(NEW YORK) — Legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrays the U.S. president in the movie Lincoln, says he initially did not want to go near the American legend.
“This seemed like such an important thing,” he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer of playing Abraham Lincoln in the film that will hit theaters Nov. 16. “The last thing I wanted to do was to desiccate the memory of the most dearly loved president of this country.”
But he now says he feels “nourished” by the experience and hopes the character stays with him forever.
In their only joint television interview, Day-Lewis and acclaimed director Steven Spielberg recalled their childhood impressions of Lincoln.
“I think it might have been from the cards that you got with bubble gum,” Day-Lewis said. “That was a huge currency at the school where I was and there was a big series on the Civil War. … We were constantly swapping cards back and forth to try to get the completed set.”
For his part, Spielberg remembers going to the Lincoln Memorial at age 5 or 6.
“All I saw was a giant. I never forgot that experience. … I felt he was looking directly at me,” he said.
Spielberg saw Lincoln come alive in Day-Lewis, secretly snapping a picture of the award-winning actor — cameras weren’t allowed on the set — and sending it to screenwriter Tony Kushner.
“It was the first time that Daniel was in a wonderful light,” Spielberg said. “Nobody had cameras on the set — I could have gotten in trouble, busted myself.”
Spielberg told ABC News that even though he considered work on Lincoln “intimidating,” he felt the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin had revealed a side of the president he’d always hoped was there.
“I think it was his sense of humor,” Spielberg said. “And his sense of political theater. If no one else laughed at his stories, he would be the first one to guffaw at the story he’d be telling.”
“He was awkward to look at. His voice didn’t fit his stature, and he would just disarm a room with just a crazy story that had no relevance to the issue of why they were in the room to begin with,” he said. “There were so many odd, strange things about Abraham Lincoln that I think nobody knew how to pigeonhole him.”
The movie also stars Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife, and source of strength, Mary Todd.
“With Sally’s interpretation, you have a sense of the strength of that woman,” Day-Lewis said.
“She was always standing on the precipice of herself,” Spielberg said. “Never knowing which way she was going to fall, whether she would go right into the abyss.”
The movie, which centers on Lincoln’s life and struggle in trying to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, was at first going to chronicle his life, but Spielberg reconsidered.
“We didn’t have the real estate to really give an accurate Lincoln portrait,” he told ABC News. “It would have been like a greatest-hits album. You know, all those moments you read about in class — two minutes for that, five minutes for the Gettysburg Address, let’s do a little montage of the debates.”
“I realized we had to take a position, our position, and get on with it. … I will certainly carry this with me.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio