lincoln, I think Daniel certainly played it as Lincoln having a great appreciation for this person. He responded to people, he opened himself up to people, and shared himself with people. The President was incredibly generous in that regard, and so was Daniel. He opened his heart and shared that with others within the film, and did so with me particularly. I think Lincoln enjoyed those times of irreverence and I think Daniel did as well.

Joey: I know now we have these polls that talk about the candidate you want to have a beer with, or dinner with. He might of been the President of that sort.

James: Maybe. It’d be interesting to have dinner with Washington too though! (giggling)

Joey: He’d have to take out his teeth though…

James: (Laughs)

Joey: Another thing for me is if you want to compare the movie to the current political climate there’s a lot there, but even without that there’s plenty there.

James: And it’s thrilling! I mean, Steven is a magician in terms of this film. Here he’s got the core of the story, the most important plot point, and it’s the passage of the 13th Amendment, we all know the outcome of that vote, but somehow he keeps this ticking clock going throughout the picture, which listen, I think the Bilbo scenes bring something to that and a certain kinetic energy, but he keeps that ticking clock alive, and also you’re on the edge of your seat with every vote. You know the outcome, but you find yourself hoping with everything that this sort of underdog basketball team is actually going to win!

Joey: It’s fascinating. I fancy myself a bit of a political junkie, so I’m sitting there going “it’s going to pass right?”…

James: (Laughing)

Joey: But in my head I’m going “you moron!”…

James: (Laughs harder) I know!

Joey: It’s like when you’re driving somewhere and you know you need to head south but when you get to the onramps to the interstate and you still think for a second about whether you’re taking the north or the south entrance…

James: Yes! I mean, it was masterful how he created that. He really created that thrilling tension to the point where you don’t just suspend disbelief, you suspend knowledge! He allowed you to forget that you knew the outcome of this picture. He allowed you to forget that and just be drawn in to the film.

Joey: You sit there and watch those scenes and it reminded me of watching Health Care reform pass on television.

James: Yea.

Joey: And if you read about it at all, you knew it was passing at that moment, but still…

James: Yea, you were on the edge of your seat! I did that on election night even. I mean, I read Nate Silver and I happen to be one of the people who absolutely knew that Nate knew what the hell he was talking about an had the skinny on it. However many people wanted to refute that, I really believed that he had the skinny…

Joey: But he missed on North Dakota!

James: (Laughs) He missed on North Dakota so it’s all out the window! And yet still, I watched every second and was thrilled.

Joey: It went quickly from being a nervous night to a great night, in the span of what felt like minutes.

James: It was a grand night.

Joey: And the election certainly didn’t hurt ‘Lincoln’. You could totally watch this movie and make the argument Health Care…

James: Yea, yea. Without a doubt.

(The studio reps then came in to get him to his car)

Joey: I think they want to get you out of here though…

James: Thank you.

Joey: My pleasure.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!