James Spader Crafts a Quirky Take on “Lincoln” Lobbyist

"The Office" star returns to the big screen in the role of political operative W.N. Bilbo.

Despite being more recently known for his roles in “Boston Legal” and “The Office,” James Spader has had a vibrant film career ranging from “Less Than Zero” to “Sex, Lies and Videotape” to “Secretary.” Now, in director Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln," Spader tallies another memorable screen credit playing the prototypical political operative W.N. Bilbo, who resorts to all manner of creative incentivizing and arm twisting to aid Abe Lincoln’s bid to formally abolish slavery before ending the Civil War.

Spader, who like his role is himself a bit of a colorful character with a knock for verbal barnstorming, reveals what his experience was like recreating the most controversial period of 19th Century America.

Given the material, the director, your co‑stars, was it a treat to go to work each day on this film?

It really was lovely. I had an absolutely fantastic time in Richmond, Virginia. I was there with some of my family, and I was very lucky in that, although I'm a relatively small part in the film, my character was sort of peppered throughout the entire schedule. So I was able to drink it in, in its entirety. I think I showed up about ten days into the shoot, and I shot on the last day. So I just had absolutely a delightful time.

How did you avoid overplaying a character such as this, and find the right tone to give it the spirit that you know that character can bring to the proceedings?

At one point after we'd shot a couple of scenes – a handful of my scenes were sort of in a vacuum in that I was shooting with one other person. In some cases, they were a very small cameo and they’d be isolated little scenes – I saw an opportunity with this character to be able to take advantage of his vibrant colors. And I remember pulling Steven aside in, I think, maybe the third scene I did and said, ‘I just want to make sure that as I'm eating a small amount of the scenery.’ I wanted to make absolutely sure that I was making the same film that everybody else was making, and that the tone that my part of the film was going to balance well with the tone of the rest of the film. And he just told me to have at it. He just said ‘Absolutely.’

And he was so confident, that he's such a wonderful director to work with, I just completely trusted him to put on the brakes, or help me to put on the brakes when necessary which he never did [Laughs]. There definitely were a couple of times where in my enthusiasm, my accent might get a little bit stronger than other places, and he would make me aware of it, but he really was so supportive of all the colors. In conjunction with the makeup and hair department and the costume department and myself and [screenwriter] Tony Kushner and everybody, we were given a certain amount of free rein with Bilbo. There was not as quite as much research material available on this character as there were with some of the other characters in the film. They didn't have any images of him, so it gave us a poetic license that we took full advantage of.

Working with Spielberg has got to be at the top of many actors’ bucket lists. What was intriguing or enlightening for you about watching him work?

I was so thrilled by the moment I walked on the set – and I have known Steven, socially on and off through the years, but I never have worked with him before. And I just was so struck, from the very first moment I saw him working on the set, I saw that 16-year-old boy with the Super-8 camera. He has that incredible enthusiasm and thrill and curiosity and imagination that must have been there in the 16-year-old is unflagging in the whatever age he is now. I mean, it is not diminished one iota.

And that's not only thrilling, it's infectious and contagious. I was really inspired by that – and also, he's tireless! He would be shooting, if he had even a moment of break between scenes or between even setups, where others might go and eat or chat or smoke or nap or whatever, Stephen would be back in his trailer cutting previously-shot footage or working on pages with Tony Kushner for up-coming scenes.

Every director I've ever worked with has had to devote every moment to the film that they're working on, but considering the time in his life that he's devoted to the making of films, and the enormous body of work that he has had, and the enormous success that he's had, I was fascinated to see it's completely unjaded, completely lacking in cynicism. He's thrilled to be there every single, solitary day.

Some of your colleagues have described the scenes they shared with Daniel Day-Lewis as feeling as if they had actually in some way met Abraham Lincoln himself. Did you experience anything similar?

I find that every actor – every good actor that I have ever worked with – is immersing themselves to different degrees. And in the moment that the camera is rolling, they're making an attempt to immerse themselves to the greatest degree. And some are more successful at that than others. And some are able to pick it up and put it down, and some aren't. I do not suffer from any form of schizophrenia. I have many other mental incapacities and many other issues and idiosyncrasies, but I am not schizophrenic in any way shape or form.

And therefore, I absolutely, do not believe that I was at any point talking to Abraham Lincoln. But in every scene I had with Daniel, I felt that we were all – and not just Daniel, everybody in the film – being the truest that they could be to that time and place, and those people set within those circumstances. But it may just be in the prism through which I see the world, including my work life, I'm still aware of the fact that I'm making a film.


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