When I meet actors, I usually sense some resemblance between them and the characters they portray on the screen, but when Daniel Day-Lewis ambled into the room in Beverly Hills’ Four Season Hotel, I could not perceive in him any of the traits of the characters he has portrayed on screen, such as the savagery of the butcher in Gangs of New York or the ruthlessness of the oil barren in There Will Be Blood or the charisma of the eponymous Lincoln, who he has recently brought to life in Spielberg‘s new picture.
Dressed casually and smiling kindly, the shy, softly spoken actor has always struggled to explain the magic of his utter physical and mental transformation into other humans, insisting that it should remain a mystery, but he is willing to share some of his prepping techniques.
“Of course, there are a lot of obvious practical things that need to be done,” he begins. “It’s fairly clear what you need to learn about things that are absolutely beyond your frame of reference. But really all the work in the end is just the work of the imagination, trying to draw the elements together, finding those corresponding elements in your life with the life of the character, allowing them to create for yourself the illusion that you can enter into the life of that person, experience the life through them.”
And he has done it all over again in Lincoln, which focuses on the final four months of 16th American President’s life as he fought for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and strove to unite a nation torn apart by the Civil War. The tumultuous period provides a crucible to display everything Lincoln was made of, both his folksiness and fortitude, his charm and humour and his gentleness and compassion.
“I know I am not Abraham Lincoln – I’m not daft,” the 6’4” tall actor continues. “But I choose to believe for a period of time or shut out the voice in me that would say ‘you’re not Abraham Lincoln.’ So it really is just that simple game of make believe that we play as children and some of us never stop playing and others get on with the serious life and everything is at the service of that.”
But one could hardly describe Day-Lewis’s physically- and mentally-demanding methods as a game. The actor, who made his first big break on screen in as a swaggering punk in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), immerses himself so deeply in his characters that he often risks drowning. He broke two ribs while impersonating the contorted Irish writer Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989); he lived rough in the wilderness and learned to track animals to play a frontiersman in Last of the Mohicans (1993); he spent time in a prison cell and endured the humiliating punishment of prison officers to play an IRA bomber in In the Name of the Father (1993); and refused medical treatment when he was struck by a bout of pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York (2002), because such a treatment wouldn’t be available to his 18th century character.
His harsh methods seem like self flagellation, but Day-Lewis insists that he derives a profound joy and pleasure from his work. “I take a lot of time getting ready for any piece of work. That’s where the pleasure is for me. When you go to those lengths to create a life that’s believable to you, it seems much stranger to me the notion that you jump in and out of it all day long so it just makes sense to me really to carry on, exploring that life that you’ve taken the trouble to invent, I suppose, on set,” he explains.
Day-Lewis’ deep commitment to his craft hasn’t been in vain. It has gained him numerous awards including two Oscars for his roles in My Left Foot and There will Be Blood in addition to 2 Academy Award nominations for his performances in The Name of the Father and Gangs of New York. But he insists that his only drive is the love of acting and utter dedication to his craft. In fact, he is so selective of the roles offered to him that sometimes it takes him years to commit to a project. Hence in spite of being considered one of the best actors of his generation, we see him only occasionally on the big screen.
“I know myself well enough to know when it’s time to work and I was blessed actually with a pretty good sense from an early age,” he smiles. “I’ve always felt within all creative fields that it’s much less to do with whatever gift you might have for that work rather more to do with whether you are compelled to do that work to the exclusion of everything else and so I work when I feel the compulsion.”
But even when his mind is settled on a project, a sense of trepidation of failing and responsibility to the director and his colleagues remain heavy on his heart. Those feelings were particularly overwhelming when he was cast by Spielberg to play the iconic American President.
“I would not wish to be the person that forever desecrated the memory of the most loved President this country has ever known,” he reflects with an earnest look in his eyes. “So I had to ask myself whether I could genuinely serve this story and serve Steven and I wasn’t sure if I could do that. It seemed an outlandish idea to take somebody that grew up in southeast London and just make him the President of the United States. Not any president,” laughs the London-born.
Nonetheless, once he had accepted the job, he completely immersed himself into the world of Lincoln, reading over a 100 carefully-selected books about the legendary president, losing weight, and spending almost a year with the makeup artist to achieve a complete physical transformation into his new role. “My approach was the same approach I have to any piece of work which is to try and to create an understanding for myself in a very personal way of a life. I had a year to prepare and at a certain moment the books are put to one side and the real work begins, which is always the same thing I suppose a work of the imagination, because I’ve never been in any position of authority over anything or anybody,” he laughs, gazing down at the desk.
However, Day-Lewis, who’s fathered 4 children, found some common ground with Lincoln’s affectionate care for his family. In spite of his absence from home for long periods of time, Lincoln always made sure he came home and spent time with his sons. In fact, he rarely exerted authority on them, providing them a free rein to roam the White House, sometimes to the detriment of the valuable objects that adored the president’s home.
Lincoln’s compassion extended beyond his family, who were the pillar of his life, but also to other people and even for animals. “It would be preposterously arrogant to suggest I had any similarities with that man,” Day-Lewis says humbly. “But I could recognise a corresponding element I suppose and his humour which was just so delicious to me to discover.”
Indeed, Day-Lewis was surprised to unveil an incredible wit and humour behind the impenetrably thoughtful image of Lincoln that we have become used to. Apparently, the former president never missed an opportunity to tell a joke even in the darkest hours of the American Civil War. “His humour allowed me to be playful perhaps in a more noticeable way,” quips Day-Lewis, who had mostly played dark and serious characters, which he suspects has given the false impression that he takes himself too seriously.
“I think you have a responsibility to take the work seriously but it’s very important that you don’t take yourself seriously,” he intones. “But playfulness is really the work I do. Even when you tell a very hard story about hard things, that has within it great sadness, loss and violence, we still have to be playful with that. It’s a game, but it’s a game that you play seriously,” he smiles.
Indeed, the star takes his game very seriously. Once he finds his character and inhabits him, he never lets go until the end of the shoot. His co star, Sally Field, who plays Lincoln wife, said earlier that Day-Lewis used to send her texts during the night about matrimonial chores, while shooting the movie.
“It would be misleading to think that I was engaged in some 4 or 5 month flirtation with an actress that I was working with,” he chucked embarrassingly. “I am sorry to debunk the myth that if I’m making a film in the Middle Ages, I live in the Middles Ages. I try as far as possible to do without the trappings of modern life if that’s the story I’m telling, but there are certain forms of communications that I’m very grateful for, and a text is a very brief and easy way to stay in communication with people I need to feel that connection with, and that includes all the actors I’m working with.”
Having chosen to live away from the limelight, the 57-year-old, who lives in Ireland with his sons and wife Rebecca Miller, doesn’t nurture close relationships with his peers, but he studies their work carefully before he embarks on a project with them. “I don’t need to know by what means they arrive at that character. All I need is to feel that there’s a living truth there in front of me,” he says.
Day-Lewis truly marvels at the centre of this great ensemble of actors in Lincoln, his performance is like a conductor’s baton to all of them, as he completely disappears into his character with small details and grand gestures. His performance transcends acting and becomes magic, which undoubtedly will not go unnoticed by the Academy Awards this season.
Having grown up idolising Lincoln from a very young age, Day-Lewis is grateful to have been given the chance to explore his life and touch his spirit. Getting closer to the great man was a tremendous privilege that he will cherish for the rest of his life. Hence it was hard for him to part company with his idol.
“It’s over but the beautiful thing in this case is that I can now go back to loving Lincoln from the other side of the line,” he laughs, contently.