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Daniel Day-Lewis: The Way He Lives Now 

As his fourth film in a decade arrives in theaters, the movies’ most enigmatic leading man reveals the method behind his onscreen madness

Wednesday, Dec 19 2007
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“You don’t meet the book when you meet the writer,” the novelist William Gibson has said. “You meet the place where it lives.” A relatively uncontroversial remark about the people who vent their imaginations on the page — no one should expect Philip Roth to sound exactly like Nathan Zuckerman — Gibson’s adage applies only rarely to actors. Robert De Niro studied hard and put on weight to play Jake LaMotta, but there was never any mistaking the sighs and hand wringings and tongue clicks as anyone’s but De Niro’s; Meryl Streep plays bossy editors and Polish war survivors with persuasive delicacy, but in Letterman’s plush Late Night chair, she still tilts her head and laughs just like Sophie.

Daniel Day-Lewis is another matter. In his current role, as turn-of-the-century oil baron Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis portrays a man so contorted with greed that he can barely heave a laugh from his toxic throat. You might expect the man behind the mask to have at least some of Plainview’s fire. Or a flicker of that fixed, maniacal stare. Or at least a little bit of that thrust-out lower jaw set hard against the rest of humanity.

But it’s not so. When Day-Lewis shows up on the patio of the Hotel Bel-Air one November day for an interview, it’s a shock: There are the sharp green eyes, the slightly bent nose, gold hoops hanging in the earlobes where Plainview had little holes. But in this man — the one wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, a mop of curly black hair flecked with gray tumbling over his forehead, great lines swooping up around his eyes when he smiles — there isn’t the faintest shadow of Plainview; or of Christy Brown, the writer with cerebral palsy Day-Lewis played to great acclaim in My Left Foot; or of Gerry Conlon, the young Irishman wrongly accused of terrorism in In the Name of the Father. If I’d been impressed with his performance in Anderson’s film before, after meeting him, I was awed. When you meet Daniel Day-Lewis, to paraphrase Gibson, you don’t meet the characters. You don’t even meet the actor. You meet the place where it lives.

click to enlarge (Photo by Ted Soqui)
  • (Photo by Ted Soqui)

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How does he do it? This is what I wanted to know about Day-Lewis, more than anything else. More than whether he was serious about becoming a cobbler when he studied shoemaking in Italy, or what he finds in the rare script that makes him say yes to a project, or why he left England 15 years ago to live in Ireland. I wanted to know how it is that a person can disappear so thoroughly into a character that everything about him except for his concrete physical attributes is obliterated. I wanted to know how every nuance invented to express that character — Plainview’s compensating gait, for instance, meant to suggest a badly healed broken leg — can appear to the audience as the natural result of that fictional character’s own long history, and not as an actor’s contrivance.

And to my further amazement, Day-Lewis can actually explain how he does it. He can, in fact, make you think that, provided you had his good looks, intelligence and drive, you could do it too.

“It’s a game,” he tells me. “It really is. It takes a long time from beginning to end. It’s a long and complicated game. But it’s a game. And it’s fun.”

It was more than 20 years ago that Day-Lewis first came to the attention of film aficionados when he appeared as the gay, working-class street punk Johnny in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette,the same year he played the upper-class twit Cecil to Helena Bonham Carter’s girl with the hair in Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View. That the two films screened in many cities simultaneously gave the public and critics alike a little thrill: Can this really be the same man in both of these roles? “Seeing these two performances side by side is an affirmation of the miracle of acting,” wrote a smittenRoger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. “That one man could play these two opposites is astonishing.”

That was 1985, and Day-Lewis instantly became the actor to watch; four years later, the trailer for My Left Foot consisted of little but Day-Lewis head shots and accolades. He disappointed no one: He won a Best Actor Oscar for his humane, heart-rending portrayal of Christy Brown, and there were few holdouts around to say he didn’t deserve it. The consummate Method actor, who feels his work from the inside out, Day-Lewis prepared meticulously for the role, slumping himself over in a wheelchair for so many months on end that he reportedly broke two ribs.

It was a big deal, then, that he agreed to appear as the eponymous Danish prince in Richard Eyre’s Hamlet at the National Theatre while My Left Foot was still in the theaters — a production that was billed as the “Daniel Day-Lewis Hamlet.” Though the performance earned him only lukewarm reviews (his Hamlet, evidently, was too sweet and not sufficiently Shakespearean), the production has gone down in history as the one in which, nearing the end of an eight-month run, Day-Lewis burst into tears during the ghost scene and rushed offstage, leaving his understudy, Jeremy Northam, to take over. Official rumor says that Day-Lewis saw the ghost of his own father, British poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, with him onstage. What is certain is that he never returned to theater again.

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