'Lincoln's' Seward: A conversation with David Strathairn about portraying Auburn's favorite son
This November, William H. Seward will come to life.
The renowned Auburn resident and secretary of state to Abraham Lincoln plays a key role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which depicts the 16th president’s final years and, in particular, his struggle to drive the Emancipation Proclamation through Congress. The film, which releases in select theaters Nov. 9 and nationally Nov. 16, takes heavy inspiration from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.
Portraying Seward is David Strathairn, a 2005 Academy Award nominee for his role as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and current star of the show “Alphas” on Syfy.
I recently spoke with Strathairn over the phone about his role in “Lincoln.” We discuss why he took the role of Seward, how he researched and modeled his portrayal, and acting alongside Day-Lewis.
Q. What did you know about William Seward before you were cast in “Lincoln”?
A. I knew who he was, I knew that there was “Seward’s Folly,” that he was from New York, that he had been one of the considered people for the presidency when Lincoln was nominated, but I didn’t have as much in-depth knowledge as I did when I finished the project. I learned so much more about him than I knew before.
Q. What made you interested in the project?
A. There’s so many things that go into that. I guess you start with it being Steven Spielberg. In the world of filmmaking, he’s up there on the pantheon of the most influential and successful directors, so there’s that chance to work with him. And of no lesser excitement, and maybe even more, was to work with Daniel Day-Lewis, whom most actors hold in such high esteem because of his process and body of work. That and Tony Kushner’s script, which was one of the most comprehensive and intelligent, as well as insightful and brave, particular explorations into a man, being Lincoln. That script was just extraordinary. To be involved in a project that has that triumvirate of talent and intelligence and accomplishment as those three gentlemen — to give it a second thought would have been ridiculous.
Q. Once you were cast, what research did you do about Seward?
A. My visit to the Seward House, that and a book about him — “William Henry Seward” by Glyndon G. VanDeusen — and the “Team of Rivals” book all were a wealth of information. My visit to the Seward House Museum was above all the best introduction and enlightenment about the man that I could have had. The people were so generous to let me walk around, as a part of a tour and not part of a tour. I was very appreciative of that.
I asked if it was possible to have one of his cigars, as I was researching what kind of cigar he used. I remembered the shape and type and went to all these cigar shops trying to find a reasonable facsimile and couldn’t find one that shape or size. I came up with something sort of in the ballpark. So I asked the staff if it was possible to have one to use as a prop — but there’s too few and they’re too valuable a kind of thing to honor our odd little request. I wanted to give one to Steven Spielberg as a gift of appreciation. He loves his cigars, and how great would it’d have been to have a cigar from 1865?
Q. What was your impression of Seward after reading “Team of Rivals”?
A. In “Team of Rivals” he came across to me as a very colorful character. To say he was a socialite isn’t doing him justice. I can see why Lincoln may have chosen this man who was an expert politician. He came from a cut of society that was way different than Lincoln’s strata. He was a very frank man. I think he spoke his mind, and he was a very principled guy. Not only an expert politician, but a thinker and a man whose breadth of awareness at that time in history was international. He had an international scope: he looked beyond the horizons of the United States and you can see how he dealt with France and England during the war, the expansion into Alaska — he was a far-thinker. And he was a very bon vivant guy. I love the fact that he had a friendship with people in the theater, he loved to go to the theater. He was a very cultured guy.
All of those traits I can see being completely different than Lincoln’s, but I see why he chose Seward as someone who can help him make his way in Washington society. Underneath all that stuff, I intimated that the relationship between the two men — which people often talked about but didn’t get too deeply into — that there was a real bond between the two guys, a mutual respect. Even though Seward may have carried a chip on his shoulder, after losing the presidency to “this log-splitter,” he came to love and respect him as a leader, and indeed, he called him so much finer than himself. He put Lincoln on a pedestal above and beyond anyone else. Seward is a deeply thoughtful and compassionate and rational man, and not hobbled by his own ego. Indeed, he saw what was best, even though he became Lincoln’s — at times — one of his most formidable opponents about things. He still held Lincoln in such high respect and admiration. I think for somebody to recognize that in someone so different than himself means he was really a good man.
Also, the fact that his wife had a relationship with the Underground Railroad down in their basement, and that he had made it affordable to Harriet Tubman to have a house just down the street from them. Even though he played the political game, he was doing in his soul what he thought was the right thing. And his wife being an educator, and the way station in the mansion — I found that quite moving.
Also, we didn’t have the entire “Team of Rivals.” The script, large as it was, didn’t allow Lincoln to go up against all of them. Seward became, not in a disparaging way, he became an amalgamation of the opposition to Lincoln. We got the relationship and respect of each other as well as the hard edge of ideological contention and issues that Seward may have wanted pushed forward faster, or issues he may have said “put to the side.” The adversarial nature of their political relationship became quite clearly framed up in the film. The personal side of their relationship, for whatever purpose, may not have been that important to the story, so it became more Seward-as-amalgamtion of the rivals, but that’s just putting it quite lightly. I haven’t seen all the film put together. I feel Steven and Tony made the right choices to push the story further vis-a-vis their relationship. You don’t see Lincoln coming over to his house and playing whist (a popular card game at the time). Most of the engagement takes place on the job. I hope the depiction and representation is respectful.
Q. Can you think of any thing that came from one of those other rivals that Seward does or says in “Lincoln”?
A. No, if there was anything, it was cleverly couched in.
Q. So it’s more representational?
A. Yeah, more representational.
Q. There are obviously some differences between playing Edward R. Murrow and William Seward, namely that you can’t actually watch Seward as research. Did that make this role more or less difficult?
A. It was a little more difficult. Doing Murrow is pretty difficult because everyone has seen the man, so everyone can refer to him. With Seward, the challenge, as it is with most historical characters who aren’t in the public eye, aren’t documented except in word — the real challenge is not to imitate or replicate the man in detail. And this is a lot of what Tony’s script and Steven’s direction did, is to represent him as close to what he was vis-a-vis Lincoln’s needs and goals and the process of getting the (13th) Amendment passed. The most important thing to me is to represent as honestly as possible the role Seward played in that process for that six to eight months. The work of the wardrobe people, the hair and makeup people, is just exquisite. The casting throughout — you look at the pictures and daguerreotypes of all the people and then the people who’ve been cast, and it’s uncanny how close the physiognomy of each person is. I don’t think that was by accident — the casting person probably went out to find the best actor available who looks most like the figure. I was really taken aback when I saw the faces. That, by design, was one of most extraordinary things about the project. The quality of production values is just beautiful. The texture and feeling of it is Spielberg — he doesn’t slight that in any way. I think going to be quite a delicious thing.
Q. Based on your experience in the Murrow role, and now with Seward as well, is there ever a point when you’re researching someone and you feel like you’re actually ready to inhabit that person?
A. You’re never going to get there all the way. You’re always trying to peel the onion, to get deeper and deeper and guess what the intimations and inflections are, and what the man would actually be thinking in terms of this issue or that one. It’s one of the most intangible, ethereal things to try to do. So you rely on your director and your writer to tell you. It becomes a collaboration of trying to put together a personage from fragments, from words, from pictures, from one’s own inferences as to who this person was. It’s a constant process of trying to coalesce something to make it come alive. I never felt, “I’ve got it, we’ll move on — this is who he was.” It will forever be elusive.
Q. What sources of information about Seward do you think guided your performance the most?
A. There were a lot of things people wrote and knew about him, so you need to respect those who know about the man. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ll smoke a pipe instead of a cigar, I’ll be left-handed instead of right-handed.” Those are not available to you when you want to honor the research historically, as well. The choice of clothing, choice of cigar, mannerisms and physicality can only be inferred from photography. Those things you try to invest with some kind of life. I don’t think one could afford to be arbitrary out of respect for the character, his legacy and history. It is a challenge — sometimes you don’t have any of that info, so it becomes a process of imagining — with a character totally fictional written from the mind of the writer, you can almost make them be whatever you want, according to the script. With Seward, Lincoln, Truman Capote — anyone who’s documented, you can’t afford an arbitrary choice.
Q. What were some of the specific physical details about Seward you were most concerned with getting right? His accent, the way he walked?
A. The accents weren’t a concern throughout most of the cast, except Jefferson Davis and people who came from particular places. It was more so about finding the pace and the elocution of words as opposed to the sound of them, because that would be a potential banana peel if we go too far on a limb and throw out a distraction. It was close to my own voice, but back then, they obviously spoke differently. Vowels were formed differently and they were great public speakers. They were orators and great statesmen. Their use of language was a lot different than today. I think you could make a case that back then they used more words, there was more breadth of vocabulary, and they had the ability to speak at length, intelligently, and about complicated matters. For instance, if you look at Lincoln’s speeches and the length of some of his sentences, the way he keeps the main idea going. So that was a concern, and that’s what Tony Kushner really accomplished so beautifully, was the language. When they see the movie, people’s ears will perk up to the syntax and way these men presented their ideas. That becomes the technical exercise. As far as Seward’s physicality, I took that from pictures of his postures, and the information in the books that this man was at ease in high society. Clothing would predicate a way of holding oneself, from the shoes all the way up to waistcoats and jackets, the high, starched collars, and the way they wore ties. All were an indication of how these people stood. Clothing is very, very important that way, and the costume designer was brilliant.
Q. When you’re acting next to someone with the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis, and on top of that he’s playing Abraham Lincoln, did you ever find yourself swept up in the moment?
A. Every day. The depth to which he inhabits the character, the minute details he pays attention to … we were doing camera tests on the set taking place in the president’s office, and there was a long hallway on the White House set. Daniel was on his way down a set of stairs down to that floor, and I was standing in the hallway as he came up stairs, and you saw the stovepipe hat. And he was back-lit, his silhouette had that perfect walk, and he was fully clothed in the president’s clothes. It was the first time a lot of people in production had seen him in full regalia, and people were holding their breath because he has the height, his face has that structure. What the makeup people had done was just extraordinary. It was ghostly — it took you aback. Every day from then on, his investment and focus and how he conducted it throughout the day, each day, you realize you’re in the presence of not only an extraordinary performance, but something other — the transformation had been made to one of those magical things that only the greatest actors can do. So yeah, there were quite a few moments.
Q. What time frame does “Lincoln” cover, exactly?
A. You get to see Lincoln from 1864, a couple weeks before the passage of the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery), to his death. People expecting to see a biography won’t get that. Between that arc, you see a very complex stew of political machinations going on. Obviously the Civil War is a backdrop. They don’t indulge in the Civil War aspects, the blood and horror of the war. It’s about this man’s plowing through the heavy seas of trying to get the amendment passed, and all that it meant to him deeply and psychologically, as well as publicly and politically. It’s like “Good Night, and Good Luck” in that it takes a man and puts him in the signature moment of his career. It’s a wonderful 360 of those six to eight months.
Q. Do you think “Lincoln” has any lessons with respect to the politics of today?
A. It’s going to be an amazing insight into the way these things were done on the House floor and Senate. The issues at hand were so partisan, obviously, even 150 years later, but the nuts and bolts of getting things done in Congress — people will recognize the terrain. So it does have a very sincere and honest depiction of how Washington was in 1865, and you can see remnants of that today. It’s a wonderful insight that way. The passage of the 13th Amendment and all the backroom details and contentious engagement and passions involved — that also has a lot of resonance to issues being battled today. It’ll seem like we haven’t come very far, because it all boils down to the opinions and beliefs of people. And to see how Lincoln navigated and negotiated that — so volatile and contentious a thing like slavery — to see how he negotiated that is wonderful. Not only does it show what an extr
aordinary and intelligent politician he was, but also how deeply compassionate and committed he was to the issue of equality. It’s a very, very significant piece of historical film-making, I think. Or it will be. When they see Daniel’s performance, people will be taken aback by the depth to which he and the script explore this man’s inner thoughts.
Q. Any final thoughts on your performance as Seward?
A. I came away from the experience feeling that I hope I represented the role of this man, as I said before, in his duties as secretary, also as a close adviser and someone to test your meddle against — as a representative of the rivals that Lincoln aptly chose to guide him.