Movie Talk

‘Lincoln’: The actor who almost played Honest Abe in Spielberg’s bio-pic

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Photo: Dreamworks

Audiences got a sneak-peak last night of Steven Spielberg's long-gestating project, "Lincoln," during a secret screening at the New York Film Fest.  The movie centers on the last few months of the president's life when he managed to get the 13th amendment passed, which outlawed slavery, during the waning days of the Civil War.

Scripted by "Munich" screenwriter Tony Kushner, the movie is much more of a dialogue-heavy chamber drama than the sweeping epic you might expect from the trailer, focusing on the moral complexities of the legislative process. By all accounts, star Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a masterful, mesmerizing performance.  And while Day-Lewis is now no doubt a front-runner for the best-actor Oscar, he wasn't Spielberg's first choice to play America's 16th president.

That honor goes to Liam Neeson.

[Related:'Lincoln' Live Q&A on October 10 with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis]

Spielberg acquired the rights to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" back in 2001, before the acclaimed tome was even published. In 2005, it was announced that Neeson, who had worked previously with Spielberg in "Schindler's List," was to play the lead. Then the project fell into what Hollywood calls "development hell."

Initially, Spielberg had trouble getting the movie off the ground because studio heads felt it was too close to the director's 1997 box-office disappointment "Amistad."  The enormity and complexity of the project forced Kushner to go through countless drafts. But the biggest culprit is most likely Spielberg's insane schedule. Like many A-list directors, he attaches himself to a number of films simultaneously. Between the time that he got the rights to Goodwin's book and now, Spielberg has directed eight movies and produced around two dozen. And, oh yeah, he also runs Dreamworks.

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Liam Neeson

Photo: Anita Bugge/WireImage

Whatever the reason, Neeson apparently decided that he no longer wanted to be a part of the project. In 2010, he told a British morning news show, "I'm not actually playing Lincoln now. I was attached to it for a while, but it's now -- I'm past my sell-by date."

Lincoln was 56 years old when he was shot. Neeson is now 60. So while the "Taken" star is technically correct, it is certainly not uncommon  for an actor to play young. In the end, Neeson's heart probably wasn't in the project. Given his choice of movies in recent years -- "Taken 2," "The A-Team," "Battleship" -- he clearly is less interested in chasing Oscars than in kicking butt and taking names. Neeson has made as many movies in 2012 as Day-Lewis has in the past decade.

[Related: New 'Lincoln' TV spot shows the President's passion]

Still, it would have been interesting to see Neeson as Lincoln. His broad forehead and prominent nose certainly resembles Honest Abe's.  And while he is almost exactly the same height as Lincoln -- 6-foot-4 -- Neeson might have been too robust and muscular an actor to play a commander-in-chief who was described at the time as being as "thin as a beanpole." Though Neeson's sonorous baritone does sound presidential, historians speculate that Lincoln's voice was in fact high-pitched. In other words, Neeson's Lincoln might have been a reassuring movie version of the Civil War-era president, but it probably wouldn't have been especially accurate.

Spielberg was adamant, however, that his movie be as historically precise as possible. "We would have been a little bit criticized had we done Lincoln the way Disney does him at Epcot Center," said the director during the post screening Q&A.

As you can see from the trailer, Day-Lewis embodies Spielberg's vision of the movie. Not only did he get the president's reedy voice and he looks freakishly like Lincoln, but he also brings his trademark commitment to the part. On a recent podcast, co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt recalled how Day-Lewis never broke character during the length of the film's shoot.

"I only got to know Daniel a little bit the night we finished shooting. Prior to that, I had never interacted with Daniel or heard his voice. I had only interacted with the President. I had gotten text messages from Daniel, and a couple really nice letters, but personally I had never met him until that last night. It was the first time I had ever saw him in just jeans and a T-shirt, drinking a Guinness, having a good time, speaking in a British accent."

Though reviews coming out of the screening have been largely positive, Day-Lewis's performance has been just about universally praised. None other than Whoopi Goldberg turned to Twitter to gush: "Daniel Day Lewis … will make u forget any other actor you've ever seen do Lincoln."

The movie comes out on November 9, but you don't have to wait that long to learn about the film. Spielberg and Day-Lewis will appear right here on Yahoo! Movies in a live streaming Q&A this Wednesday, October 10, at 6:30 p.m. PT/ 9:30pm ET.

Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)

See the trailer for 'Lincoln':

'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer

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