“Lincoln Watch”: Interview with Actor Michael Kennedy (Hiram Price)

For this next interview, I had the chance to talk to an actor named Michael Kennedy, who appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as the character of Hiram Price, a Republican congressman who he found out, through research, actually had a personal connection to his great-grandfather. Kennedy has also appeared in films such as Patch Adams, True Colors, and Evan Almighty, and has acted professionally since 1953, while “acting up” since 1943, as he said in his email. I think you will find that this is a very entertaining interview, as he elaborated on a lot of behind-the-scenes information, and what it was like to work with such a famous director. You can read about that, and much more, in our interview below, which was conducted by phone this morning:

GC: How did you first get involved with the movie Lincoln?

MK: A local casting director had called me. They held the first round of casting six or seven months before shooting, and it was a general call for older, white guys. I went to that, and that’s all I heard for several months except for, “Would you grow a beard for this?”. I said certainly, and that I had done it for other films. They said to start now, and when I heard that, it meant they would be shooting fairly soon, so I said, “Oh good, when are we shooting?” and she said it was for November [2011]. I said, “My God, that’s six or seven months from now– it will be down to here!”, and she said, “Yes, that’s right.” The other thing is, this is how I make a living. A week after I start growing that beard, I’m useless to everybody for all that time. It was one of the casting people that looked at me and said, “Two words: Steven Spielberg.” I got it! I got it! That was that.

GC: So, what was your experience like? Was it worth growing the beard for all those months?

MK: Are you kidding? (laughs) Oh my God, yes! It was extraordinary. I was on a high after that for weeks, and even now, if I start talking about it, it sends me right into hyper space again.

GC: What was your favorite part of the experience?

MK: Working with Steven. Watching him work. I’ve done probably 200 films all together, so I’ve had the luck of working with guys like Francis Ford Coppola, Delbert Mann, Barry Levinson, John Waters, and these guys are all head-and-shoulders above the others. You work with them and you understand that there is a difference. And then there’s Spielberg, and he is so high above those guys. We use superlatives too much in this country, and they’ve grown to mean almost nothing, but when I say he’s a genius, it means something, in every facet of the business. He understands everything. It’s incredible. Much of his crew have been with him for years. I met one guy, it might have been the boom operator, who said that he had done 13 films with him. He told me, “He doesn’t even have to explain things anymore. He’s really easy to work with”, which I found out to be true. Give him your best, and he’s happy.

GC: Did you get a chance to work with Daniel Day-Lewis or Tommy Lee Jones at all?

MK: I was in the scene in congress, the debate over the thirteenth amendment, the same as David [Foster]. I was one of the Radical Republicans also, in the front row. We shot this at the capital in Richmond, and a lot of spectators came in, and sat quietly up in the balcony if they weren’t shooting up there. One day I was sitting and reading something and waiting for our shot to start, and the crew was working and all of a sudden the place just became silent. It was a pretty quiet set anyway, but there was just a palpable silence. I looked up to see what was going on, and looked to the balcony and said to myself, “Oh my God, there’s Abraham Lincoln.” He looked so much like Lincoln. He was just uncanny. Now, Tommy Lee Jones sat across the aisle from me during this whole thing. Because he was over there, I did not get a chance to talk to him, actually. He talked to the guys who were right there with him. But working with him was pretty amazing, and watching him work. There were a lot of extraordinary actors in that scene, some of whom I recognized but never knew their names—people you recognize in films, the same thing I am, day players, basically. You start to recognize these guys and say, “I know him. He was in this, and this, and this.”

GC: You played the character of Hiram Price. What can you tell us about him?

MK: I did a little back-story on him, which was a pretty amazing thing in itself. Hiram Price was a five-time congressman from Davenport, Iowa. Originally, he was from Kansas, and when Kansas was going to become a slave state, he moved to Iowa. He was instrumental in starting the Republican Party, which was the liberal party back then. I kept doing research and something about Davenport kept staying with me, and then it occurred to me, my great-grandfather, who owned a newspaper was from that same town, and they had known each other, which was kind of strange. My great-grandfather, in addition to running a newspaper was also a career army man who had mustered out before the war, because he didn’t think there was going to be a war. He was a writer and wanted a newspaper, and didn’t just want to wander through life in the army, so he went home to Iowa. When the debate over the thirteenth amendment started coming over the telegraph, he hopped on a train and went to Washington to report for his paper. He actually witnessed this piece of history. The last scene we shot was when the Speaker of the House says, “The measure has passed by two votes and now goes to the states for ratification.” At that point, the democrats file out of the room all upset, and my side of the house jumps up and starts screaming, yelling, and tapping each other on the back and congratulating each other. And every time we shot that scene, and we shot it 10 or 12 times, tears started running down my face. I kept thinking, “This is a joyous occasion. What’s with the tears?” and Spielberg had walked by me after the fourth or fifth time we shot it, to talk to the crew about something, and as he walked by, he stopped and looked at me and went, “What?” I said, “I don’t know”, and just then it hit me. I knew what it was, and I said, “I just figured it out. We’re in this room recreating one of the most important moments in American history,” and I pointed to the balcony, “And up there with the press sat my great-grandfather.” And Steven reached out and grabbed my arm and said, “I’ve heard your story probably ten times. There are so many people working on this scene who have a direct connection to the real thing.” During the shooting, several times, we would get to the end of a scene and you could feel the electricity in the air, and he wouldn’t say to cut, he just let it run to see what would happen. It was more than just making another movie for me. It was an extraordinary experience.

GC: If you could tell people one thing to expect from this movie, what would it be?

MK: An extraordinary evening. As David said, it’s not going to be a war movie. If you’re going there to see the booms, crashes, explosions, and cannons and all that, they’ll be in there, but that’s not what this film is. This is telling the story of what went on around it, and if Steven Spielberg is telling that story, it’s going to be an amazing couple of hours.

On Steven Spielberg:

I have seen the two-minute trailer that they ran after the debates. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and just from that, you can tell this is going to be Spielberg at his best. He had an interest in this area of history, and decided that he wanted to do a film on it before Team of Rivals came out, and when it did, he read it and contacted Doris Kearns Goodwin and said that he wanted the rights to the book so he could base the movie on it. After my audition, I immediately bought the book and was reading it, and when I got the part I was looking through it for Hiram Price and found that he is not in the book. I was upset. I actually asked Steven a couple of things: “Price is not in Goodwin’s book”, and he said, “Michael, does the term ‘based on’ mean anything to you?” (laughs). The other thing is when I asked him at one point when the film was coming out and he had said November. I said, “That’s a year. It’s not going to take you a year to edit this, is it?” He said, “No, it’s coming out after the election.” I asked him why, and of course, as soon as I said it I realized why, and he responded, “Michael, I’ve been accused of attempting to make political statements with some of my films.” I said, “Accused of attempting?” and he said, “November! After the election!” and turned around and walked away! (laughs). It tickled me. One more thing: I went and read your blog, and the interview with David to see what he said about Spielberg, and that he was a “really nice guy”, and I noticed that on several occasions. So many people, when they get to that point, if they get to that point in a career, become real jerks. Of course, he’s carrying the weight of a $50 million film on his shoulders, and was always an extraordinarily nice person. Even if he was in the middle of talking to someone, and some idiot walks up with an inane question, he would stop and engage that person in conversation, answer the question, then excuse himself and turn around and go back to what he was doing. He never put anybody off. He was truly amazing to watch. He even had the flu two days while we were filming there on the set. When they were shooting the other side of the house, and they put the camera where my desk was and I had to sit somewhere else, and I’d go up and sit with Steven and the crew behind the monitors, and I noticed he was eating a lot of soup. He would take three or four spoonfuls and it would sit there for an hour before he would finish it. And he was wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing. He just didn’t look good. I finally said something to one of the people back there and asked if he was okay, and they said, “Listen, obviously you see something. He has the flu. Just don’t say anything to anybody else because he doesn’t want everybody to know”. And as far as shooting the movie, he was right on the whole time. I would have been at home and in bed! (laughs)

I would like to thank Michael for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview! It truly was a great conversation about this movie and he gave us a lot of insight. For additional Lincoln coverage, please click the tab over on the side category bar, as well as check out my interview with David Foster, the stand-in for Daniel Day-Lewis!

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