Chris Sullivan met the triple Oscar-winning actor to look back at his entire cinematic career, and to try and find out why he works so damn hard on immersing himself in the difficult roles he chooses.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s famously intensive modus operandi is certainly effective. He is the only man ever to win three Best Actor Academy Awards ‒ an achievement all the more remarkable as he’s made just 17 films in 34 years (compare this with, say, Christopher Lee, who starred in 135 films in as many years and never won an Oscar). He made his last film, Phantom Thread, in 2017, after which he announced his retirement from acting. Day-Lewis has throughout his career picked roles that were not only extremely challenging but completely disparate. Who could forget his rendering of Hawkeye (a white man raised by Mohican Indians) in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans?
’It took me about six months to get myself in shape, then it all fell off during the last few weeks of the production,’ he explained. ‘I did a hell of a lot of running around for that. If you notice, I get progressively thinner throughout the film because all I did was run.’ Other roles, such as the psychopathic gang leader Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) drove him to distraction.
‘I knew what doing the part would entail, as I knew what I am like and Martin didn’t need to convince me. He told me the story on the phone and I thought, here we go, not again. But I had to need to know I was up for it because I don’t want to let anyone down, especially not him, as when you work with him it’s hard work and you have to be an ally, to be someone you can count on and who has the strength of purpose to sustain you through eight months of mayhem. ‘And of course I had to prepare, so I just went mad and remembered the halcyon days of fighting on the terraces at the Den, memories that stood me in good stead as Bill the Butcher. He was a bit of a punk and a marvellous character and a joy to be ‒ although not so good for my physical or mental health.’
Daniel grew up in Greenwich, South East London, and despite being the son of the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and actress Jill Balcon, the daughter of Michael Balcon (who founded Ealing Studios and was of eastern European Jewish descent), he was hardly sheltered. However fine and dandy Greenwich might be, it’s an area surrounded by infinitely less salubrious boroughs, which were once home to many of London’s dockworkers. Bombed severely during World War II, their streets were replaced by sprawling council estates.
As a young teenager, Day-Lewis soon found himself strolling theses places and, being both posh and Jewish, had to defend himself physically. He has admitted to having been a somewhat disorderly youth, prone to shoplifting, petty crime and other such antics. ‘I was fascinated by the streets that were close by – Lewisham, New Cross, Deptford – and I roamed the streets of South London and supported Millwall with great gusto, and was on the terraces every Saturday with the rest of the lads,’ he recalls. ‘That part of my life means a lot to me – that time before I went to boarding school, when I was roaming the streets of Deptford. It was heaven, just discovering that world.’
Transferred at 14 to Bedales, a famously liberal private school in Hampshire, he dabbled in drama and soon acquired his first role as a vandal in John Schlesinger’s watershed kitchen-sink drama Sunday Bloody Sunday. Hewas overjoyed. ‘They paid me a couple of quid a day to smash up a few cars,’ he chuckled. ‘I was fourteen and in heaven.’
In 1973, at the age of 16, Day-Lewis saw Martin Scorsese’s seminal Mean Streets, the story of a gang of young New York Italian tough guys. ‘You could not imagine the effect that had on me,’ he recalled, sipping his black coffee. ‘I was this young and slightly wayward guy from South London who just didn’t know what to do with his life. It was like a light going on in my head. It was so influential for me as a young person, never mind as a young actor. Then I saw that there could be a purpose for this work, this acting, and that it wasn’t all about prancing around on stage in tights.’
The young man joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He performed with them before going on to cut his teeth in film and TV. It was director Stephen Frears who first saw the young thespian’s true potential and cast him as Johnny, a tough London right-wing extremist street kid who embarks on a romantic relationship with the son of a left-wing Pakistani journalist in Thatcher’s Britain. ‘You could see the producer’s bewilderment,’ he chuckles. ‘My Beautiful Launderette felt to me as if we were like a continuation of this tradition of looking at this ludicrous divided society we inhabit. I loved the sense of mischief and it’s a very sustaining feeling to feel you are all partaking of this mischievous enterprise.
‘I did the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View the same time as Launderette, and I believe they premiered in New York on the same day. I relished the opportunity to do both. In Launderette I was this working-class outcast and in Room I was this upper-class twit. It was great, great fun.’ But there are roles that he doesn’t look back upon with such fondness, such as the adaptation of Milan Kundera’s overrated, confusing novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ‘I made it against my better judgement,’ he admits with a groan. ‘People ask me about those sex scenes and I say I shouldn’t have done them and I shouldn’t have done the film – there is a sense of despair in those scenes and it left me feeling a little bit down in the mouth.’
Day-Lewis’s preparation has been the cause of much hyperbole and, occasionally, scorn. He crudely tattooed his own hands and trained for three years as a professional pugilist in preparation for The Boxer (1997), built his character’s dwelling out of 17th-century implements for The Crucible (1996) then lived in it for three months without electricity or running water, and remained in a wheelchair for the duration of the shoot as cerebral palsied Irish writer Christy Brown in 1989’s My Left Foot, for which he received his first Oscar. Unsurprisingly he is sick to death of the likes of me asking about his method.
‘Nothing I say in answer to these questions will make the work better or worse, but I understand the impulse that causes people to even consider why I do what I do. But that thirst for information as to what I do and how I do it has been developed and encouraged by I don’t know what. I was on Parkinson and I knew he would ask me about all this, and I thought I was ready for it and I wasn’t at all, and so I made a right nob of myself.’
But it has to be easier rendering a character if one walks a few miles in their shoes, albeit with pebbles in them? ‘I’ve always been intrigued by the life I have never experienced,’ he said. ‘I go with that feeling, but more than anything else I enjoy it. It is a game. But the way people would have it, it is like a game of self-chastisement, and it has never been that way for me, as it is a pleasurable and intriguing game. What I tended to do in the past was keep my mouth shut, but then people speak on your behalf, which creates a whole absurdity around it. So then you try to talk a bit to address the balance, and then you make an even bigger dick of yourself. So essentially there’s nothing to say.’
In 2007 he received his second Oscar for his rendering of renegade oil man Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. He remained in character day and night throughout filming, having worked on becoming the man for three whole years. How long he was in full-blown character? ‘I really don’t know – maybe 12-14 weeks. Luckily I had my family with me and, to be honest, the joy about great work is that you are not looking for the finishing line – quite the opposite – and one of the great things about such work is that you lose yourself, as with all artistic endeavour. My wife and kids went a bit crazy, as I was there all the time. All creative work involves the loss of the self, and it’s like time out of time – a period when I lose myself and the clocks stop and this is the joy.’
‘You go to these great lengths to imagine another world and another time; and you go to those lengths to imagine a man living in those times and having spent your imagination on that it seems more fun to live there than jumping in and out. That is the playground that you’ve created so why not stay there and play?’ Day-Lewis oozed Plainview’s seething malevolence, so considering the actor is such an affable chap, where did it come from?
‘We all have murderous thoughts throughout the day, if not the week, do we not? Any form of coexistence we live under involves some repression. We have to do that ‒ it’s part of the deal ‒ and we all have some of that in us. And what’s more invigorating than to unleash it? But I cannot account for where any of this comes from me – it comes from the unconscious and I cannot account for what ferments in my unconscious. That part of the work doesn’t take part in the conscious. One just hopes there is a cave somewhere that you can ransack.’
When I first interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis, he had just delivered a cracking turn as an over-protective father in The Ballad of Jack and Rose (written and directed by his wife). Naturally the conversation swung round to parenthood, his boys and my recently born son Finbar. Interviewing him a few years later for There Will Be Blood, he bounced into the room, full of more beans than a Mexican dinner, and straight away asked, ‘How’s Finbar?’
How many Oscar-winning actors would remember a personal detail like that?