Searching for Daniel Day-Lewis

Toward a unified field theory of our greatest living actor


Dillon Freasier and Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”
Dillon Freasier and Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”

Perhaps the most touching anecdote I’ve ever read about Daniel Day-Lewis comes from his Boxer (1997) co-star Emily Watson, who revealed in a 2012 Time magazine profile that she once dared to question the celebrated actor about his notorious process. You know about the process, of course. We’ve all heard about Day-Lewis regularly submerging himself so deeply into his roles that he makes Method stalwarts like Marlon Brando look like community theater amateurs. For The Boxer, Day-Lewis had really learned to box, wound up with a broken nose and a bad back, and had made sure to keep his distance from Watson, who played his long-separated girlfriend. Years earlier, for The Last of the Mohicans (1992), he had lived in the wilderness and built canoes and captured, skinned, and ate wild animals. Before that, on My Left Foot (1989), about the life of a writer with severe cerebral palsy, he had remained in a wheelchair throughout production, with crew members having to feed and carry him.

“Why do you work like that?” Watson says she asked him.

“Well,” Day-Lewis replied, “I don’t think I’m a good enough actor to be able to not do it this way.”

A sweet line that bespeaks a certain modesty, perhaps. But watch enough of Day-Lewis’s work in a short enough time — as you can do starting this Friday at the Quad, with its ten-day, fifteen-film series “All or Nothing: The Fearless Performances of Daniel Day-Lewis,” presented in anticipation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming Phantom Thread, which Day-Lewis says will be his last film before the cameras — and it might become clearer to see what he means. Completely losing oneself in a specific milieu definitely has its appeal — especially if an actor is trying for authenticity and realism — but there’s more to Day-Lewis’s statement than that. For all his prodigious talent, what comes across most when we watch his performances is the effort he puts into them. He doesn’t just do the work; he shows us the work. Watching him can be exhausting, and exhilarating.

Acting is a showy profession, but we tend to resent actual showiness in individual performances. The phenomenon of the actor who disappears into a part — who assumes a character’s psychology as his own, and internalizes the role — is not new. More than 200 years ago, the performer and manager David Garrick heralded a more naturalistic break from the proclamatory, stentorian styles of those who had come before, thereby revolutionizing the British stage. And film acting, we’re told, requires understatement and subtlety: One must eschew broadness and bring everything down, because the camera itself, which captures even the tiniest of gestures, will make it huge. It’s not so much that movie actors can’t go big — many of them do, to plenty of acclaim — but we in the audience understandably expect a certain seamlessness; we don’t want to be taken out of our suspension of disbelief.

What then to make of Daniel Day-Lewis, who has given us the biggest, most wildly energetic, and, yes, showy performances of our time? You can see this theatricality even in an early supporting role in Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty (1984), in which he plays John Fryer, a naval officer who remains loyal to Anthony Hopkins’s Captain Bligh during the infamous mutiny led by Mel Gibson’s Fletcher Christian. Whether he’s sitting quietly at a dinner table or being tormented by rebellious sailors, Day-Lewis’s Fryer demonstrates an operatic grandiosity that’s impossible to ignore. Part of it simply has to do with the angles of the actor’s face. Donaldson often blasts him with light that accentuates the grooves of his cheekbones, so that he looks unreal, his visage masklike. (There’s no acting gesture more broad than going absolutely, unnaturally still.) But Day-Lewis’s ability to convey rage is also electrifying. Ironically, Mel Gibson, whose anger issues were confirmed by later events in his life, never feels particularly convincing onscreen when he gets mad and shouty. Day-Lewis, who by most accounts is a gentle, quiet fellow in real life, seems genuinely dangerous when he shows rage on camera.

Movie stars, generally speaking, usually stick to variations on an established persona. That’s why we go to see them; we’re virtually guaranteed a return. Day-Lewis gained quite a bit of critical acclaim when both My Beautiful Launderette and A Room With a View famously opened in New York on the same day in 1986; the two very different films, which went on to become hits, demonstrated his staggering range. But he arguably became a movie star when he won that first Best Actor Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990, upsetting Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise; for his next part, in Michael Mann’s hit adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis’s face was front and center on the posters, and his physical transformation into a muscle-bound frontier warrior was central to the picture’s marketing. He hasn’t played anything but leads since then, and almost always in major productions.

So then what is Day-Lewis’s star persona? Especially when we’re told repeatedly that this is a man who “disappears” into a part? Maybe it’s not so much an onscreen persona as it is a professional one — that of the daring, profoundly accomplished, go-for-broke actor. And yet, I’d argue that something revealing does come through in his performances, a unified sense of the man beneath the mask.

That might even be his essence: He’s not afraid to jar us, and to reveal the process to a degree. There’s something almost cubist to Daniel Day-Lewis. He goes big at odd times, and draws attention to the snarls and stares, the character intensity he assumes as his own. In Gangs of New York (2002), Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) expresses outrage that Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher has killed an elected official; “You don’t know what you’ve done to yourself,” Tweed warns — whereupon Bill taps his own glass eye, which is emblazoned with an American eagle, with the sharp end of a knife. It’s a nod to the fact that, according to the film, Bill cut out his own eye after not being able to look a rival in the face after a defeat. (True to form, Day-Lewis actually had prosthetic glass placed over his eye, and he really did tap it with a knife.) The gesture works not just as an expression of Bill’s monstrous devotion, but also as a sly nod to Day-Lewis’s own dedication to his craft.

Similarly, in There Will Be Blood (2007), the ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview attempts to kiss up to Paul Dano’s young preacher, Eli Sunday, by attending a revival meeting and, at Sunday’s urging, is repeatedly made to shout, “I’ve abandoned my child!” Day-Lewis plays the moment with such shrieking, spittle-flecked broadness that the scene becomes a comment on itself — it’s not just about the costs of Plainview’s ambition, but also about the actor’s own mad sense of commitment. The outsize nature of his performance — which director Paul Thomas Anderson makes sure to shoot in tight, agonizing close-up — becomes, ironically, another entry point for the audience into the moral universe of the film. We love this bigness because it allows us to fantasize about what we ourselves might give up for greatness, or power, or money, or even love.

It’s not just the angry alpha-male parts where Day-Lewis goes broad in gesture and affect. Perhaps the most touching scene in all of Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View involves the sight of his sniveling, scorned suitor, Cecil Vyse, as he slowly, sadly puts his shoes back on after being let go by his fiancée, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter). Watching the heated romance between Lucy and Julian Sands’s George Emerson, we’ve come to resent Cecil — a prim, obsequious, small-minded loser, ready to clip our adventurous heroine’s wings. But by drawing out this moment to an almost unnatural degree, Day-Lewis hijacks the movie ever so briefly, allowing us for a few seconds to step into (heh) his character’s shoes. And the film is better for our empathy. (“He’s the sort of person that you imagine you might be in your worst nightmares,” is how the actor described Cecil in an interview at the time — an interesting way to approach what could have easily become a one-dimensional character.)

All these performances — yes, even that gasbag Cecil — are rooted in something visceral. Day-Lewis doesn’t so much disappear into a part as sculpt it from within, as if something is clawing and bursting its way through him. In truth, so much of his process centers on the body — as when he starved himself in a jail cell and was interrogated and brutalized by real Special Branch officers for the Irish political drama In the Name of the Father (1993). Sometimes the performance itself seems driven by a kind of coiled violence — as in There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York. Just as often, though, he might highlight a character’s fragility — as in Lincoln (2012), where he makes the president’s weariness and the chill of the White House seep into your bones.

That visceral quality is a key part of Day-Lewis’s presence. And it’s one of the reasons why, no matter the protestations of promo copy, he never quite disappears — why he retains something of himself even under piles of makeup and research and period detail. We never quite forget that it’s him up there. That seems like it’d be the kiss of death for someone who appears in ostensibly realistic, mainstream narrative films. But for Daniel Day-Lewis, it is perhaps his greatest strength — a high-wire act of engagement and distraction, of immersion and repulsion, that has resulted in one of the most unfathomably brilliant acting careers ever to grace our movie screens.

‘All or Nothing: The Fearless Performances of Daniel Day-Lewis’
Quad Cinema
December 15–24