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