Penelope Ann Miller discusses her role as Mary Todd Lincoln in Saving Lincoln, in theaters this weekend
After the Best Picture nominee Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter last year, I would have never imagined another movie about Honest Abe would be coming so soon. Just days after celebrating our 16th President's birthday, Saving Lincoln arrives in theaters Friday, February 15. While all three share the same historic figure at the heart of each movie, they are all incredibly different. Saving Lincoln is based on the true story of Ward Hill Lamon (Lea Coco), the longtime bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln (Tom Amandes) who thwarted several assassination attempts throughout the Civil War. Penelope Ann Miller also stars as the POTUS' wife Mary Todd Lincoln in director Salvador Litvak's drama, which utilizes the unorthodox technique of using historic still photographs as the backdrops for each shot.
I recently had the chance to speak with Penelope Ann Miller over the phone about her role in this historical drama. Here's what she had to say.
I know Lincoln was going at around the same time as this.
Penelope Ann Miller: It's a completely different movie and I guess he just decided, well, the more the merrier. They're not making the same movie, clearly. There are so many ways to tell a story about a famous human being. It's like Shakespeare. How many times have we seen Hamlet or Richard III in various different performances? I guess he thought it's a time in history where everybody is fascinated with him. There's a resurgence of attention around Lincoln, a new excitement about him. I think it might be a positive more than a negative, that there are so many movies. It's very popular right now.
I didn't know anything about this bodyguard story at all before coming into this movie. It was cool to see that side portrayed on film like that.
Penelope Ann Miller: Yeah. I think that's the other thing. I didn't know about that relationship either until I read the script. There was so much I didn't know about Mary Todd Lincoln, and then I read a few biographies on her, which were so immensely fascinating. She was an incredible woman and I was just fascinated by her journey and her life and what she endured and went through. Three of her sons died, and her husband was assassinated. She was just this victim of these terrible things that happened in her life, and she sort of just persevered. There was a lot of criticism about her, as a person. Probably now, they would have diagnosed her as being manic-depressive or bi-polar, or something like that. If all that had happened to me in my life, I would probably be diagnosed as well (Laughs). That's a bitter pill to swallow. And I think her being from the other side, and her brothers fighting in the Confederacy, they tried to institutionalize her. When I read about her, I had a lot of empathy towards her. She's a very interesting character and very complex. There was a lot I didn't know. That was the fun part, for me, about doing this project, was learning so much about these historical characters.
Was there a lot of work you had to do to get the voice down for Mary? They obviously don't talk the way we do these days.
Penelope Ann Miller: Yeah, the Southern thing wasn't a problem for me, because I enjoy doing the dialects. I think there were probably some recordings of Lincoln speaking, but with Mary Todd, you can kind of come up with your own version of it. The dialogue is the dialogue. What helps us a lot is the costumes and the dialogue and the dialect and all of that. That always helps me get into the character. In The Artist, I was this woman from the 20s, very proper with money and stature. The clothing helped create that, and the setting. For me, it was really a fun opportunity to get a chance to play someone from that era and wear those costumes. Although, I have to say, we shot in the summer and it was just dreadfully hot. I had a lot of sympathy for these women. They had these corsets and they literally had helpers take them to the bathroom, because you can't lift up all that material. They feel like you're wearing drapes, and this is before air conditioning and heat and everything. The whole way of dressing at that time, was really intense.
I spoke with Creed (Bratton) earlier, and he was talking about how they shot this, with the historical photos actually loaded into the camera. Can you talk about your experience shooting against that green screen, then going back and looking at how this world is created through this backdrop?
Penelope Ann Miller: Yeah, that was the biggest challenge, I think, shooting in this enormous warehouse. It wasn't even a proper studio that was soundproof. Then we had to imagine our surroundings with these sets that weren't elaborate. If there was a chair, obviously we'd have a chair and tables, but that's it. You kind of had to imagine the way it would look. A lot of the times, he would show us the actual photographs he was using, so we could look at the photographs and imagine our surroundings. There were challenges. There was one scene where I was getting out of a carriage. It was really fascinating, filming in this format, but it's very restrictive because, if we move too far to our right or our left, we would be in the green screen, and it would ruin the effect. We had to be aware of our surroundings and how far we could go and move. It was definitely restrictive and a huge adjustment, when you can't use a whole set like you would normally.
Is there anything you can say about Salvador Litvak as a director, and the kind of style he brings to a project like this?
Penelope Ann Miller: The great thing about Sal is his enthusiasm. He was just so excited about the fact that he was finally able to do this. He was so excited, so that was one of the things that picks you up, because you're hot and tired. We didn't even have air conditioning in this warehouse we were shooting in downtown Los Angeles, so they had to get these blowers in, and sometimes they weren't working. We all had to endure our own strife and struggles, but he always came to set just filled with passion and excitement and enthusiasm. He would get so excited after a scene and it was great. He's such a Lincoln fan and you could just feel it, the thrill of being able to do this. That was really fun to be around. It's a passion project of his, and that was really felt.
Is there anything you can say about The Bronx Bull and who you play?
Penelope Ann Miller: It was cool. There were things I didn't know about Jake LaMotta too, once again, this historical figure. Obviously, there is this version we all saw that is a slice of his life, but there is a before and after, what's happened to him now, and everything he has went through. It was great to be a part of that, and there were so many great actors involved like Joe Mantegna, and Cloris Leachman played my mother. She's a riot. It was fun. I love doing period pieces, I love doing historical pieces. It was neat to be a part of. I play one of his wives, but I really enjoyed it. I haven't seen it yet, but I hope it's turned out well. It's cool to see these things you've worked on and finally they're coming to the light of day.
Is there anything else you're working on that you can talk about?
Penelope Ann Miller: I just finished an arc on a new series. I did nine episodes of a new series that I think is coming out this May on ABC called Mistresses. I got to play a fun little character, who's not all that you think she is. It's fun to do something in town, and do a fun part on a new series. Now I'm just looking at what's next.
What would you like to say to any fans of yours or others who might be curious about Saving Lincoln about why they should give it a chance in theaters?
Penelope Ann Miller: Hopefully, you'll go check it out and be just as interested as we all were about this bodyguard, and get to know a bit more about Mary Todd and Lincoln and the relationships he had. It's all done in a very unique, original way. It's the original historical photos as backdrops, in black and white, and we're there in the foreground in color. It's definitely a new groundbreaking way of watching a movie, so I hope everyone enjoys it.
Great. That's my time, Penelope. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you.
Penelope Ann Miller: Thanks. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.
You can watch Penelope Ann Miller as Mary Todd Lincoln in Saving Lincoln, arriving in theaters February 15.