James Spader began his career at the age of 21, with a role as Brooke Shields’ brother in Endless Love. He soon established his name with a string of edgy films aimed at younger audiences – Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero and the indie breakout hit Sex, Lies and Videotape – and never looked back. He’s often known for playing creeps and oddballs, but his resume is filled with all manner of projects – from genre works like Wolf and Stargate to television’s Boston Legal on which he starred for five years. In Lincoln, the new biopic from Steven Spielberg, he plays W.N. Bilboe: a political operative charged with delivering the necessary votes for passage of the 13th Amendment. It was an uphill task, and at times, the character needed to undertake questionable methods to achieve it. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he discussed his thoughts on the character, the project, and the historical circumstances they depict.
Question: Do you approach a historical figure like this any differently than you would a fictitious character?
James Spader: Not really, no. First and foremost, I start with the screenplay. Whether it’s historically based or not, whether it’s a fictional character or not, it starts with the screenplay. The homework’s different. There’s a certain amount of research that’s different. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t do research on another project. If you’re playing someone whose life is very different from your own, which it generally is, there’s a certain amount of research involved in exploring that world. In this case, the world we’re exploring happens to be specific and from the past. The screenplay was specific and from the past. And in this case, so much time was put into its development – so much care was invested in it from the very beginning – that a certain amount of my research was redundant. I remember talking to [screenwriter] Tony [Kushner] about some things I had discovered during my research. Naturally, he’d found them as well. Some things he’d chosen to take advantage of and some things he hadn’t, but I couldn’t be happier with the decisions he had made. I took what he had and ran with it as far as I could. You use the script as a jumping off point, and you go with it.
Steven [Spielberg] was incredibly supportive of that process. I remember pulling him aside at one point when we were shooting – maybe my third scene together with him – and I said, “I just want to make sure I’m making the same film as everyone else. I want to make sure I’m getting the tone right.” He just nodded. He engenders that kind of trust and confidence in your instincts. He’s an incredibly supportive director in every way. He’s very precise and he knows exactly what he wants, and he can guide your performance in very precise ways that make you understand exactly what you need to. This character had to serve a function in the piece, and I think it was well served by the color and the eccentricities we wanted to bring to him.
Q: A lot of people have compared this film to the current political situation in America. Do you think that’s the case, or is it more timeless than that?
JS: I think this film shows democracy as it is. It speaks to the best of democracy. Democracy demand fluidity, discussion, discourse and compromise. Argument is vital to the process… and argument is different from dissent. Democracy actually makes that distinction. It’s a fantastic tool to a noble end – with all of its flaws and foibles – and I think the film depicts that. The arguments that it depicts still exist today. It defines who we are today. Not slavery, obviously, but the role of government and the way government interacts with its citizens. There’s always divisions in terms of class, race, economy and ideology, but we live in a society where one has to learn – one must learn – how to live in proximity to others with whom you have no understanding. Democracy allows for that – and by extension allows for patience and tolerance and understanding. There’s that fantastic scene in the film between Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, outside the White House, where they speak to that idea. Living right next door to people who you don’t feel you know, but who you are willing to share space with and who have a right to live their lives in peace alongside yours. To live separately, but to participate in this shared dream that is the United States.
Q: What would Bilboe think of his role in that process? That less-than-ethical role?
JS: I think he cared desperately about the preservation of the Union, and Lincoln’s plan for it. Preservation of the Union came through this horrible war, but that war also served as a preemptive strike against future war. War for all time. A three-thousand-mile border between a divided nation? It was unthinkable. If you look through history, it would have been another war and another and another, on into infinity. And on top of that, they needed this Amendment in place, this Amendment that defines the character of this country. The passage of the 13th Amendment is what made all that terrible death worthwhile. And Bilboe was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that it happened. He was very much Lincoln’s loyal instrument in that regard.