Dartmouth Professor Says His Role Was an Honor

Friday, December 14, 2012
Jamie Horton’s role in the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln isn’t exactly of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety, but you do have to keep a sharp eye out. Horton, an actor, director and associate professor in the theater department at Dartmouth College, plays Giles Stuart, a lame-duck Democrat from New York in the House of Representatives whose vote is sought for the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery.

Based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, Lincoln, with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, focuses on a relatively narrow period in early 1865, after the president has won re-election. Lincoln is intent on driving passage of the amendment through Congress in the face of adamant opposition from Democrats and some in his own Republican party.

To win passage, Lincoln relies not only on his own rhetorical power and political acumen, but the time-honored methods of quid pro quo, arm twisting and bribery, which are carried out in the film by Republican Party hacks.

Two of those hacks, played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, descend on the Democratic partisans, those of puny moral fiber and punier bank accounts, and “encourage” them to vote yes in return for patronage jobs. They run into Stuart, Horton’s character, in a bank and after a slight kerfuffle slip him a portfolio that presumably contains an offer he can’t refuse. (Some of the lesser characters in the film, including Stuart, were either invented or given pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, Horton said.)

Horton counts the role as one of the great opportunities in his career. “Being a small cog in this large project: it’s an honor to be associated with it,” Horton said. “You could feel other actors on set feeling the same way, about being involved in something extraordinary.”

Horton grew up in Hanover and went to the high school before going to college at Princeton University, where he studied drama and literature. He spent 1983 through 2006 living with his wife in Denver, where he was both a director and a lead actor, playing some 85 roles. He came back to the area in 2005 to direct a production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. Not long after that production, an opening arose in the college’s theater department, which Horton calls “an unexpected and fortuitous sequence of events.” He’s been there ever since.

The role in Lincoln came about through another unexpected and fortuitous sequence of events: the friend of a young woman he acted with in a Dartmouth theater department production of the Sarah Ruhl play Eurydice recommended him to a New York casting agency for a small part in the film. He sent in an audition tape, and was accepted.

In October 2011, he went down to Richmond, Va., where the movie was shot, to join what he calls a “Who’s Who” of character actors in the enormous cast, many of them chosen for their resemblance to the people they played. Horton knew a number of the actors chosen for the film. What struck him about the experience was what it felt like to go into the replica of the Congressional chamber to shoot the scenes where members of Congress argue the fate of the 13th amendment.

“It was extraordinary both as an actor and as an American citizen,” he said. Minutes before, he’d been part of the crowd of actors in period costume checking their iPhones, puttering around on their iPads, reading. But once the call came, he said, “you walk into the chamber and the scenes start to happen. You get such a profound sense of being in the moment.”

Although he didn’t have the opportunity to act with or to watch Daniel Day-Lewis, Horton, like the other actors he knew who were in the production, marvels at the actor’s ability to shape-shift. “He’s a true chameleon. He’s not the same from movie to movie. He has a different voice, a different physicality, he’s a different person,” Horton said.

Other moments that have stayed with him, he said, were watching Spielberg and his cinematographer set up shots in the replica of the House chamber, and observing Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, in action. The Vermont-born, Dartmouth-educated Stevens was a stalwart and prescient Abolitionist who pressed for nothing more and nothing less than full social and legal equality for African-Americans.

“Being in scenes with Tommy Lee Jones was a treat for me. I admire him so very much. ... He has such command, it’s so tangible. It’s a product of a stellar career and major talent,” Horton said, noting that when Jones, as Stevens, finished one of his major speeches in the chamber and after “Cut” was called, the cast, as it did with other dramatic scenes, burst into spontaneous applause.

Horton also has praise for the production and design teams that pulled together the costumes, the period detail and the sets, all of which contribute to an actor’s sense of conviction in a scene. “You looked all around you and the evidence was right,” he said. “You had that sense of walking into the pages of American history at this critical time, whose magnitude can’t be overstated.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

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