notes on the back page of a script

Years and years ago, I shot a movie called The Day Lincoln Was Shot. It was from the book of the same name, and I played Robert Todd Lincoln.

Here’s a photo of me from the set, in costume:

Wil Wheaton as Robert Todd Lincoln in The Day Lincoln Was Shot

The movie was a lot of fun to work on. I got to work extensively with Lance Henriksen, who played Lincoln, Donna Murphy, who played Mary Todd Lincoln, and Greg Itzin, who played William H. Crook.

As you can see from the picture, I spent much of the film in proper Union Officer dress. It was an authentic uniform that was authentically hot as hell in the Virginia summer heat, but I was one of the few soldier-dressed cast members who didn’t get a cold during production, because I asked our historians what soldiers did in the summers of the war to keep comfortable, and did the same.*

So — spoiler alert — Abraham Lincoln is shot in the back of the head shortly after my character, Robert, comes back to Washington from the war to visit his family. One of the more memorable scenes for me is from late in the movie, when Lincoln lay dying in Petersen’s House. Robert spends some quiet time with his father, who is unconscious and slipping away. I had to remind myself, as an actor, that I was not with President Abraham Lincoln (Lance looked so much like him, it was eerie), but a young man who was watching his father, who he loved more than anyone on Earth, die.

It was a very emotional day of production. I had to call up profound anguish and despair over and over again, only to let it go to varying degrees when the scene was finished. When we wrapped that day in 1997, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but it felt good. It was one of those rare moments where, as an actor, I was lucky enough to experience my version of leaving it all on the field.

While I was cleaning out the garage recently, I came across a page of the script upon which I’d written down some notes to keep myself focused. I scanned both sides of the page to share.

that penciled "mindy" was me showing someone on the set how this girl I liked in elementary school, Mindy P., wrote her name in 3rd grade. For a brief time, I signed my name "Willy" with the same crazy "Y". Because I wasn't already a big enough goober in 3rd grade, apparently.

And here’s the front of that page, which as it happens is the last page of the script:

The final page of the script from The Day Lincoln Was Shot

So you can see there are two main categories there: OBJECTS and PEOPLE. The Objects refer to this particular scene that we shot that day, when Robert goes through his father’s belongings. It needed to be intensely emotional, so each object — I think there were about a dozen — needed to be specific and meaningful to me in some way. (This is an example of how acting is a lot more than knowing your lines and hitting your mark). I don’t remember what each thing was, but I do recall a small pocket knife among all of them, that the director told me “was a father’s day gift you gave him when you were small.” I remember that when he said that during the take, it hit me right in the feels, and I collapsed into very real sobs, because I could just imagine what it would be like for me if I came across something I gave my father — that he carried with him — when he died. My dad was and is very much alive, but just thinking about that was too much for me to bear. I remember walking off the set when we printed that take, into a hallway, alone, where I just sat down and cried for a good long time. Sometimes the scene stays with you after you’re done. Sometimes, the scene follows you home.

The PEOPLE category is more general, and helped me make choices when I interacted with different characters in the White House. Some of them, Robert liked, and others he didn’t (the historical record is pretty vague on those matters) so I had to come up with specific reasons to define those relationships.

The final two bits are things I write in every script I ever have the privilege of performing: Keep it SIMPLE and The END is the BEGINNING. These are two things so vital to keeping performances honest and believable, you’d be surprised to learn how easy it is to forget them.

*Sit in the shade, and drink lukewarm liquids — usually tea — and let the linen underclothes wick away your sweat. It sounds gross, but it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as a Star Trek uniform on a hot summer day. Never take off your uniform, and never get out of the car, Groove.

28 thoughts on “notes on the back page of a script”

  1. When my dad died in 2009, we all gathered and went through his desk and cabinets looking for his will and other papers that we never found. Things we did find included every single picture or letter or card his 5 kids had ever given him, carefully put away in a drawer. It was really emotional. I have a box full of things that even now I can’t hardly bear to open because of the flood of memories. Your post brought back some of those memories, imagining a son getting to say goodbye to his father that way and seeing the things his father carried with him. They become such a part of your father, you almost don’t recognize the things without the person.

    Sorry this is a bit rambly…you just made me think and I wanted to let you know I liked where the thoughts took me.

  2. “Sit in the shade, and drink lukewarm liquids — usually tea — and let the linen underclothes wick away your sweat. It sounds gross, but it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as a Star Trek uniform on a hot summer day.”

    It is not nearly as uncomfortable or gross as one may think.
    I can’t say that I was ever a big watcher of Star Trek (sorry) but I can say that I am a huge fan of linen cloth. Even wearing clothing fashioned to periods much earlier than Lincoln’s days, linen cloth (100%) is probably one of the most comfortable things one could wear.

    I feel like I should say something about the actual post, but I would rather not, considering I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say. I will say, however, that you are a great actor. Though I have only come to see your work recently (not counting Stand By Me) I have been very happy and comfortable with everything I have seen.

    Random person out!

  3. The second year anniversary of my step-fathers death is in about a week and this just really hit home with me. We found so many keep sakes he had hidden away over the years when going through his things and it brought back such memories at the time and still to this day.

    The last birthday card I drew and made for him is still hanging on the wall in his room where he hung it up…I can’t bring myself to take it down….

    This was a really emotional story for me…thanks for sharing…I think it helped to let some of my feelings out that have been building up.

  4. I was intrigued by your notes when you posted the pic on Facebook on November 25. Thank you for adding the context behind them.

    It is incredible how inanimate objects have the power to strike deep into our psyche, isn’t it?

    When I was still working as a news photographer, I sometimes had to cover incidents where someone had died. One image that still haunts me was in the aftermath of a small aircraft crash near Wichita Falls, Tx.

    The pilot’s headset was left at the scene among the medical debris dropped by the EMTs attempting to save the pilot’s life. My father is a pilot as well and, standing near the spot where a man violently died the day before while contrasting it with the silence of the afternoon…

    Needless to say, the moment was overwhelming.

    Thank you for the glimpse into your profession.
    Keep writing and we’ll definitely keep reading.

  5. I have so many things from my grandmother’s home, and using them is bittersweet. Sometimes I’m doing something like mashing potatoes and just look at her potato masher; I feel a silly but powerful connection to her. It’s just mashing potatoes, but it’s with the masher she used to bring up her family. Now I use it for my family, and I probably always will. I wonder about the future it has for me, and the past it had for her.
    It’s wonderful to be surrounded by things that remind me of her, and now that the grief isn’t painful, I have a reminder every day of what she meant to me.

    1. When my wife’s Grandmother passed away, she had little left to give the family, but she did have a 2 foot tall ceramic elephant that I had always loved on the visits to her house. She made sure that the executor of her estate knew this, and made sure the elephant was passed onto me. It now sits in a porminant part of my living room, and provides me with a constant reminder of a great women who was loved by all my family.

      1. One of my treasured possessions is a photo I had given to my Grandparents (my Dad’s parents) on the last Christmas I spent with them. It’s not much, just a photo of my Dad and me both in uniform, but my Grandmother loved it. After she died (Grandpa passed many years before), I saw it on top of her TV and got to take it home with me. It’s sitting on my desk at work, where I look at it daily. It reminds me both of my Dad and them.

  6. I need to find this film because I’m a huge fan of Lance Henriksen who is probably one of the most underrated actors out there because he’s so prolific in B movies. Have you read his (auto)biography, Not Bad For A Human? It’s a fasincating read and well written.
    Also, you look rather dapper in that uniform.

  7. That was wonderful to read! When Pop died I had been looking for a lapiz beetle he carried in his pocket. We didn’t find it and I was heartbroken. Your Dad and the other three of us got together to go through “things” and your Dad had a duffle bag with Pop’s belongings in it that I did not know he had. Unbelievably, the beetle was in that bag and when I found it I fell apart – I know how much it meant to my Dad and, to this day, I carry it with me always! So proud of you!!!!! No wonder I am just about your biggest fan!!!!

  8. Interesting historical footnote on Robert Todd Lincoln: he was an eyewitness to Garfield’s assassination in Washington in 1881 and was present (through did not witness), McKinley’s assassination in Buffalo.

    He supposedly refused a presidential invitation later noting “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present”

  9. For months after he passed, I wore the watch I had given my father. After a year, I don’t wear it anymore, but I always have it with me. There is just something about holding something tangible to remember the intangible.

    Thanks for sharing your process. I couldn’t imagine having to feel those feels take after take.

  10. This is unrelated but I don’t know how to just send an e-mail to Wil Wheaton: I was looking to see which of the books you’ve written were available for the Kindle and found [when searching your name] the book “Wil Wheaton: Teenage Hump Machine” by Kitty Glitter. Apparently she also wrote “The Color Purple 2″ and some sci-fi book about Ashton Kutcher. Even if the book sucks, the title and the fact that Sparks McGee is on the cover is pretty awesome.

  11. Thanks for sharing. You did look a lot like Robert Lincoln in costume, but after looking at LH as Lincoln, he did look great in the role – haggard and tired, just as Lincoln appeared at the end of the war.

    Historically, Hollywood’s most common mistake in depicting Lincoln has been making him look too clean and pretty – but as period photos can prove, he looked horrible at the end of his presidency due to daily stress.

  12. I know this has been around a little while now, but last night I took in the Storyboard roundtable you did with Rothfuss, Scalzi and Jenny Lawson and had fun doing so… although from the look/sound of things, not as much fun as you guys had doing it.

  13. but I do recall a small pocket knife among all of them

    My brother was working in the art department on a film, set and shot here in Texas. The lead actor turned to my brother and said: “My character would have a pocket knife. I don’t have one. I need one.” He went to his boss who sent him out to get one. He sped away in his ar, bought a small Buck at a local store, sped back. The actor thanked him profusely, put the knife in his pocket and went to start his scenes. It never appeared on screen.

    (BTW, both of my brothers worked on a TV movie you did in 1991 in Texas, one in art, one in camera, it starred Sonia Braga…..)

  14. The only movie I’ve seen in the theaters this year was “Lincoln”. You might like it. I think the Robert Lincoln part was played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

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