Daniel Day-Lewis: The Method Man

Last week, I took a long, critical look at the career path of Denzel Washington, whose most recent film, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight,garnered high marks and an impressive first weekend box office take. Washington frequently commits to projects and it is not unusual to find the talented actor in at least one film per year. He doesn’t overwork, like Samuel L. Jackson or Nicolas Cage, and he’s prevalent enough each year to a degree that is never agitating or overbearing. Denzel Washington chooses his roles carefully but regularly; his presence on screen is welcomed and never deemed an ‘event’ or a criticism of ‘he’s only doing this film for the money.’ Then you take a look at an actor who falls onto the end of the spectrum labeled ‘event,’ meaning that his appearance on the big screen is a notable rarity. An actor like this is a foil to the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson and is even less routinely around than Washington, and the ratio between films starring Samuel L. Jackson and films starring this particular actor calculates to about 7:1. This actor is Daniel Day-Lewis.

One of the most captivating, charismatic, and electrifying performers in Hollywood whose daring portrayals of on screen figures, both historical and fictional, has won him countless accolades and warm reception, Daniel Day-Lewis is the definition of a method actor and his immersion into cinematic characters is on a level that strains to be comparable to any other contemporary film or television actor. Three years after his last turn on screen, in Rob Marshall’s Nine, and five years since his last Oscar-winning performance, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis returns as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s bold period piece, Lincoln, spearheading a massive ensemble cast with a quality caliber and theatrical command that is sure to earn him another nomination for Best Actor this coming February.

Born in 1957, Daniel’s poet father, Cecil Day-Lewis, was of Anglo-Irish descent but resided in England, eventually becoming the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate later in life while his mother, Jill Balcon, was a Jewish actress who lived in both Latvia and Poland before emigrating to Britain. Daniel grew up in southeast London with his older sister, Tamasin, who would follow an aligning path into entertainment as both a documentary filmmaker and a television chef. Due to the bullying he faced in school, Daniel embarked on mastering the local accent, mannerisms, and credits of the region and toughening up his persona. These first convincing ‘performances’ led to his troubled adolescence being filled with criminality and the resulting consequences; these behavioral choices precipitated his transfer to the Sevenoaks School, a boarding school in Kent, at the demand of his parents. It was here that Daniel was introduced to the academic study of acting. At age 14, he had a brief, uncredited role in Sunday Bloody Sunday as a vandal, a role that Day-Lewis could parallel to his own troublesome young teenage years. The young boy described the work as a heavenly experience, getting paid to vandalize valuables, like expensive cars, for the cameras.

Counting this tiny part in Sunday Bloody Sunday as Daniel Day-Lewis’ debut, this marked the first screen appearance of an eventual benchmark for modern day acting. The unruly and rebellious personality had faded and he was now working in the National Youth Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and performing at the Bristol Old Vic itself. Television work, like How Many Miles to Babylon? on BBC, was added to the actor’s résumé just before memorable roles in Gandhi and The Bounty started to make him a familiar faces to film goers. In Gandhi, Day-Lewis’s small part was of a street thug who bullies Ben Kingsley’s titular peacekeeper, while The Bounty sported dual leads Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson while Day-Lewis’s conflicted and loyally struggling first mate was surrounding by supporters Laurence Olivier, Edward Fox, and Liam Neeson. Meanwhile, in the theatre circuit, Daniel Day-Lewis made his big break in Another Country, which featured him in the lead. He expanded in both circles, joining the Royal Shakespeare’s theatre coincided with his brave performance in My Beautiful Launderette as a gay man in an interracial relationship, and A Room with a View, a sophisticated drama co-starring Helena Bonham Carter. Yet, it was his leading turn in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where he began his method techniques that have come to define his career. During the entire eight month shoot of Unbearable Lightness, Day-Lewis refused to break character both on and off set and even learned Czech fluently to make his portrayal that much more authentic.

The method acting was used to a very rewarding degree in 1989 when Day-Lewis starred in Jim Sheridan’s biopic, My Left Foot, about Irishman Christy Brown whose misdiagnosed cerebral palsy led to childhood abuse, but ultimately became highly inspiring when his condition was realized and he learned to live his life by having control of a single appendage: His left foot. During pre-production, the actor frequented the Sandymount School Clinic in Dublin, which housed numerous disabled individuals, some with conditions so severe that they lacked the ability to speak. Daniel Day-Lewis befriended many of these people and used their stories and nuances to carve out his incredible portrayal of Christy Brown. During production, he again refused to break character and the performer’s eccentricities became fully noted. To understand the embarrassments Brown faced throughout his life, Day-Lewis would roll around the set in his wheelchair and force crewmembers to lift him over cameras and lighting equipment. He desired such a level of authenticity that the performer broke two ribs from hunching over in his wheelchair daily for many weeks. However, the intensity that Day-Lewis brought to the character of Christy Brown awarded him his first Academy Award for Best Actor.

As the 1990s began, Daniel Day-Lewis became strictly a screen actor. While performing Hamlet at the National Theatre, viewers witnessed the actor faint on stage during a very specific scene when Hamlet’s ghostly father first appears to the titular character. While the incident was said to be a reaction to exhaustion, on the celebrity talk show Parkinson, Daniel Day-Lewis truthfully addressed the incident which left the actor back stage in an uncontrollably emotional state refusing to reappear on the stage for the remainder of the evening. Apparently, Day-Lewis saw a vision of his own father appear on stage as opposed to an actor portraying Hamlet’s father’s spirit. The supernatural event caused him to collapse on stage. Day-Lewis hasn’t appeared on the theatrical stage since.

His preparation for Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans in 1992 was a highly publicized Hollywood tale. Learning to live on his own in the wild, carrying a long rifle with him at all times, and even acquiring the skill to skin animals was amongst the extensive research the actor did to play Hawkeye. One year later, Day-Lewis partnered with the late Pete Postlethwaite, an actor he had met during his early days in the theater, and director Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father, an emotionally wrenching tale about a wrongfully convicted Irishman within the Guildford Four: The scapegoats for a bombing carried out by the Provisional IRA. Day-Lewis demanded to be left in seclusion in a jail cell, receive light torture and verbal abuse, and donned a convincing North Irish accent throughout filming. Day-Lewis’ technique, which consistently edges on lunacy, proved successful yet again with a second Best Actor Oscar nomination. Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence followed, which affected his wardrobe choices for the two month shooting schedule, and 1996’s The Crucible, an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, provided a life development for Daniel Day-Lewis. The playwright’s daughter, Rebecca Miller, was present on the film set many days and their acquaintance led to a romance, which still continues to this day. As the new millennium lingered, Jim Sheridan directed Day-Lewis yet again in The Boxer, which marked his final film of the 1990s and began a five-year acting hiatus. Day-Lewis literally disappeared from public view until 2002, looking to return to his crafting passion of woodworking and to study a new interest, the art of shoemaking. “It was a period of my life that I had a right to without any intervention of that kind,” is the most Day-Lewis has ever provided about his five years missing in action.

When he did return, it was to re-team with Martin Scorsese for the grittily violent period drama, Gangs of New York, which earned him another Best Actor nomination. Despite being third billed, and arguably a supporting actor to lead Leonardo DiCaprio, Day-Lewis’ role is one of the strongest screen performances since the beginning of the 21st Century, and I’m sure nobody opposed him being bumped up to the Best Actor category from Best Supporting Actor. During filming, Day-Lewis’ abidance to the time period of the feature led to a pneumonic diagnosis and he was forced, against his will, to seek logical medical treatment. Another five years and a single film appearance, in his wife’s film, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, passed before Day-Lewis was put in the limelight again. Not only was There Will Be Blood a gigantic critical success and a scorer for director Paul Thomas Anderson, but also Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was an instant winner. His four competitors at the Oscars that year, unfortunately, had no shot at an upset and even now, half a decade later, very few performances have come at all close to Day-Lewis’ revelatory Daniel Plainview. Leading up to the Oscars, every award nomination led to a win, but the individual success never affected his quiet, shy public presentation or his unyielding humility. Upon receiving the Best Actor award from the Screen Actors Guild, he dedicated the win to the late Heath Ledger and labeled the young man’s performance in Brokeback Mountain both ‘unique’ and ‘perfect.’ From a man as astoundingly talented as Daniel Day-Lewis, I’m sure Ledger would have been very proud to hear Day-Lewis’ kind words.

The surprising decision to star in Rob Marshall’s movie musical, Nine, matched the surprising reception to the Chicago-director’s feature. It was met with very disappointing reviews, as many had expected a repeat of Chicago; the film was also a box office travesty failing to break $20 million domestically and didn’t even make back its $80 million budget when worldwide grosses were factored in. With this weekend approaching, we have only a trailer to guess at what Daniel Day-Lewis will bring to the big screen as one of America’s historical heroes, Abraham Lincoln. With the king of period epics, Steven Spielberg, at the helm, the film comes to multiplexes with a lot of buzz and a lot of skepticism. Many were not captivated by Spielberg’s screen take on the Tony-winning War Horse, but with a rich Civil War setting and an expansive cast including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, and many, many others, Lincoln could be the Spielbergian biopic of yesteryear, like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. However the film stands technically, audiences have a pretty solid idea of what to expect from Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role of the 16th President of the United States.

From early days in the theater and smaller roles in feature films, through award winning breaks into household status and partnerships with directors like Jim Sheridan, Martin Scorsese, and Michael Mann, to risky portrayals in his middle age, Daniel Day-Lewis never fails to entrance viewers with his unique on screen personality and off screen research antics. He can be complicated, both personally and professionally, and he works in a fashion that many actors or actresses today would be fearful of emulating. Christian Bale is the only other present day actor who comes close to working within the method means that has propelled Daniel Day-Lewis through his thirty years strong acting career. Now while Bale is indubitably talented, he still pales in comparison to the strength and fearless embrace that Day-Lewis gives to every single one of his roles. The only question that remains is where the actor can go after playing a character as massive as Abraham Lincoln. Wherever he does go and whoever he tackles next will surely impress and demonstrate the nature of true, convincing cinematic acting.

Article By Mike Murphy

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