It's hard to imagine Steven Spielberg's Lincoln without Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning central performance — but Day-Lewis wouldn't have been there if Liam Neeson hadn't voluntarily dropped out of the project. Why would any actor voluntarily vacate such a slam-dunk role? In a new cover story at GQ, Liam Neeson describes the moment he realized he was the wrong actor to play Abraham Lincoln.
According to Neeson, Steven Spielberg first approached him to star in an early version of Lincoln 10 years ago. He spent four years researching to play Lincoln in what he describes as "a wonderful kind of old-fashioned biography of Lincoln," which began with his inauguration and ended with his death. But Tony Kushner's script rewrite narrowed Lincoln's focus to the final four months of the president's life, as he worked to push the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives.
The trouble began when Neeson sat down with Lincoln's cast and creative team for a table read. "We started reading this, and there was an intro, and then I see 'Lincoln' where I have to start speaking, and I just — a thunderbolt moment. I thought, 'I'm not supposed to be here. This is gone. I've passed my sell-by date. I don't want to play this Lincoln. I can't be him," says Neeson.
"I read very, very poorly by any standards, but then some people come up afterward and say, 'Oh, you're made to play Lincoln.' I just was cringing with embarrassment. Afterward, Steven came over, and I said, 'Steven, you have to recast this now.' And he said, 'What are you talking about?' And I said, 'I'm serious. You have to recast it.' So I went back home, and that night I called [Doris Kearns Goodwin], and I had a wee chat with her. And then I called Steven, and I said, 'Steven, this is not for me. I can't explain it. It's gone. It's not...' And he got it. He said, 'Okay.' And that was it."
Still dreaming of an Abraham Lincoln biopic starring Liam Neeson? You may get your wish someday. "I'd still like to do Lincoln's story," Neeson conceded. "I think [Lincoln] shows him, yes, but I think I'd still like to do an old-fashioned biography of Lincoln."