Q&A: James Spader Repeats History in 'Lincoln'

Director Stephen Spielberg's film "Lincoln" is entirely comprised of remarkable performances -- yet James Spader somehow steals every scene he's in. Spader recently took an extended turn on NBC's "The Office," and his comedic talents are back on display as larger-than-life W.N. Bilbo, a wily and vivacious lobbyist attempting to sell members of congress on the president's amendment to abolish slavery.

How did you prepare for the role?

For me, when working on a film or play or television show, everything for me starts with the screenplay and I am devoted to that and that is what I work from. Any research I do or any preparation I do on my own is all ultimately in service of that, There was a certain amount of historical research available for this film, but everything I did anyway was redundant to what [screenwriter] Tony Kushner had done prior to writing the screenplay. I just read and read and read and read and think and think and think and that's how I prepare. If there's physical things that need to be done during the course of a film, if there's a certain kind of physical activity that I need to show a certain amount of skill at, or not, I still try to familiarize myself with that as much as I possibly can and then show up on set and put it all behind me and just try to have as much fun and spontaneity as I can.

How historically accurate is Mr. Bilbo?

The three lobbyists depicted in the film are a composite. The events that the lobbyists are involved in, that are depicted in the film, are a composite of events that a larger group of lobbyists were responsible for, and the historical lobby was referred to as the Seward lobby -- it was larger, six or seven people, but it was distilled down to three for the purposes of this film. There were certain aspects of what Bilbo did that weren't necessarily accurate. But the character of the man was, I'd say, 50/50. There wasn't a great deal of information about him -- some correspondence between him and other lobbyists, small amounts of description -- but not an enormous amount of historical research available. Production had no image for him, he was one of the few cast members that they didn't have a picture of.

How do you all collectively create a character with so little source material?

Tony Kushner also utilized these characters to serve the drama of this film in a very specific tonal way, in that they created a certain amount of kinetic energy. This character provides a certain amount of irreverence and comic relief to the film and therefore I was also looking for materials that would support that. I didn't find any that didn't support it -- and I found a modicum of this and that that did support it -- and we made the choice to embrace that wholly and go forward at full speed.

You filmed "Lincoln" just before a major presidential election; did you feel any parallels to our current political situation?

I was just thinking of this last night. We took the film to the White House [last Thursday], and the president saw it and was extremely effusive and moved by the film. The film is very, very powerful -- he responded to that. After seeing his response and hearing him speak afterwards -- being very interested in the course of the election and a supporter of our president through the election and now more than ever -- I think the parallels are obvious. And when I speak of this, I just mean politically, I don't mean on a national level in terms of the public. The country is as divisive today and even more so than it was in Lincoln's time. Lincoln had an enormous job ahead of him, to ... steer the country and keep the country on the course that he'd set for it and win the support of congress for that course.

The movie also highlights some substantial differences.

In some ways, the country politically is even more divided today than then; at that time, the Republican party had conservative factions and liberal factions and the Democratic party had conservative and liberal factions. The parties themselves were split in certain ways and and there was a great deal of discourse and a great deal of argument and also the need for compromise. Today, there are conservative and liberal factions but parties themselves are so divided, which leads to argument and discourse but of a different nature.

How are you feeling about the political world, post-election?

There seems to be a lack of communication within congress and for any president having to deal with that kind of divide within congress is almost overwhelmingly insurmountable. I'm glad to see the outcome of the election, and glad to see that, even a few days afterwards, there's been a gesture ... on both sides to effect the important change that needs to take place in this country through discourse and compromise. Those similarities, I will say, I have been thinking about how those related to the story that we're telling.

"Lincoln" opened in wide release on November 16, 2012.