Shall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say.
Ask my song.
-Epitaph from the tombstone of Cecil Day-Lewis,
United Kingdom Poet Laureate from 1968-1972,
from his poem Is It Far to Go?
There are ways in which Daniel Day-Lewis is discussed that are unique to conversations about his career, things we say about Day-Lewis we do not say about any other actor. First, there’s a quiet regional battle of possession under the conversation, a subtextual tug of war over the biographical reservation of his citizenship and his artistic contributions.
When Leonardo DiCaprio was honored for his performance in The Revenant by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs), buried in his acceptance speech was a thank you to “British Actor” Daniel Day-Lewis. A rightful and necessary note of gratitude, as DiCaprio’s laborious and well-documented struggle within the survivalist film is a direct offshoot to the method acting that has landed Day-Lewis the highest praise and most awards of any working actor. This mislabeling of Day-Lewis’s nationality, however, created small-but-furious side conversation, particularly in Irish publications.
Day-Lewis was born in London, England in 1957, the second son of eventual United Kingdom Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who was born in Ireland. Today, the actor lives in Ireland while holding dual citizenship in the two countries. But his Irish ties, his father’s cultural status, and his breakthrough film work on Irish director Jim Sheridan’s very Irish films about very Irish subjects (My Left Foot, for which he would win the first of a record-breaking three Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role, as well as In the Name of the Father, and The Boxer) have inspired a passionately maternal connection between the screen performer and the nation who shares pop culture custody of him. The claim is so strong that, through the last decade, it’s not difficult to find bitter accusations of traitorous betrayal leveraged against the actor from Irish cinema-goers. If Day-Lewis’s meteoric resurgence from Gangs of New York onward has seen a new ceiling reached by his craft and commitment, it has also signified, for some, an orphaned interest in Irish cinema and its exploration of Irish history and its national spirit in favor of more American filmic pursuit.
And who wouldn’t fight to hold to a part of that legacy?
Day-Lewis entered retirement after his final film with Sheridan, The Boxer, released in 1997 as his last work on an Irish-produced picture, and had to be courted aggressively by Director Martin Scorsese into taking his next role in 2002, one which would allow a cacophonous return as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. And in the decade and a half since that rebirth, we have seen a sort of philosophical monopolization of screen acting stemming from the volume of Day Lewis’s keystone performances and their reception.
Recently, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote in The Atlantic about the many ways in which the endeavor of method acting—that is, the attempt to fully identify with and transform into a character through preparative techniques evolved from those set forth in Konstantin Stanislavski’s “system”—has been almost exclusively celebrated when endeavored upon by male performers. Female stars are provided with far less opportunity and praise for this brand of dogged performance, Bastién explains, and often, those who do get the opportunity are celebrated chiefly “for deciding not to be beautiful.”
And as necessary as it is to mine into and correct the misogynistic exclusion of modern method acting, it’s not without value to also assess the over-inclusion of leading male talent. Over the past decade, we have spent as much time and energy talking about role preparation and production tribulation as we have talked about performances as valuable artistic artifacts; we measure what is not in the movie as much as we measure what is. And it all traces pretty cleanly to Day-Lewis. Since his second Best Actor win for his monumental turn in 2007’s There Will Be Blood, it could be argued that at least five of the ten subsequent winners in the same category are far more remembered by the measurement of their transformation and preparation as the quality and substance of their films and roles (Sean Penn in Milk, Day-Lewis again in Lincoln, Eddie Redmayne for Theory of Everything, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, and last year, Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea). And this list can be appended with near winners—Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Christian Bale in American Hustle, and Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher—and a list of Best Supporting Actor winners and losers—Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Christian Bale in The Fighter, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, to name a few.
In this time period, it could be said that the two easiest ways for an actor to gain attention and prominence are by suffering under “the method” or submitting to the superhero/comic book summer trends of the moment, but that discounts the intersection where Ledger and Leto’s performances as the iconic Joker have allowed for the former to bleed into the latter, even.
Among the list of those he influenced in singular turns, Day-Lewis, it must be noted, separates himself from the group through both the scope of and the wake left by his performances and in the fact that he hasn’t, in the current millennium, allowed himself much more commercial or easier work in between (post-2002, outside of the three powerhouse performances, he’s logged only the disappointing Nine and the quiet The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was directed by his wife Rebecca Miller). And yet, still, it’s much easier to find writing and discussion about Day Lewis’s preparation and commitment than the substance and outcome of his actual acting.
Dad, who’s Daniel Day-Lewis? *Dad peers out the blinds* He could be anyone, son. *Mom starts weeping* He could be anyone.
— Brandon (@UNTRESOR) July 18, 2013
But any notion that there is no end-game value unique to this method that can’t be attained through a more standard approach (say, the less decorative sort of acting we associate with Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Jimmy Stewart, or Don Cheadle) should be assuaged by witnessing the perplexing, mind-and-spirit challenging, and haunting product of Day-Lewis’s later films.
The beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood offers a wordless introduction to a grunting, determined Daniel Plainview, a silent film precursor that sees an as-yet unnamed prospector mining ore. In the process, he breaks his leg, and shortly thereafter, we see him pulling himself forward on the ground outside of the mine, presumably headed to town to collect his payment. And thus ends the opening vignette.
Not a single shot given to what we will learn is a successful journey for Plainview (the next sequence sees him striking oil as the genesis of his oil company) and no mention or flashback to what we can fairly assume would be a struggle of high stakes and drama. Anderson chooses to leave this chapter untold. Or at least unseen. One could interpret this cutaway exclusion as a note of reserve elected to keep from stretching the film’s runtime, as-is a heavy 158 minutes. But there’s a more functional explanation ready in the text. The rest of that very story is scattered throughout the film.
The question of “How did he make it back?” is answered time and time again by Day-Lewis’s embodying spite—not in his performing spitefully, but by his ability to be made of spite, to have weaponized it as Plainview’s natural tool of success. Plainview is based on the character James Arnold Ross, the sly villain of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, who is himself based on real-life oil baron Edward Doheny. Plainview gives a double serving of the slick avarice of both accounts. So the answer to that question exists in the rattlesnake speed with which he slaps Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) across the face when the young minister approaches to collect money promised, in the way we can literally watch the equation of surrendered morals play out on Plainview’s face when he’s forced to decide to tend to an eruption of oil or his newly-deafened son, or in the way he allows Eli to strike him back in an act of feigned salvation, not just with his striking palms but through taunts about Plainview’s decision to send away his own child. In this last example alone, the answer is provided in as thorough and focused and clear shot character articulation as we have ever seen, from the evident dis-ingenuousness of Plainview’s initial volunteer stand, to his insincere parroting of Eli’s instruction, to his literally biting anger and his triumphantly whispering the word “pipeline” at the end of his fake ceremony. Spite at the fabric of his being, nourished for a life history, as only the most efficient of method actors could conceive.
But it comes in smaller, subtler triumphs. In one of the more famous scenes of the 21st Century, a heavy-handed symbolic shot arrangement catches young, vengeance-driven Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) waking to find his targeted nemesis sitting next to him, wrapped in the American flag. The character Bill the Butcher is a loose rendition of William Poole, real-life founder of the Know Nothing Party and the Bowery Boy gang, and Day-Lewis brings to him a full, living history. The Butcher confesses to Amsterdam how he defines himself and his world view through violence, and follows by recounting the one time he lost a fight, incidentally to Amsterdam’s father (though the relationship is a secret to Cutting at the time). Having been beaten to pulp, the Butcher was too ashamed to look at the victor, so, naturally, he went home and cut out his own eyeball. This last detail, he accentuates with a demonstrative gesture, a hooked flip of the wrist toward his own face that, for most actors, might have involved a closed fist or an invisible spoon lifted in pantomime. But Day-Lewis, who prepared for the role by learning the butcher craft and its tools and and sharpening knives for hours, holds his wrist at a dull angle, his thumb supporting the imaginary base of the instrument, his fingers wrapped around a thicker circumference. It’s a small detail, but not trivial in its communication. Because Plainview’s familiarity with Cutting is, through method force, is a familiarity with a constructed and adopted self. Cutting is presented subconsciously in the simplest way as a man of labor and violence, a man whose instruments of work are also his instruments of war and conflict and wounding, his weapons natural extensions of his body. Here, the language of being supplements the language of the script.
Moving out from these decisions of self-familiarity is a ripple of film substance. What Day-Lewis achieves in his own performance is compounded and amplified by its reflecting from and overwhelming those around him. It’s rumored to the point of fact that Day-Lewis isn’t a fan of preparing for scenes or discussing decisions between them (in an interview with The Guardian, Jim Sheridan shared “Normally, Daniel never says more than two words. And the second one is usually ‘off.’”). We might then assume the striking fear or intimidation or shock felt (and shown) by Paul Dano or Leonardo DiCaprio to be more authentic, as perhaps our introduction to those iconic scenes is constructed of a shot that is also their introduction.
The best measurement of this, perhaps, at least in terms of Day-Lewis’s late era, comes in the authentic reverence that every member of the rest of the other-worldly talented ensemble cast holds for the actor’s occupation of the role of Abraham Lincoln. In Spielberg’s relatively understated 2012 epic, Day-Lewis chips away the copper, marble, and stillness from our cultural understanding of the beloved 16th president, and there’s a constant sense of marvel permeating every scene (watch the way a young Adam Driver, as a telegraph operator, stares at Lincoln as he lectures him on Euclid’s first common notion). But the real bomb drop, where this phenomenon is dropped to the most violent thematic effect, occurs when Lincoln demands of William Seward (David Straithairn), James Ashley (David Costabile), and Preston Blair (Hal Halbrook) “I am the President of the United States clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.” More than just a trailer-ready money shot, this line is a reminder that even our most pristinely-remembered political heroes played within the same political arena as those who we see to have done us damage.
This exemplifies the power of Day-Lewis’s loose 21st Century American trilogy, those performances from the films of three indelible American directors, which, through investigation of singular characters (each, at least partially based on some non-fictional account of real people) allows for a uniquely microscopic and macroscopic—literal and symbolic—evaluation of the pre-industrial roots we never permitted ourselves to pull. Because of Day-Lewis, we have from this complex decade a cinematic historical testimony that our political heroes worked with the same power thirst and through the same petty politics that have defined our political setbacks, that all of our historical chapters have been fought either on the backdrop or foreground of a violent and central white-centric nationalism, and that our nation’s rotten capitalist heart grows black within the chest of normal individuals who are made to make moral and personal sacrifices to accommodate the spirit of enterprise until the choice becomes so natural that it is not a choice at all.
From the perspective of an America-concerned viewer, it’s incomparably powerful work; a collection I think we’ve only just begun to unpack, let alone completely appreciate. And so much of that is owed to Daniel Day-Lewis’s transformation and transfiguration (and performance) that it would be easy for some to compartmentalize understanding of the actor to this era. In fact, I’d posit that any younger or newer film fan introduced to the current chapter of Day-Lewis’s work might not recognize the actor out of costume and character. And those same folks might be surprised to learn that Day-Lewis has done this before, creating a performance trilogy that lent to a culture’s greater understanding of its national identity.
In fact, it could be argued that there’s something even more sincere and inspired in Day-Lewis’s collaborations with Jim Sheridan. At least something more accessible and human, and still born of the same mad method. In contrast to his work with Scorsese, Anderson, and Spielberg, wherein Day Lewis’s character was the event that was happening to everyone around him, Sheridan employed the method actor on characters who were subject to the mercy of their events. As a result, we see these characters grow and stumble, fail and succeed.
In In the Name of the Father, Day Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, a real-life former prisoner who served 15 years with his father for an IRA bombing he did not commit. In The Boxer, he stars as Danny Flynn, a former prize fighter returning home from serving 14 years in prison for crimes committed while associated with the IRA. In the first film, we see Gerry move from a wild young rebel to a mature and impassioned figure of righteousness. In the second, we watch a quietly resigned and reformed Flynn learn to find the right reason to fight again. Both instances reward with an emotional climax absent from Day-Lewis’ later work. In The Name of the Father sees Gerry’s heart-wrenching reaction to the passing of his father followed by his triumphant exoneration, and The Boxer sees him walk away from his contest of physical violence (the spiritual defeat Day-Lewis exudes here is stunning) and into a more principled fight that almost certainly ensures self-sacrifice. If it is melodrama in machination, it is saved from its own saccharine trap by Day-Lewis’s humanization of the characters and moments.
And of course, both of these films are somewhat eclipsed by the actors career-launching turn in My Left Foot, the Sheridan film which might provide the best insight into answering what might be the most important, least asked, and ultimately, least answerable question about Daniel Day-Lewis’s career: Why does he does this?
It’s strange that I’ve gotten this far, some 2,500 words, into a career look-back for Daniel Day-Lewis without doing what his career profiles always do. I’ve yet to catalog the struggles.
It feels almost insincere that I haven’t mentioned those extreme examples of Day-Lewis’s method commitment. Like how he built his own small 17th Century house (using 17th Century tools) that he lived in on the set of The Crucible. Or how he developed pneumonia on the set of Gangs of New York after filming in cold wet weather and refusing to change into modern clothes. There’s the anecdote of how he asked to be imprisoned for three days before filming In the Name of the Father, requesting that guards torment him every ten minutes to keep him from sleeping and then give him a real interrogation. He built his own canoe in Last of the Mohicans and confined himself to a wheelchair during filming of My Left Foot, making his assistants spoon-feed him his meals while he learned to paint with the brush in his toes.
It’s a lot of effort for a man who seems perfectly content not acting. His filmography shows all the gaps necessary to diagnose a lack of some passion. In the gap between The Boxer and Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis supported himself by becoming a shoemaker. Not as a hobby or role research. Daniel Day-Lewis was, in the middle of his acting career, a maker of shoes.
After his return, the actor sat with Rolling Stone for this interview where he exhibited so much disdain for the mythology building around him, an aggressive defensiveness that I couldn’t find in any other interview, that one has to conclude that he has no interest in the ceremony and exposure of it all, either.
And all of that is independent of the quantifiable sacrifice made by his subscribing to the method he does. Day-Lewis spent months in character as Abraham Lincoln before filming. Even when he was with his family. Presumably, he’s done this with all of his characters. All that time that must feel like a sort of sacrifice, time that one is not giving one’s self to enjoy. Say what you will about how all crafts and trades require a sacrifice of time, of how we all give up time in exchange for money or survival, very few of us work in a job that requires such a sacrifice of our self.
In many interviews, Day-Lewis speaks candidly of the sadness he feels when letting his characters go. In the way he frames it, it comes across as a sort of melancholy goodbye, but one can’t help but wonder how much of that sadness stems more from his relationship with himself, the return to that unfamiliar personality whose time he’s just traded for… something else.
Maybe I possess an antiquated or unenlightened way of seeing things, but I’ve always thought that, in a way, duel citizenship wasn’t citizenship. By definition, I think, “home” can be only one place. In a literal and philosophical sense, one person can only belong in one location.
The same is true of singular human identity. There is either one self, or there is none.
So what can be gained from sacrificing that most cherished thing, even just in phases?
You can glean almost everything you need to know to put together a passable Daniel Day-Lewis profile from the actor’s own Oscar speeches. When he takes the stage for recognition, he’s always evidently prepared, articulate to the point of literary (which makes sense; more than just being the son of a famed poet, he is married to the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller), somewhat soft spoken, maybe in a way, even timid or mousy, though it’s tough to assign those adjectives to anyone who has somewhere inside of him both Bill the Butcher and Daniel Plainview. In his acceptance of his record-breaking honor for Lincoln, we see him praise his wife for her versatility and willingness to live with strange men and toy with Meryl Streep about trading roles with him. It’s as if he used the opportunities to charm his way ahead of all of the banter about his strange role preparation practices and his reserving his talent for Oscar-friendly opportunities.
He accepted his second Oscar, this one for There Will Be Blood, in honor of his sons, his grandfather, and his own father, a man whose memory, according to what Jim Sheridan told The Guardian in the aforementioned piece, “overshadows everything Day-Lewis does.” Later in the same piece, Day-Lewis speaks on the subject himself, “What I learnt from my father was dignity… and the ability to be true to myself. I look at his example and I remember that I shouldn’t ever waste my talent.” These quotes add a poignancy to the acceptance speech as affecting as anything in his films.
In a way, it seems that Day-Lewis has inherited from his father an understanding of his work as a service, a thing that maybe only the most powerful artists will ever understand.
Perhaps it was because he was, for once, caught off guard, but it is Day-Lewis’s first Oscar where we get the clearest and most vulnerable insight into his work. Day-Lewis, then in his early 30s, accepted the first Oscar with a speech about the man who he portrayed on screen (in perhaps what is still his best performance), Irish artist Christie Brown. Day-Lewis stated:
For everyone involved in the film, all of our desire to make the film, all the strength that we needed, all the pleasure that we took in making the film came from Christie Brown. When he was alive, he needed very little encouragement to make his voice heard. Now he needs a little more. I’m truly grateful for you. In honoring me with this award, you’re encouraging Christie to carry on making his mark.
Though subdued in tone, the passion and compassion is traceable. And if we extend Day-Lewis’s own explanation of his honor and appreciation for this single subject to all of his others, we start to get a handle on his ambition and motivation—that of extending a life, or just extending a moment history, so that we might always continue to appreciate and learn and apply the lessons of those larger-than-life characters who came before us, even after they’re long gone.
Today, Daniel Day-Lewis turns 60. Later this year, we will see him in a new film, having reunited with Paul Thomas Anderson for a currently untitled project, but given his age and reputation for working sparsely, it’s hard to predict how much more work we’ll see from an actor that more and more are hurried to distinguish as “the greatest of all time,” even as we are still finding the right language and conversation to discuss his output. But sooner or later, we’ll have to find both the words and understanding. We’ll have to speak of it honestly as being more than just the product of a committed-if-maddened methodology, more than just the standard output of an entertainer. The further he goes, the clearer it becomes that Day-Lewis’s performances are an act of slow-burning and phasic martyrdom, each a short-term self-sacrifice to permit the preservation of the dark and light of the individual human spirit so that the collective spirit might be forever improved through the permanency of these characters who have stolen his time and body. It’s maybe a little unpleasant, and maybe an assertion that we instinctively want to dismiss as hyperbole because that’s never how we’ve had to think of screen actors, but it’s now a truth that will always be there, in the stone, in his song, on the screen…
Featured Image: Miramax
Editor’s Note (04/30/2017): Originally, the article incorrectly stated that the character of Preston Blair in Lincoln was played by Hal Ashby. Hal Holbrook actually portrayed Blair. The credit has been updated.