Daniel Day-Lewis: The Way He Lives Now
“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.
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.
But he did come back to the movies, in 1992, with heartthrob turns as Hawkeye in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (for which he learned to skin animals, fished and lived off the land) and as the tortured, empathetic Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, the first of two films with Martin Scorsese. The next year, he did another film with My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan, In the Name of the Father. Once again, Day-Lewis delivered a performance to drop the most cynical jaw: His portrayal of the young, working-class Irishman caught up in the British antiterrorist legal system of the 1970s is piercingly genuine and specific, right down to the last little self-conscious toss of the head, a familiar gesture among young men of the era clearing long hair from their eyes without using their hands.
Almost never is it feasible, in advance of meeting an actor with a few decades of work behind him, to watch a whole career’s worth of films. With Day-Lewis, however, it’s possible, because in the 22 years he’s been famous, he has appeared in only 14 films; in the past decade, only four. Journalists, particularly in England, have often interpreted this as evidence of Day-Lewis’ elitism or extremism, but it really only proves that, at 50, the actor leads a relatively normal life beyond movies, with hobbies and a wife and kids. He’s married to Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur, whom he met on the set of The Crucible in 1996; together they have two sons, Cashel, 5, and Ronan, 9. He also has another son with Isabelle Adjani, Gabriel-Kane, 12, who lives with his mother. “There are more and more things to preoccupy me outside of the world of films,” he admits. At the same time, he doesn’t completely shut out movies between roles.
“Something that has been suggested on my behalf is that I live an almost bipolar existence, with the public life of filmmaking on one side and a sort of reclusive, almost misanthropic life on the other.” (This has been suggested most often in the British press, which has “grossly misrepresented my life,” he says.) “But it never appears to me that there’s any chasm, any rift, between those two worlds. My life to me contains both the professional and the personal very easily. But because you tend to be written about when you’re for whatever reason in the public eye, then they depict you as having left and returned.
“But it’s not a return to me. I never went away. I never left myself. I simply need the time I spend not working in films, the time away, to do the work that I love to do in the way that I love to do it.”
The work Day-Lewis does begins with meticulous advance preparation, during which he lives as much as he can like the character he’s playing. For Gerry Conlon, he tried for three days to sleep in a prison cell; in 1988, while starring as the restless doctor Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he learned to speak Czech; to play Jack Slavin in The Ballad of Jack and Rose two years ago, a movie written and directed by his wife, he and Miller lived apart so he could more deeply connect with the isolation of a dying man perplexed about his family.
Preparing for There Will Be Blood was trickier. Though the film was eventually shot in Marfa, Texas, most of its action is set in Southern California from the turn of the century until the 1920s. Day-Lewis was living in Ireland for the two years it took to get the movie financed — “an environment that was of no help to me whatsoever” — and despite the U.K. Guardian’s speculation that the actor, given his penchant for physical research, was “out drilling for oil in his Wicklow back garden,” this time Day-Lewis did most of his preparation in his head.
He read letters written home by the “men who were living in holes in the ground,” florid letters, “full of sentimentality, full of love and loss.” He pored over photographs of the period, “of these lads scooping up oil from the ground in buckets and saucepans and whatever they could take with them before drilling was developed,” and of the landscape of oil-rich Southern California pockmarked with oil fields.
“From Bakersfield to Signal Hill to Los Angeles, it was a forest of oil derricks,” he says. “Squeezed between these derricks intermittently were these tiny little houses in which people were living their lives, stepping out of their front doors into a quagmire of crude oil just running down the streets. That was the foundation of this city!” He also read up on oil tycoon Edward Doheny (a name he pronounces Do-HAY-ny), who, like Plainview, was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and made his way west to a millionaire future in Los Angeles, although the book on which There Will Be Blood is loosely based, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is itself only loosely based on Doheny.
“In the end,” Day-Lewis says, “no matter what stimulus you can find that belonged to that world, that world that you’re trying to imagine, finally imagination is the only thing that’s going to take you there. And more than anything else, I had time. I had time, and a quiet place, and neutral surroundings. I’ve got a room at home where I can really daydream without being disturbed, and I suppose it’s there where things ferment.” Things like Daniel Plainview’s voice, which the actor says came to him in pieces and parts, and recordings from the Dust Bowl and the ’20s-era Fond-du-Lac proved less helpful than his own ear.
“I like to have the illusion that I can hear that voice before I’m able to speak with that voice,” he says. “I do use a little tape recorder. I talk to myself a lot. I try without thinking about it to have a sense of whether that voice belongs to me in my new life.” For Plainview, “I discarded a lot of ideas that didn’t work, and a lot of possibilities. Finally, I just began to hear a voice which seemed to be right. I couldn’t make the sounds initially. I could hear them, but I couldn’t make them.” Gradually, it began to stick: The way Daniel Plainview sounds matters as much as the way he crouches down to marvel at the flames erupting out of a newly exploded well.
“We don’t choose our voices,” Day-Lewis says. “So within the voice, there’s an expression of the very self.”
“Do you really want to know about that?” Day-Lewis protests when I ask how he manages to live on set in character. He looks down at his hands and laughs. He has just been profiled in a many-thousand-word New York Times Magazine story by Lynn Hirschberg, which had Day-Lewis on the cover, smiling, nearly life-size; you could see pores. He’s reluctant to “gob off” even more about himself, not out of humility or standoffishness but out of a firm conviction that there should be other things to talk about, like what’s happening in Pakistan, or Gaza. But like it or not, Day-Lewis has come here to gob off, and Paramount Pictures is paying for the hotel suite, and so he complies.
But not without objections: “The odd thing about this particular period of time is that if you do what you have to do to try to encourage people to see a film you’ve worked very hard on, it appears, I suppose, as if you’re engaged in an orgy of self-promotion. Which really wouldn’t be my thing.” I get that, I assure him, but still, I want to know: Did he really eat, smoke and drink as Daniel Plainview even when the cameras weren’t rolling?
I should mention here that the way Daniel Day-Lewis sounds on the page, uttering these clean, neat, clearly composed sentences right off the cuff, isn’t really a fair representation of how he sounds in person. There are “um”s, “ah”sand pauses so long that it’s hard to resist finishing his sentences or interrupting him to get on to the next point. He comes off neither overly learned nor haughty, only obdurately sincere, always checking himself to make sure that he means what he says. He interjects the name of the person he’s talking to as he speaks, as if to remind himself to treat each new interrogator lumbering through an inevitably dreary day of publicity as an individual. He brightens up when the discussion veers off filmmaking to politics, world events or California State Highway 1. “It’s hard driving that coast,” says the motorbike enthusiast, who drove the route recently on his way from Los Angeles to a race in Monterey. “Every 200 yards, you have to stop and drink it in.”
All this affability makes it hard to believe that, as Hirschberg suggested, Day-Lewis so intimidated an actor on the There Will Be Blood set that Anderson had to replace him with Paul Dano halfway into the 60-day shoot. Day-Lewis seems confused by the story. “When Lynn mentioned that to me, I was genuinely surprised,” he says. “I didn’t believe it. I’d be very, very sorry if that were true. It appalled me to think that it might be true. It would never be my intention. Apart from everything else, it would be self-defeating to intimidate a colleague I was working with. No matter what the rivalry is, even if it’s murderous between those two characters, you’re in a partnership, you’re in a dance of some kind. And it’s absolutely vital that you work together.”
It is true that the actor originally cast in the role of the young evangelical preacher Eli Sunday was recast two months into shooting. But Day-Lewis rejects the idea that his process caused the trouble. “I suppose I always hope there’s some sort of tacit understanding between myself and my colleagues that I work the way I do,” he admits. “I don’t expect them to work in the same way. I don’t mind what way they work in to arrive at what they’re trying to arrive at, as long as it doesn’t interfere with me. And I really try not to interfere with them in any way, and only ever encourage them to do what they need to do to find that thing.”
When I initially let the topic go, he brings the conversation back. “Just to return to that question,” he says, “[the article] also kind of suggested that Leo [DiCaprio, on Gangs of New York]felt the same way about me,and I just don’t think that’s true. Leo is a very strong, independent, serious actor. He’s wonderful. And he knows how it works. He may not have liked me during that time, I don’t know. We get on very, very well. I’m very fond of him. I’ve never discussed it with him. He never suggested to me that I was making his life difficult in any way. And I don’t think I was.”
“Look,” he concludes, “everyone has insecurities. Every single person on the set at one time goes through a moment of black despair about what it is they’re trying to do. They’re all subject to those weighty questions that seem to press us into the ground sometimes. And it’s possible one might be insensitive to the needs of somebody who’s spinning off course, because you’re taken with a fever, just like all those oil prospectors were — all driving forwards.
“All that I ever hope for from any colleague is that when the collision takes place in front of the camera that there’s a recognizable human being there, telling the truth. Speaking, listening, responding. I don’t care how extreme that process is.”
Dano had already been indoctrinated in the Day-Lewis experience when he played the teenage Thaddius in The Ballad of Jack and Rose (“a boy with a face like a blade,” wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times). After There Will Be Blood, he suggests that working with Day-Lewis is far less frightening than inspiring. “I think there’s a general feeling about Daniel that what he does is abnormal,” Dano says by phone from New York, where he’s appearing off-Broadway in Things We Want. “But I have to say, when you’re there with him, it could not make more perfect sense. He’s doing what he has to do to give the best performance he can, and he has the nerve and passion and commitment to do it.”
It sounds like very serious work, this thing Day-Lewis does, but only when somebody writes about it. “I think I’ve been my own worst enemy in the past,” the actor admits, “judging by the stuff that’s been said about me. It sounds as if I’m being kind of dragged in a straitjacket to the set, kicking and screaming, struggling with a sort of reluctance.” What almost never comes through is the obvious delight Day-Lewis takes in pretending so thoroughly to be somebody else.
“For my sense of continuity, I suppose I work in a certain way,” he says. “But it goes beyond that. It’s really about the sense of joy you have in having worked hard to imagine and discover and — one hopes — to create a world, an illusion of a world that other people might believe in because you believe in it yourself, a form of self-delusion. After achieving that, it seems far crazier to jump in and out of that world that you’ve gone to such pains to create. And it wouldn’t be my wish to do that, because I enjoy being in there.
“It all sounds so grandiose, because of course you’re surrounded by reminders of the modern world, everywhere you go. Part of the work you have to do is narrowing your focus, continually shutting out, closing off the peripheral vision that would take in the cables and the catering and the anoraks and so on and so forth. But I don’t find that hard to do — the power of self-delusion, I suppose — and it’s the joy that I find in that work, in inhabiting a world that you’ve taken such pains to imagine.
“Just like in other kinds of creative work, you get to enjoy that extraordinary sensation of timelessness, that time ceases to have any relevance or importance while you’re working. And within that, you experience the loss of the self. It’s a temporary thing, but it’s a very invigorating thing, the loss of the self. Do you know what I mean?”
I would be lucky if I did, I think — and probably a much better actor.
“It’s like you’re constantly trying to head off the conscious mind, which will, whether you like it or not, attempt to stay one step ahead of you,” he elaborates. “The imagination is on the frontline of the unconscious. And you do whatever you can do to engage that animal part of yourself, that instinctive part of yourself.”
These are not tricks he learned in theater school, at the Bristol Old Vic. “The learning of skills and the disciplines and so on and so forth — those just provide a framework to stop you from spilling over into chaos,” he says. “But it’s very important to live close to the possibility of chaos. Very, very important.”
To the question “How did you know Daniel Day-Lewis was right for the role of Daniel Plainview?” Paul Thomas Anderson answers, “That’s like asking, ‘How did you fall in love with your wife?’ I could say, ‘Well, she’s got a great sense of humor,’ but that doesn’t describe her. I guess you just have to assume because of Daniel’s previous work that he’s capable of doing anything.”
It also helped that Day-Lewis is not, in the traditional sense, a movie star. “It is very helpful to a filmmaker to work with an actor who doesn’t have a personality that is easily accessible in the way that some film stars do. You are that much more at an advantage when creating another world entirely, when creating the illusion of somebody else. It’s quite hard to get past someone’s personality if it’s bigger than their performances.”
People will have various opinions about There Will Be Blood. They already do: Though there’s a strong Oscar buzz about the film (Day-Lewis will likely be nominated for Best Actor) and some reviewers are ecstatic, others have squirmed in their seats at the film’s length (two hours and 40 minutes) and its unapologetic brutality — not violence, though there’s some of that, but Anderson’s defiant independence, and the film’s absolute refusal to throw anyone any sort of feel-better bone. But — and this may be hard to believe — the film gets better the more you watch it. I know this because, after meeting Day-Lewis, I borrowed a friend’s “for your consideration” DVD and watched it again, and again, then replayed scenes over and over just to try to find the actor in the work. I couldn’t. Not only that — I would find the world falling away as I watched, forgetting that I was watching an actor. Forgetting why I was watching at all, if not to relive the story.
This isn’t only because of Day-Lewis’ performance; it’s also because of a script that serves him (and Dano) with a character who, for all his darkness, still claws at rising above his cruel beginnings in a way we all recognize. “It appeared to me to come from a very much unconscious self,” Day-Lewis says of Anderson’s script. “I didn’t know Paul at all. I didn’t know him as a man. But I knew when I read it that he had already inhabited this world. I think the very best writers do that, in very much the same way that we do it when we’re working, or try to. I felt like he understood each and every one of those people that he was describing, and understood the world that they came from. He had taken the seed of an idea and progressed it moment by moment to such an audacious conclusion.”
Plainview, were he real, would be among the men of history celebrated on dignified brass plaques and in statues all over the world. “But when you take off their tall hats and long-tailed coats,” Day-Lewis observes, “they’re just covered in the stuff.” Oil, that is.
As are we all. When Plainview strokes the head of his injured boy, or sobs over the found journal of a lost family member, he reminds us that he still belongs to us, not only as a fellow human but as an iconic American. In our cars and planes and heated homes, we all benefit from the oil prospector’s largess and pay for his sins every day.
Like many other films this season, There Will Be Blood announces in the credits that it’s a “carbon-neutral production,” which means that for every unit of carbon emitted during the making of the film, an offset was purchased, probably in the form of a tree. And Anderson, who got the idea for the film when he read Sinclair’s book while traveling in London, clearly had a point to make about human greed laid bare in the petroleum industry.
But both director and star insist that There Will Be Blood is neither a political film nor a metaphor for anything. “Parallels are a menace,” says Day-Lewis. “For the sake of doing the work itself, we had to set aside, put under lock and key, all our personal feelings about [oil]. Otherwise, we’d have been in the business of trying to teach, which is death to any kind of storytelling.”
Still, he laments the proliferation of SUVs in Ireland. In Ireland? With those tiny streets?
“I go to school in the morning with my lad, and I park the car in a lot that’s jammed full of SUVs they absolutely have no need of whatsoever,” he attests. “Everyone is buying cars. They can’t afford houses, so I guess they’re buying cars instead. They’re everywhere. Perched up in those bloody things, looking down on you, lording it over the rest of us.
“The roads in Ireland are only that wide. They’re buying these things you can just jam between the hedgerows. It’s madness.”
A few years ago, Day-Lewis said in an interview that after decades of self-doubt — decades of asking himself whether, even after an Oscar and all that, he could be useful in the profession — he had finally realized that “Is there any reason to be doing this?” is a healthy question to be asking oneself, enthusiastically and repeatedly.
“It came to me in the form of a revelation,” he explains. “When I was a young utopian and still had that conflict, I found it terribly unsettling, because it made me question my commitment to the thing I was apparently giving my life over to. And I worked a lot more in those days than I do now. So it really came as a great relief [to discover] that it was vital to have that conflict, to continually reassess the reason for doing this work, which may well have changed over the years.
“My ambition for many years was to be involved in work that was utterly compelling to me, regardless of the consequences. But I worried a lot as a young man about where such and such a thing might take me; you’re encouraged to think that way. You’re supposed to build a career for yourself. But there’s no part of me that was able to do that. And thank God I was able to recognize it before I sort of went gray with anxiety.”
Far from building a career, he now sees himself starting all over each time he determines he can be sufficiently useful to a director and accepts a role. “It’s absolutely new each and every time,” he says. “For all that you carry with you as you get older — and if you’ve had the good fortune to work in films that people have seen and in some cases liked, you carry with you the burden of expectation — all that went before is meaningless. Absolutely meaningless. Because you’re a baby. From the moment you decide to go to work again, you’re a baby. You have to empty yourself if you’re going to be any kind of vessel at all.
“I suppose that’s the salvation of all of us. With all the kind of grandiosity that surrounds the way of life that actors lead, there’s an insistent humility to the work itself, because you cannot do it unless you begin with nothing each time.”
The beginner’s mind: Some people meditate for a lifetime to find it.
Day-Lewis laughs. “I don’t think I’ve achieved separation from the material world just yet,” he says. “The loss of myself happens in a place that’s very concrete.” Right: in the movies.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.