Sir Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis is an actor who was born on 29th April 1957 to poet Cecil Day-Lewis and actress Jill Balcon in Kensington, London. Daniel Day-Lewis (referred as DDL at times henceforth) is one of the best actors to have ever graced films, period. In my very limited experience with films, I haven’t seen any actor with as much commitment and as immersed in their characters as Day-Lewis. For me, his portrayal of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood is the ultimate bar of an acting performance.
Sadly, not all good things last forever, and the same has happened with DDL. He announced last year that his film Phantom Thread directed by Paul Thomas Anderson will be his last film. The film world mourned the screen departure of one of its best ever. In this special feature, I make an honest attempt to give a tribute to this brilliant actor by telling the stories of the rigorous limits to which he pushed himself in the quest for nailing a role.
He learned to speak Czech for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Day-Lewis learnt how to speak Czech to portray the sex addicted surgeon in the adaptation of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He later said in an interview with The Guardian that he thought to make the movie was a mistake. “The idea of speaking English with a Czech accent without actually speaking Czech meant it wasn’t coming from anywhere,” he said. Director Philip Kaufman later told The New York Times that he thought DDL was trying to become Czech for the role.
He broke his ribs for My Left Foot (1989)
My Left Foot has gone into movie legends as the peak of method acting stories. Daniel Day-Lewis played the Irish writer and painter Christie Brown in My Left Foot. He refused to move from his wheelchair throughout the entire course of the shoot and reluctant crew had to carry him in the wheelchair around over obstacles on the set. He also insisted that the food be spoon fed to him. He did find friends amongst the disabled people of Sandymount School Clinic where he learnt about their real-life experiences. This crazy commitment to his role earned him his first Academy Award nomination and win, along with two broken ribs.
He went full Bear Grylls for Last of the Mohicans (1992)
DDL played Nathaniel Hawkeye, a frontiersman, in Last of the Mohicans. He spent days alone in the Alabama wilderness. A New York Times profile of the actor revealed that he learnt how to track, shoot and skin animals. He also learnt to fight with tomahawks and fire and reload a 12-pound flintlock on the run. DDL would also build canoes as he had a background in carpentry. He used to carry that flintlock rifle everywhere, even to a Christmas dinner. As director Michael Mann said, “if he didn’t shoot it, he didn’t eat it”.
He lived as a 19th-century gentleman for The Age of Innocence (1993)
Daniel Day-Lewis checked into the Plaza Hotel as N. Archer, after his character Newland in the Martin Scorsese film The Age of Innocence. He spent two months roaming the streets of New York in 19th-century clothing, top hats, canes and all.
He spent time in a jail for In the Name of The Father (1993)
His second collaboration with My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan had him play the role of a wrongly convicted prisoner, and his methods took him to the prison. He spent two days and nights in the jail without food or water. He had the film crew abuse him and throw water at him (If its the same crew from My Left Foot who had to carry him around in a wheelchair, I can bet they enjoyed it) for an authentic prison experience. At the end of those two nights, three teams of two real special branch policemen interrogated him for nine hours. The role landed him his second Oscar nomination.
He didn’t wash while making The Crucible (1996)
He stayed in the film set’s replica village in an island on Massachusetts, which was without electricity or water, and helped in building the set itself by building his characters house and planting trees with 17th-century tools. Without running water, he, of course, didn’t take a bath throughout the films shoot duration. He also met his wife to be Rebecca Miller on the shoot of this film. I can only guess the first impression that he had made.
He became a pro boxer for The Boxer (1997)
It is only natural that DDL will train to become a boxer to play the role of Danny Flynn in The Boxer. He trained for eighteen months with former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan and as per stories, even tattooed his own hands. He went through rigorous weight training and diets. At the end of training, McGuigan commented that Day-Lewis could have easily turned pro.
Caught pneumonia and listened to Eminem for Gangs of New York (2002)
Daniel Day-Lewis took lessons as an apprentice butcher to prepare for the role of the murderous Bill the Butcher for his second collaboration with Martin Scorsese. He spoke to the crew in a New York accent and sharpened his knives between takes. DDL told Rolling Stones that he would listen to Eminem at 5 every morning to get into the headspace of Bill, especially the song The Way I Am from Marshall Mathers LP. He caught pneumonia because he refused to wear a modern coat as it didn’t fit the period of the film. When offered modern medicine, he turned that down too. He earned his third Academy Award nomination for this role.
Left his wife for The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)
Rebecca Miller offered her husband the lead role for the comparatively unknown film The Ballad of Jack and Rose written and directed by her. He moved away and lived in a shack alone to prepare for the role, to feel the isolation of his character’s life in an island commune.
Learnt to mine oil for There Will be Blood (2007)
There’s this very popular story that Daniel Day-Lewis was so intense as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood that he scared off Kel O’Neill who was the original cast for the role of Eli, then replaced by Paul Dano. O’Neill would later clarify that it wasn’t Day-Lewis, but it was Paul Thomas Anderson for whom he left the film due to their creative differences about his character. Dano didn’t have it any easy as the bowling bowls thrown at him in a scene were real. DDL learnt to use turn of the century traditional oil mining gear to prepare for his role as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis’s performance in this film is considered by some critics as one of the best in the history of cinema and bagged his second Academy Award for this role.
He texted his co-star in character while making Lincoln (2012)
Day-Lewis would text Sally Field, who played Mary Todd Lincoln in character as Abe Lincoln throughout the duration of the shoot of the Steven Spielberg film (This isn’t what surprised me. What did was the fact that he owned a mobile phone). “He’d sign it, ‘Yours, A.,” Field told Time. “I would text back as Mary, criticizing him for the waste of his time when he might have been pursuing something more productive.” He would go on to win his third Academy Award, making him the only actor to have won three Oscars in the Best Lead Actor category.
Learnt to make dresses for Phantom Thread (2017)
Daniel Day-Lewis watched footage of 1940’s and 50’s fashion shows and consulted with the fashion curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to prepare for his role of Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread, a name which he came up with for the character. He learnt to sketch, drape and sew like a fashion designer. He served as an apprentice under Marc Happel, the New York City Ballet’s costume director, helping to make the costumes for a production of Firebird. He then made a Balenciaga Sheath dress from scratch using his wife as the model, he told W magazine. As if it was a routine, Day-Lewis would earn his sixth (and probably his last) Academy Award nomination for this role.
So, all his life Daniel Day-Lewis was preparing for his post-retirement plans. After The Boxer, he went to Italy where he fell in love with the craft of shoemaking and persuaded master shoemaker Stefano Bemer to teach him the same. He would often be spotted on benches in Florence sewing shoes and would spend most of his time during this vacation in the shoe factory. He took a five-year hiatus from films till Martin Scorsese brought him back for Gangs of New York. It is rumoured that he will pursue a career as a fashion designer after falling in love with the craft during his preparation for Phantom Thread.
When asked why he’s retiring from acting, Day-Lewis said that it becomes very painful for him to detach himself from his characters and he could only go through that pain a limited number of times. He felt this one last time was worth taking the shot before calling it quits.
I doubt whether we will see another actor with such dedication for his roles. This culture of diving deep into art runs in the family I suppose with his father being the poet laureate of the United Kingdom till his death and one of the most celebrated British authors. Whatever it was, Daniel Day-Lewis is a whole different brand of acting, a brand which only he has perfected to date. Such a persona with a gigantic presence on the screen is going to be missed very badly.
So long, Daniel. I really really hope you come back soon though.