Daniel Day-Lewis Profile 0
‘Actors should never give interviews,’ Daniel Day-Lewis once told a Guardian journalist. ‘Once you know what colour socks they wear, you’ll remember it next time you see them performing, and it will get in the way. It is not in anyone’s interest.’
It’s perhaps not the most surprising thought to come from the 52-year-old thespian. He’s a famously rare interviewee, but while his schedule for a press tour may not be as packed as most, the popular press image of Day-Lewis as an eccentric recluse seems a few steps away from the truth – that he considers celebrity to have no place within performance.
It’s clear that the actor simply doesn’t engage with the secondary job of promoting a film as much as he does with its production. ‘I really have to be forced,’ he once said. ‘I just want people to go and see the film. I have done my part. And once I’m finished, I always feel a little empty inside. “Is that all there was to it?” I always think.’
Perhaps this is the feeling responsible for his relatively sparse resume, and the suggestion that he needs to be dragged out of hiding every few years to do the primary job of acting. There have been hiatuses – times when family, life and hobbies felt more important – but most important to the actor, it seems, has been finding characters he can properly inhabit, and those he can become passionate about.
‘To whatever extent I’m able to assess my contribution at the very beginning,’ he explained, ‘having felt the pull of the orbit of another world, I try to step backwards and ask myself if I can serve that story as the person I’m going to be telling that story with. Really, the challenge always seems to be the same thing, to tell a story as well as you can.’
Tales of his commitment to that particular craft are plentiful. Before shooting, Day-Lewis immerses himself in the world of his character, coming to understand their circumstances even if it means living in a tent or spending time in prison. During production he lives as his character, within reasonable boundaries, both on and off camera. The press would have us believe it’s inappropriate, or even maverick behaviour. His cast and crew – in other words, those who work with him day to day – would tend to see another side to it.
‘Why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to inhabit something else on a free pass for three months?’ asked Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed Day-Lewis to his Oscar-winning performance in There Will Be Blood. ‘It’s a level of concentration that is unparalleled, that’s really what it is. Somebody who’s come to do one thing, and only one thing; to be [his character] Daniel Plainview and indulge in that for three months.’
Paul Dano, his co-star in There Will Be Blood and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, agrees. ‘Daniel is very committed. I think there’s a slight misunderstanding with it – a lot of people think it’s abnormal to do, only because most people simply don’t have the willpower to match that level of commitment. But when you see it, it makes perfect sense and seems like the best way to do it. It’s something special not something weird.’
‘When I go to work I go to play, that’s what it is,’ Day-Lewis told Michael Parkinson. ‘I see it as a game … That game involves the power of self-delusion. At the centre of it I have to try and kid myself that I’m living a life that isn’t mine. If I can’t do that then there’s no hope I’m going to kid anybody else.’
Whether he plays a little too hard is still the question the actor seems to have to answer more than any other. ‘Considering the way that I work very often, I do feel I’ve been soundly misrepresented so many times that there’s almost no point in even talking about it,’ he says. ‘People tend to focus on the details of the preparation, the practical details in this clinic or that prison and so on and so forth. But for me, as much as that work is a vital part of it and always fuel to one’s fascination [and] one’s curiosity, the principal work is always in the imagination. That’s where it’s going to happen if it’s going to happen anywhere at all.’
But if there’s any controversy regarding how he does his job, all are agreed on the results; a Daniel Day-Lewis performance is always a thing to anticipate for critics and audiences alike. The winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actor, and with a further two nominations, Day-Lewis tonight adds the Richard Harris Award to his cabinet.
One who recognised the power of a Day-Lewis performance early on as Stephen Frears – presenting the award tonight – who directed him in one of his first big-screen roles in My Beautiful Launderette. It was a performance that set the bar very high, very early and put the actor on the map.
‘I said to [writer] Hanif Kureishi, “If we cast Dan, this will change the balance of the film, because he’s so powerful,”’ remembers Frears. ‘You can’t put an actor that powerful into a film and have it not affect things. He wasn’t world-famous then. He was just very good.’
Day-Lewis was one of four actors in contention for the role. ‘[They were] Dan; Tim Roth, whom I’d just worked with; Gary Oldman who said he’d played the part on television; and Ken Branagh, who 18 months later said he was desperate to play it.’
So what was the deciding factor for Frears? ‘The girls said, “Oh no, you want Dan. He’s top of the crumpet list.” I just thought he was jolly good.’
Originally printed in the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) programme (6th December 2009)