Saturday, November 10, 2007
Interview: NY Times
New York Times, Written By Lynn Hirschberg
The New Frontier’s Man
By LYNN HIRSCHBERG; New York Times
IN 1976, WHEN HE WAS 19, Daniel Day-Lewis, who is British and was trained in the grand theatrical tradition of Shakespeare and the classics, saw “Taxi Driver” and, despite the considerable weight and seeming obligation of his heritage, realized that what he longed to be was an American actor. “It was a real illumination,” Day-Lewis told me late in August as he sat at the rough wood dining table of a duplex apartment in downtown Manhattan, where he and his wife, Rebecca Miller, and their two boys stay when in New York. “I saw ‘Taxi Driver’ five or six times in the first week, and I was astonished by its sheer visceral beauty. I just kept going back — I didn’t know America, but that was a glimpse of what America might be, and I realized that, contrary to expectation, I wanted to tell American stories.” It was raining hard outside, and Day-Lewis, who has the look of an elegant vagabond, was wearing clothes seemingly chosen many years ago for their utility and subtle details. His loose denim jeans were worn soft and white by use and the once-vibrant red plaid of his shirt had aged into a warm maroon. Day-Lewis is tall and lean and has tattoos circling his lower arms and the permanently inked handprints of his and Miller’s two sons climbing up his body to his shoulders. There were gold loops in each earlobe, and although he had left his sturdy, beat-up leather work boots outside the front door and was padding around in his socks, Day-Lewis still had a kind-of-jaunty porkpie hat on his head. The hat covered his long black hair and set off the contours of his face, which is dominated by his noble, bashed nose.
“Where I come from, it was a heresy to say you wanted to be in movies, leave alone American movies,” Day-Lewis continued, as he ate a chicken-salad sandwich. “We were all encouraged to believe that the classics of the theater were the fiery hoops through which you’d have to pass if you were going to have any self-esteem as a performer. It never occurred to me that that was the case. One of the great privileges of having grown up in a middle-class literary English household, but having gone to school in the front lines in Southeast London, was that I became half-street-urchin and half-good-boy at home. I knew that dichotomy was possible. England is obsessed with where you came from, and they are determined to keep you in that place, be it in a drawing room or in the gutter. The great tradition of liberalism in England is essentially a sponge that absorbs all possibility of change. America looked different to me: the idea of America as a place of infinite possibilities was defined for me through the movies. I’m glad I did the classical work that I did, but it just wasn’t for me. I’m a little bit perverse, and I just hate doing the thing that’s the most obvious.”
Day-Lewis laughed and drank some grapefruit juice. While he may appear a bit rough, his demeanor is courtly. You have to possess something utterly to push it away, and whether it’s his extreme good looks, which he obscures beneath the trappings of a bohemian pirate, or his cultured background, which he disparages, Day-Lewis has an intense attraction to the opposite of whatever he came by easily. He is particularly compelled by the idea of spontaneity, but there is nothing sloppy or haphazard about him, and that lends Day-Lewis, despite his careworn clothes, a quality of grace. He is most voluble and passionate on the subject of film. He loves even bad movies and likes to analyze the work of actors past and present. Day-Lewis reveres the greats — Brando, DeNiro — but he is intrigued by all kinds of performances. He dislikes John Wayne, loves Gary Cooper, prefers the Jimmy Stewart of Capra’s classic pictures to the Stewart of Anthony Mann’s westerns and is fascinated by Clint Eastwood. “I used to go to all-night screenings of his movies,” Day-Lewis recalled. “I’d stagger out at 5 in the morning, trying to be loose-limbed and mean and taciturn.” He paused. “My love for American movies was like a secret that I carried around with me. I always knew I could straddle different worlds. I’d grown up in two different worlds and if you can grow up in two different worlds, you can occupy four. Or six. Why put a limit on it?”
Since 1992, when he deftly navigated two identities as Hawkeye, the heroic white frontiersman raised as a Native American, in “Last of the Mohicans,” Day-Lewis has played many Americans. If Martin Scorsese, who is, of course, the director of “Taxi Driver,” had not been the one to approach him about the role of the vaguely Eurocentric Newland Archer in “The Age of Innocence,” he would have turned it down. “Too English,” Day-Lewis explained. “I was hoping he’d ask me to do something more rough-and-tumble.” When Scorsese did, with “Gangs of New York,” in 2000, Day-Lewis thrilled to the chance to play Bill the Butcher, a violent king of the city. In his latest film, “There Will Be Blood,” which opens next month and was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Day-Lewis portrays a man who is searching for his fortune in oil in turn-of-the-century California. The character is loosely based on Edward Doheny, who started out as an itinerant prospector looking for gold and silver and became the millionaire who headed the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company. “There Will Be Blood” is about the lure of the West, the intoxicating sense of freedom and opportunity that can be found in new lands and the costs of huge and sudden success. There are shades of current politics in the film — the oil and the greed still resonate — but it is, mostly, a “Citizen Kane”-esque character study about the corrupting desire for power and riches. The tale it tells is, in many ways, a story about what is right, and wrong, with America.
“I was deeply unsettled by the script,” Day-Lewis said. “For me, that is a sure sign. If you remain unsettled by a piece of writing, it means you are not watching the story from the outside; you’ve already taken a step toward it. When I’m drawn to something, I take a resolute step backward, and I ask myself if I can really serve this story as well as it needs to be served. If I don’t think I can do that, no matter how appealing, I will decline. What finally takes over, what took over with this movie, is an illusion of inevitability.” Day-Lewis smiled. “I think: Can this really be true? Is this happening to me again? Is there no way to avoid this?”
IT WAS COMMENTS LIKE THESE that have led Jim Sheridan, the director of three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis — including 1989’s “My Left Foot,” for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor — to remark that Day-Lewis “hates acting.” Sheridan says he believes that Day-Lewis completely rejects the idea of “acting” an emotion or moment. Instead, like the greats he admires (Brando and De Niro, before they started working for the money), he needs to fully embody a character. That sort of detailed, engulfing work is time-consuming and enervating. Which partly explains why Day-Lewis has long gaps between roles and has only made four films in the last 10 years.
Part of Day-Lewis’s hesitation comes from the knowledge that his method of working demands near-total immersion in the life of his character. Despite the fact that he is the most eloquent of men, able to speak extemporaneously in flowing paragraphs without the use of colloquialisms, he is unwilling to expose the mechanics of his acting process. “It’s not that I want to pull the shutters down,” Day-Lewis said, as he finished his sandwich. “It’s just that people have such a misconception about what it is I do. They think the character comes from staying in the wheelchair or being locked in the jail or whatever extravagant thing they choose to focus their fantasies on. Somehow, it always seems to have a self-flagellatory aspect to it. But that’s just the superficial stuff. Most of the movies that I do are leading me toward a life that is utterly mysterious to me. My chief goal is to find a way to make that life meaningful to other people.”
As a teenager, Day-Lewis studied woodworking and, true to the divide in his nature, he wanted to become a craftsman — a maker, rather than a designer, of furniture. He enjoyed the tools, the workshop, the construction. Before he applied to theater school, the Bristol Old Vic (“I picked just one because then it would be a sign from the gods if it was not meant to be,” Day-Lewis explained), he applied for an apprenticeship with a well-known cabinetmaker. When he was accepted at drama school, he committed himself fully to acting, but Day-Lewis never gave up his interest in the process of honing a skill. For his films, at least initially, imagining the life of his characters often involves a kind of physical invention of their world. During “Last of the Mohicans,” he built a canoe, learned to track and skin animals and perfected the use of a 12-pound flintlock gun, which he took everywhere he went, even to a Christmas dinner. He was first attracted to “My Left Foot,” the story of Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy who became a renowned painter and writer in Ireland, by the opening scene of the script: Christy’s left foot puts a record on a turntable, there’s a skip and the foot picks the needle up and then puts it down again. “I knew it couldn’t be done,” Day-Lewis said, “and that intrigued me.” After weeks of practice and eight weeks spent with cerebral-palsy patients, Day-Lewis mastered the scene on the first take. For “There Will be Blood,” he studied the historic period for nearly two years and became comfortable with the tools of California oilmen circa 1900.
But that research, as well as the kitchen table he built for “Ballad of Jack and Rose” and the heavy knives he learned to throw for “Gangs of New York” and the scent that he thought Newland Archer would favor in “The Age of Innocence,” is all just a preliminary inquiry into what, finally, emerges on screen, fully drawn. Those details, however interesting, are like mood lighting — they set the stage for seduction, but they do not explain how Day-Lewis melds with the characters he conjures.
“This work requires an unusual combination of qualities,” Day-Lewis said. He picked up a colander full of washed cherries and headed into a small cozy den off the large rectangular living room. The apartment was sparsely decorated with comfortable chairs and a well-worn pale blue sofa. The couch was piled with folded bedding — his younger son, Cashel, had left his bed upstairs and slept there. “He wanted to be nearer to us,” Day-Lewis remarked. There was a large, perfectly realized model sailboat placed on a low table. “That was a gift from Rebecca,” Day-Lewis said. “One of the few things I did with my dad was sail a boat in the round pond at Hyde Park.” A beautiful bleached-wood grandfather clock stood against the kitchen wall, and a large painting of a vivid garden hung in the entry to the master bedroom. “I did that one,” Day-Lewis said, as he sat on a low desk chair. Strewn on the floor around him were several motorcycle magazines: one of Day-Lewis’s passions is MotoGP, the competitive bike tournament, which is popular everywhere (although somewhat less so in America). This summer, he borrowed a GSXR 1000 bike and rode at 120 m.p.h. from Los Angeles to Laguna Seca to cheer on his hero, the legendary champion Valentino Rossi. When Day-Lewis spoke about Rossi, it was in the same adulatory tones he reserved for De Niro, Brando and Montgomery Clift. “I’m a groupie,” he said. “Rossi is a genius. There are some parallels between what he does and what those actors do — his work requires both a great deal of discipline and a wildness of spirit. With acting, there is always that intangible aspect that goes beyond the practical framework. Brando had that — the freedom that he had was more the instinctive freedom of an animal at times than a human. And De Niro! The world he offered in his performances had a palpable humanity. I was utterly sure that he was that man in ‘Taxi Driver.’ I have no idea by what means he arrived at that but, I dare say, at some point, he convinced himself that he was that man too.”
Part of what Day-Lewis admires so much about American movies is their lack of insistence on the kind of brilliant dialogue that characterizes much of the theater. He disparages the idea of clever talk, or the British gift for language. Day-Lewis bristled when I mentioned, admiringly, that he was so articulate. “I am more greatly moved by people who struggle to express themselves,” he said, sounding a little misunderstood. “Maybe it’s a middle-class British hang-up, but I prefer the abstract concept of incoherence in the face of great feeling to beautiful, full sentences that convey little emotion.”
Day-Lewis paused and ate a few cherries. “It was always assumed that the classics were a good line of work for me because I had a decent voice and the right nose. But anybody who comes from an essentially cynical European society is going to be bewitched by the sheer enthusiasm of the New World. And in America, the articulate use of language is often regarded with suspicion. Especially in the West. Look at the president. He could talk like an educated New Englander if he chose to. Instead, he holds his hands like a man who swings an ax. Bush understands, very astutely, that many of the people who are going to vote for him would regard him less highly if he knew how to put words together. He would no longer be one of them. In Europe, the tradition is one of oratory. But in America, a man’s man is never spendthrift with words.” Day-Lewis smiled. “This, of course, is much more appealing in the movies than it is in politics.”
WHEN DANIEL DAY-LEWIS agreed to star in “There Will Be Blood,” the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson suggested he watch a number of films, including “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” which is a kind of existential western. The 1948 film, which stars Humphrey Bogart, follows three Americans as they hunt for gold and find wealth in Mexico. Like many westerns, the movie is moralistic at heart: the character of the men is tested by their sudden good fortune and, to quote from the film’s director John Huston, they “stew in their own juice.”
“It’s my favorite movie,” Anderson told me one afternoon in early October. The writer-director of “Boogie Nights” and “Punch Drunk Love,” among other films, Anderson has always seemed interested in how fate intersects with character, especially in the openness of California. “All of life’s questions and answers are in ‘The Treasure of Sierra Madre,’ ” he said. “It’s about greed and ambition and paranoia and looking at the worst parts of yourself. When I was writing ‘There Will Be Blood,’ I would put ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ on before I went to bed at night, just to fall asleep to it.”
Anderson began writing the script when he came across the muckraking novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair, in a bookstore in London. “I was homesick,” he recalled, “and the book had a painting of California on the cover.” He ended up adapting only the first 150 pages of “Oil!” whose main character was a composite of many men, among them Edward Doheny. “After a few trips to Bakersfield, where they have museums devoted to the early oilmen, I started to get a sense of the film. The museums are largely trailers with a lot of oil equipment lying around the yard. Back in the day, enough people had cameras, and they took a lot of pictures. Oil fields were an interesting thing to photograph, and that research made it easy to put the pieces of their times together.”
The movie concentrates on the financial ascent and spiritual decline of a Doheny-like figure. “Doheny set out from the East Coast at the tail end of the wild, wild West,” Anderson continued. “Men from all over the country were coming out to the New Mexico territory to make their fortune. And they started looking for oil using many of the same techniques that they had used to look for silver.” Day-Lewis was struck by their zeal. “I read a lot of correspondence dating from that period,” he told me in his apartment. “Decent middle-class lives with wives and children were abandoned to pursue this elusive possibility. They were bank clerks and shipping agents and teachers. They all fled West for a sniff of cheap money. And they made it up as they went along. No one knew how to drill for oil. Initially, they scooped it out of the ground in saucepans. It was man at his most animalistic, sifting through filth to find bright, sparkly things.”
“There Will be Blood” presents a quintessentially American story of manifest destiny twinned with the lessons of a parable. “Back then,” Day-Lewis said, “men would get the fever. They would keep digging, always with the idea that next time they’ll throw the dice and the money will fall out of the sky. It killed a lot of men, it broke others, still more were reduced to despair and poverty, but they still believed in the promise of the West.” In the movie work he chooses to accept, Day-Lewis is often drawn to the push-pull of ambitious dreams and their consequences, as reflected in a kind of frontiersman. Daniel Plainview, in “There Will Be Blood,” is in certain ways a curdled version of the man playing him: the fever can grip an actor too.
It was difficult to raise the money for “There Will Be Blood,” which gave Day-Lewis almost two years to prepare for the role. He spent nearly all that time in Ireland, where he and his family live for much of the year in a home in the countryside outside Dublin. “I like to learn about things,” Day-Lewis said. “It was just a great time trying to conceive of the impossibility of that thing. I didn’t know anything about mining at the turn of the century in America. My boarding school in Kent didn’t exactly teach that.”
When filming started in June 2006 on a ranch in Marfa, Tex., Day-Lewis arrived in the character of Daniel Plainview. Anderson tried to shoot the script in sequence and most of the sets (with the notable exception of the real Doheny mansion, which has an in-house bowling alley and which is located in Beverly Hills) were within the confines of the vast ranch. “The ranch,” Day-Lewis recalled, “allowed you to have the illusion of an adventure that’s shared to the exclusion of all other things and people. We were drilling for oil, and that was that.”
Halfway through the 60-day shoot, Anderson realized that the second lead actor, who plays Plainview’s nemesis, was not strong enough. He was replaced by the versatile young actor Paul Dano, but three weeks of scenes with Day-Lewis needed to be reshot. During “Gangs of New York,” Day-Lewis would stay in character and deliberately glare at his co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, mirroring the contentious dynamic that these men had in the film. While DiCaprio withstood the pressure (and Dano thrived on it) there are reports that the first actor suffered from intimidation. “It just wasn’t the right fit,” Anderson explained diplomatically.
“In the beginning on ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ” Day-Lewis recalled, “we were struggling.” He looked almost gleeful. “It’s always what doesn’t work that is most useful.” Of course, this sounds more like a Brit than an American. There’s a subtlety in Day-Lewis’s performance in this movie that may stem from his outsiderness. He grew up on Shakespeare, not westerns, and as a result, he is not steeped in clichés about oil barons, prospectors and their ilk. Unlike an American actor who might have approached the project with big archetypes in mind, Day-Lewis invented the character. Which is more or less what the West has always allowed.
ON AN UNUSUALLY WARM and bright day in September, Day-Lewis was driving his black, beat-up BMW through the narrow country roads in the gorgeous, undeveloped tree-covered mountains south of Dublin. We took a crossroad called Sally Gap, heading up a steep climb toward a spot called Luggala, where the view, Day-Lewis hinted, would, in some fundamental way, explain all that he loved about this country. He began visiting Ireland with his father, Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet laureate of England, when he was 4. Cecil, like Daniel, occupied many worlds: he was born in Ireland, and every summer, Daniel and his older sister, Tamasin, were taken to live in country inns along its western coast. “It was glorious,” Day-Lewis said. He was wearing a burgundy corduroy shirt, pants in a faded mustard check and a belted olive green rain jacket that was so weatherbeaten the thick cotton had softened to suede. He clearly loved the road and was an excellent driver. “From the day we arrived here,” Day-Lewis continued, “my sense of Ireland’s importance has never diminished. Everything here seemed exotic to us. Just the sound of the west of Ireland in a person’s voice can affect me deeply.” In 1993, after spending much of his time there, Day-Lewis also obtained an Irish passport and now holds dual citizenship. “I dare say it was still considered to be an abandonment of England,” he remarked, as he neatly passed a quickly oncoming car. “A betrayal! A heresy! It is not expected that someone from my background will leave England. But I’ve committed so many heresies that there’s no sense in not making the final gesture.”
Cecil Day-Lewis was also deeply drawn to Ireland and wrote “The Whispering Roots and Other Poems,” which underscored his ancestral ties to the country. When Daniel was born, his father announced his birth by publishing a poem entitled “The Newborn.” In part, it reads: “We time-worn folk renew/Ourselves at your enchanted spring,/As though mankind’s begun/Again in you./This is your birthday and our thanksgiving.”
At the time of Daniel’s birth, Cecil Day-Lewis was 53. He had worked as a translator and had written pulp novels under an alias. One, “The Smiler With the Knife,” a spy thriller with a political theme, was adapted for the movies by Orson Welles, but the film was never made. Cecil Day-Lewis was a Communist in his 30s and was close to W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Daniel’s mother, Jill Balcon, was his father’s second wife and an actress whose father, Sir Michael Balcon, was the head of Ealing Studios, one of England’s predominant film studios. Cecil, like a good socialist, sent Daniel to a public school in South London rather than a posh academy. When his parents realized that Daniel was not being properly educated, they enrolled him in boarding school, where he was miserable. Finally, Daniel attended a progressive school called Bedales. Day-Lewis’s academic travails introduced him to a wide range of British society. “I came from the educated middle class,” Day-Lewis said, “but I identified with the working classes. Those were the people I looked up to. The lads whose fathers worked on the docks or in shipping yards or were shopkeepers. I knew that I wasn’t part of that world, but I was intrigued by it. They had a different way of communicating. People who delight in conversation are often using that as a means to not say what is on their minds. When I became interested in theater, the work I admired was being done by working-class writers. It was often about the inarticulate. I later saw that same thing in De Niro’s early work — it was the most sublime struggle of a man trying to express himself. There was such poetry in that for me.”
When he was in his early teens, Day-Lewis performed a one-boy version of Harold Pinter’s “Dumb Waiter,” and he was an extra in the film “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” “I was just a local kid,” he said, as he whizzed past a busload of tourists out to see the countryside. “I got to come out of the church, the same church where I sang in the choir, and scratch up a row of cars — a Jag, a Bentley — parked in front. I thought, I get paid for this! Years later, I saw the director, John Schlesinger, at the Edinburgh festival, where we were showing ‘My Beautiful Laundrette.’ I play a hooligan punk in that too. I said to Schlesinger, I guess I haven’t progressed much.”
In 1975, he revised his performance in “The Dumb Waiter” and auditioned for the Bristol theater school. “I thought my heart would break if I didn’t get in,” he told me. At school, Day-Lewis immediately bristled at being boxed into the classics (“One teacher was always trying to throw a cloak around me”) but took refuge in the work of Barrie Keefe, a Thatcher-era playwright, who wrote vivid dispatches from working-class life.
Day-Lewis also studied a form of acting rooted in the Stanislavsky System. “It was like happening on utopia,” he said, as we continued up the mountain. “The thing that Stanislavsky lays out is how you do the thing the first time every time — 1,000 times. That’s the idea you’re always searching for.” Sir Laurence Olivier famously dismissed Stanislavsky’s teachings; the technique was much more accepted by American actors. “Olivier might have been a much better actor on film if he hadn’t had that flippant attitude,” Day-Lewis said with annoyance. “Olivier was a remarkable actor, but he was entirely missing the point consistently. He felt that film was an inferior form.” Day-Lewis paused. “For a few years at school I tried to play the roles they wanted me to play, but it became less and less interesting to ponce around the place. Even now, when I sometimes think of doing a play, I think of rehearsal rooms and people hugging and everyone talking over cups of coffee because they are nervous. It’s both very touching and it makes me a little nauseous and claustrophobic. Too much talk. I don’t rehearse at all in film if I can help it. In talking a character through, you define it. And if you define it, you kill it dead.” Day-Lewis paused. “I’ve managed to create a sense of banishment in so many different areas of my life. I live in Ireland, not England. I make films in America. And now I’m banished from the theater because I’ve slagged it off so much. And I did the unspeakable thing of fleeing from ‘Hamlet.’ ”
His voice trailed off. The last time he was onstage was during a 1989 production of “Hamlet” at the National Theatre in London. Day-Lewis had already begun appearing in films, and “My Left Foot” was about to win him an Oscar. During the play, he had a strange sensation that he was talking to his father, who died of pancreatic cancer when Day-Lewis was 15. Unnerved, he walked off the stage and never returned to that stage or, to date, to any other. Those close to Day-Lewis warned me not to bring up the “Hamlet” incident, and I didn’t, but it clearly was a moment of demarcation: he realized his place was elsewhere.
“Enough talk,” Day-Lewis said as we roared more quickly up the mountain. He slid a CD of Irish folk music by the band Planxty into the sound system, and the car was filled with layers of mandolins and guitars. “Nothing I say will be more eloquent than this music,” Day-Lewis said. The soundtrack was a perfect accompaniment to the endless gray sky, which seemed to collide with the brilliant green of the trees. After five minutes of music and nature and increasingly steep, narrow roads, Day-Lewis neatly parked the car near the brim of a cliff. The view was magnificent. He got out of the car and stood in the wind, staring out at the countryside. “It’s easy to love humanity when you’re this far away from it,” he half-joked. “But, truly, there’s a quality of wildness that exists in Ireland that coincides with utter solitude. This place has always contained the spell for me.”
BEFORE HE BEGAN telling American stories, Day-Lewis wanted to tell Irish stories. In 1985, after his breakthrough role as the gay street punk in “My Beautiful Laundrette” and a subsequent part in Merchant-Ivory’s “A Room With A View,” Day-Lewis resisted the idea of playing English men in English movies. “Why would I want to play middle-aged middle-class Englishmen?” Day-Lewis remarked as we sat in Hunter’s Hotel in a town called Rathnew. The small room was cozy, with chintz-covered chairs, and a fire was burning. “It’s a bog fire,” Day-Lewis explained. “It has the smell of earth.” Day-Lewis ordered tea and scones and removed his tweed cap. When he was younger, the proprietor scolded Daniel and a drunk friend, who threw up in the fireplace, putting out the flames. “She said, ‘Several generations of guests in proper attire have been coming here,’ ” Day-Lewis recalled. “ ‘I hope you’re not going to lower the tone.’ ” He laughed at the memory. There is something about Ireland that reassures and bolsters his rebellious spirit. In England, perhaps he feared he would be squelched, made ordinary, old. He intentionally chose to play the priggish, snobbish Cecil Vyse in “A Room With A View,” he said, in order to “understand what it is to be that man and thereby avoid the possibility of ever becoming him.” And that sealed it — he took his career to Ireland and America.
During the making of “My Left Foot,” Day-Lewis found a slow, meticulous way that he could work. “I needed — and I still need — to create a particular environment,” he said as the tea was placed on a low brass table. “I need to find the right kind of silence or light or noise. Whatever is necessary — and it is always different. I know it sounds a little fussy and a little ridiculous, but finding your own rhythm is one of the most important things you can discover about yourself. And you have to observe it. As actors, we’re all encouraged to feel that each job is the last job. They plant some little electrode in your head at an early stage and you think, Be grateful, be grateful, be grateful. So, it’s not without a sense of gratitude that I work. But I couldn’t do this work at all unless I did it in my own rhythm. It became a choice between stopping and taking the time I needed.”
He has had blue periods — depressions and retreats, even after the success of the early movies. After the filming of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in which he played Tomás, a womanizing Czech surgeon reluctantly drawn into the country’s politics, Day-Lewis considered giving up acting. “I was hopelessly at sea,” he told me, buttering a scone. “I was extremely unhappy most of the time. I think I probably felt I’d made a fundamental error in agreeing to do that movie even though it was the part and the film that everyone wanted to do. And God help us, that is, in itself, a reason not to do something.”
After the movie was completed, Day-Lewis and Hanif Kureishi, the writer of “My Beautiful Laundrette,” would telephone each other and share dark passages from Milton. Day-Lewis eventually took off and wandered though Europe with a small watercolor kit. In 1989 or so, he began a romance with the French actress Isabelle Adjani (another topic I was instructed not to mention), and they had a son, Gabriel, in 1995. She was a Buddhist, and he took to wearing a red cord around his neck that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama. But the relationship with Adjani was tumultuous; Gabriel lives with his mother, and Day-Lewis did not speak to me about him. He is clearly devoted to his two young sons with Miller. He repeatedly marveled at their abilities: Ronan (who is 9) draws beautifully and has a devastating right cross punch; Cashel (who is 5) has a potent imagination; they both loved Texas, and each perfected their father’s accent in “There Will be Blood.”
Before his marriage to Miller and the birth of their children, Day-Lewis would actively try to remove himself from what was familiar, going wherever his work or character took him. With the role of Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” he found a kind of refuge. “I learned how to soundproof myself,” he said, taking a bite of scone. “Playing the part of Christy Brown left me with a sense of setting myself on a course, of trying to achieve something that was utterly out of reach.”
He eventually made two more Irish films with Jim Sheridan, the director of “My Left Foot.” For “In the Name of the Father,” the story of Gerry Conlon, who was imprisoned for an act of terrorism he never committed, Day-Lewis spent time in prisons and, for an interrogation scene, went three days without sleep. For “The Boxer,” he learned to box to play the main character, another Irishman caught up in the Troubles in Belfast. “I wanted to see if I loved the sport, because if I didn’t love the sport, I wouldn’t want to tell the story,” Day-Lewis said. He found certain parallels between boxing and acting. “At its best, boxing is very pure. It requires resilience and heart and self-belief even after it’s been knocked out of you. It’s a certain kind of a test. And it’s hard: the training alone will kill you. And that’s before people start giving you a dig.”
In 1991, Day-Lewis was offered “Last of the Mohicans,” which required him to illustrate the history of a country he knew almost nothing about. Day-Lewis had barely visited America (the first time was on a day trip to Seattle for “My Beautiful Laundrette” when he was in his 20s), and he had never studied the country in any detail. What he knew of America came largely from the movies. “ ‘Last of the Mohicans’ seemed impossible,” Day-Lewis told me. “It scared the life out of me.” For the first time, Day-Lewis was also being packaged and sold by a major Hollywood studio. Posters for “Last of the Mohicans” shouted, “the first American hero,” with a close-up of Day-Lewis’s face. “That was, and will always be, difficult for me,” Day-Lewis said tightly. “The work itself is never anything but pure pleasure, but there’s an awful lot of peripheral stuff that I find it hard to be surrounded by. I like things to be swift, because the energy you have is concentrated and can be fleeting. The great machinery of film can work against that. I have never had a positive reaction to all the stuff that supposedly promotes the film. The thought of it will make me hesitate to do any films at all.”
And yet, there were those he yearned to work with. Day-Lewis met Martin Scorsese when the director was planning to direct “Schindler’s List.” “I thought that would be something very interesting to do,” Day-Lewis said, as he poured a cup of tea for me. “But then the project went to Spielberg. When I met Martin at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, I wanted to pick him up and cuddle him. He is a mighty man, and when he asks you to do something, you want to do it. I was struggling to escape from English drawing rooms, but because of Martin, I accepted the role in ‘The Age of Innocence.’ ”
In 1996, he met Rebecca Miller after he completed the film version of “The Crucible,” which was based on the play written by her father, Arthur Miller. Although she had worked as an actress, Miller, who is tall with dark hair and bright blue eyes, had just written and directed her first feature film: “Angela,” the story of a troubled young girl. Miller has a quiet, intense only-girl-among-the-guys quality. She and Day-Lewis, both children of renowned writers, have, in many ways, a shared past. They also share a fascination with film (they wrote a comedy together). Recently, Day-Lewis and Miller attended a screening of a documentary about a Laotian who immigrated to the United States after the Communist takeover of his country in the ’70s. (Ellen Kuras, who was the cinematographer on Miller’s first film, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” was one of the directors.) At the end of the film, Day-Lewis seemed particularly moved by the losses the man and his family endured. Almost instinctively, Miller ran her hand through his hair. It was a gesture of comradeship, as well as kindness.
After the birth of their children, Day-Lewis seemed in no hurry to go back to work. For five years, he pursued various interests: he even briefly apprenticed as a cobbler in Italy (at the Manolo Blahnik store in New York, Day-Lewis has been known to spend an hour studying the construction and design of the shoes). “I was not thinking about going back to work,” Day-Lewis said now. “I was in dread when I knew Martin was looking for me. I was in dread of the thing that I’d been most hoping for. And that’s how it works.” He paused. “Before I start a film,” he continued, “there is always a period where I think, I’m not sure I can do this again. I remember that before I was going to start ‘There Will Be Blood,’ I wondered why I had said yes. When Martin told me about Bill the Butcher in ‘Gangs of New York,’ I wanted to change places with that man. But even then, I did not say yes right away. I kept thinking, I’m not sure I can do this again.”
Because of his commitment to a character, Day-Lewis has a very difficult time disengaging from a part. “There’s a terrible sadness,” he told me. “The last day of shooting is surreal. Your mind, your body, your spirit are not in any way prepared to accept that this experience is coming to an end. In the months that follow the finish of a film, you feel profound emptiness. You’ve devoted so much of your time to unleashing, in an unconscious way, some sort of spiritual turmoil, and even if it’s uncomfortable, no part of you wishes to leave that character behind. The sense of bereavement is such that it can take years before you can put it to rest.”
Since he often absents himself from the movies for years, the belief persists that Day-Lewis is indifferent or not completely committed to remaining an actor. “That is an amazing misconception,” Paul Thomas Anderson told me. “Daniel loves acting so much that it becomes a quest for perfection. People don’t know how Daniel can do this job the way that he does it, and my feeling is, I just can’t understand how anyone could do it any other way.”
Strangely, Day-Lewis has only infrequently played men of the present day. Before he met Miller, she asked him to star in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” but he turned it down. In 2004, he agreed. Something about playing a dying man who has a nearly incestuous relationship with his 16-year-old daughter (and the fact that his wife was the director) engaged him. While making the film on Prince Edward Island, Day-Lewis lived apart from Miller and their children, during the week, in a little hut on the beach. “I was, as always, wary of taking on the role,” Day-Lewis recalled. “This was a man whose soul was torn, and once you’ve adopted that kind of internal conflict, it’s difficult to quiet.”
We finished our tea and headed out into the large garden outside the hotel. In some ways, like many of Day-Lewis’s films, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” was another film about the attraction of the West. Jack Slavin, Day-Lewis’s character, is a Scotsman who left his country in the ’60s to forge a new identity in the possibly utopian wilds of America. “The West has always been the epicenter of possibility,” Day-Lewis said as he strolled through the garden pointing out its virtues. “One of the ways we forge against mortality is to head west. It’s to do with catching the sun before it slips behind the horizon.” He gestured toward the sky. It was 5 p.m., and the day was darkening. “We all keep moving toward the sun, wishing to get the last ray of hope before it sets.” I asked him if he looked for that quality in the characters he plays. Day-Lewis smiled enigmatically. “Life comes first,” he said finally. “What I see in the characters, I first try to see in life.”