A Suspected Spy: James Spader on Lincoln

The scene-stealing co-star of Steven Spielberg's latest reveals the secrets of his character, lobbyist W.N. Bilbo.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

When Disney began putting together the press days for Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's exceptional new historical drama about the 16th president's political campaign to abolish slavery, we knew that getting a one-on-one interview with the film's star, Daniel Day-Lewis, was a long-shot. Even the press conferences with Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg, and Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and screenwriter Tony Kushner were highly exclusive. What was curious, as Disney was pushing the film, was their emphasis on James Spader, who plays lobbyist W.N. Bilbo in the film. They kept asking if we wanted to interview Spader, and of course we did, but the character seemed like such an historical footnote. 

Then, of course, we saw the film and realized that Spader, the star of TV's "Boston Legal" and films like Stargate and Secretary, had somehow managed to steal the movie away from his Oscar-winning co-stars, thanks to a hilarious performance as one of the three lobbyists – along with Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) and Robert Latham (John Hawkes) – who wooed votes from the opposition to finally end slavery in the United States. Spader could very well be on his way to his first Oscar nomination for his standout performance, and in our interview answers many of the questions audiences are likely to have about his character, who was previously unknown to all but the most fervent of history buffs.

Lincoln is now in limited release, and expands across the country on November 16.

CraveOnline: A lot of people don’t know who this particular character is. How was he introduced to you?

James Spader: My first introduction was Tony Kushner’s screenplay, and then I visited the some of the same research materials that Tony had at his disposal as well, which was pretty much confined to a certain amount of references, not the actual correspondence, but references to correspondence with a certain amount of quotations and so on between Bilbo and Secretary Seward at that time, of the day. But I did not pursue that any further than that, because it became very clear very quickly, in just even reading the screenplay, that these characters, the three lobbyists in the film – Latham, Schell and Bilbo – were having to shoulder a certain composition of a larger group of people. There were probably six or seven, I’ve forgotten the exact amount of lobbyists that were working on behalf of the administration at the time. The production had to be frugal in terms of how many characters there were going to…

You would not have been able to follow that many characters at once.

You would not have been able to follow it. So they had to sort of contract that to these three guys, and these three guys were the leaders of the Seward lobby. They were the forefront of the Seward lobby. And I knew that also, Bilbo was responsible for a tonal device in terms of the film, and I thought that it was important, for this drama, to embrace that.

Inject some levity.

Yeah, and therefore I didn’t want to discover things that would subvert that. I thought that any color we could bring to it would serve us well. We were lucky in that there’s about 140-something speaking roles in the picture, a great many they had images of them, they had a great deal of research material about them in archival stuff. Bilbo, they didn’t have any pictures of him at all.

No kidding!

He was really one of the few principals that they did not have a photograph of. And I did not pursue that either! They had already done a great amount of research in terms of that, the makeup and hair department, the costume departments and so forth.

All that was handed to you, pretty much?

No, I did a certain amount of my own, but I was aware of what they had done before I had got involved. As soon as I signed on the project, makeup and hair and wardrobe showed up at my house, because they had to have as much advance time as they possibly could. So we had conversations right away in terms of that.

What were some of your ideas for that?

They were aware of the fact that he was a bit of a dandy dresser. He loved colorful waistcoats, and so on and so forth. He was a little larger than life in terms of that. I think there was even mention of sideburns and so on. And we were making presumptions as well. He was an interesting dichotomy, a colorful dichotomy, an interesting guy from the South, in Nashville, TN. He had done business with Jefferson Davis in the past. And we all were aware of the fact but there was no room for it, this was not the Bilbo movie, it’s the Lincoln movie, but he had actually been arrested, I think in New York, as a suspected spy, and actually had to prevail upon Seward and Lincoln to get him out. They advocated for him and so on. This was at the time that he was working for them. But we were ecstatic, and when I say “we” it was everybody – Tony and Steven and Daniel as well, and also the makeup and hair department and the wardrobe department, and myself leading the pack – we were all ecstatic that that lack of a photograph, that lack of an extensive amount of materials on him allowed us a certain amount of creative license that would serve the film well, to be able to bring that breath of levity to the film. And it was nice for me, it was the thing I loved about the actual shooting of the film, is it was sort of peppered throughout, and I was able to… You know, when I first read the script he happened to be around, hanging around at some of the most crucial points of the picture [laughs], so I figured at least those scenes would be left in.

One thing the movie doesn’t make entirely clear, was he just doing his job or was he an abolitionist? It seems like he’s getting the job done. He doesn’t talk too much about the principle.

He was principled, in terms of that, as far as I know. But that’s to a degree, and at that time, and since [laughs], to today, that’s a sense of degree. And I know the degree of that. I do know he was an absolute Unionist, and I think he felt very, very strongly about that. Listen, I don’t think in any way shape or form would he have gotten involved in this if he wasn’t principled. He was a wealthy man, he made a lot of money in land deals in Tennessee and coal country prior to this. None of them were well paid for their work. So I think principle was a driving force. I think there’s a contemporary quality to the idea that they were guns for hire, because of how it is today to a great degree. So I think that was allowed to have an implication, but also just a function of their job requires a certain mercenary aspect just because it’s a very dangerous thing for Lincoln and Seward to [employ them], which the movie certainly alludes to, and speaks of.

And very well, that murkiness of their actions.

Yeah, the association… Him [Lincoln] visiting them in their hotel room and having any dealings with them at all was an incredibly controversial aspect of that passage of that amendment, and really, it’s spoken to in that last scene with Thaddeus Stevens. I think that’s one of the things that gives [the film] its contemporary feel, is that notion that there are these mercenaries who come in and, as you notice, as soon as the job is done they just disappear. [Laughs] Without a handshake. Which is just as it should be, but I think that principle has to have been a driving force. I can’t speak for Latham or Schell, they were northerners, from the northeast, but for Bilbo, considering where he was from… and I know that, for instance, he was also very active and cared desperately about Reconstruction. Which, listen, may have also been self-serving. He had property and he had a lot of commerce in the South, but I think that principle must have been a driving force.

Sally Field said there wasn’t a lot of rehearsal on this film. Was it that run-and-gun?

Yes, it was. Which is fine by me. Every film you work on is different, and that’s part of what it’s like for anybody who works on a film, is to learn how to work with others. [Laughs] Learn from top to bottom. Actors have to learn how to work with the director and the director has to learn how to work with actors, and that’s not just those two departments. It’s every department, and everybody has to have great respect for… And actors have to learn how to work with the varying degrees and the different processes that different actors work in. To respect and to demand the respect that they need to do their work as well, and I forgot the question.

I was just asking if working on a production of this magnitude with so little rehearsal time was a lot of pressure, or…

No, I think there was such a consensual immersion in the piece by everybody involved that if you didn’t show up on the set ready to speak the words and walk the walk, then you had no business showing up, really. And I am grateful for that. I’m fine with that.