LOS ANGELES — Daniel Day-Lewis never shows up in gossip mags, hardly ever appears on talk shows and rarely grants interviews. The elusive actor can only be seen on screen — and that’s infrequent, too.
He’s made just four films in the past decade. Each time, he steeps himself in research and often remains in character throughout months of shooting. His performances win awards and critical praise.
Then Day-Lewis disappears.
The enigmatic 50-year-old actor is back in the spotlight with “There Will Be Blood,” a film that follows oil prospector Daniel Plainview as he grows his business and loses his mind in turn-of-the-20th-century California. The performance is generating awards buzz, earning Day-Lewis a Golden Globe nomination and accolades from Los Angeles and New York critics groups.
Day-Lewis spent two years working on role
With a thick mustache, a stiffened gait and a gruff, authoritative voice, the character bears no resemblance to the lanky, handsome hipster sitting in a suite at the swanky Bel Air Hotel talking about the film. Day-Lewis spent two years preparing for the part, but when asked how he did it, he seems sincerely at a loss.
“I’m not trying to be coy, but I really don’t know,” he said, adding that he pored over scores of letters and photographs from the period. “The rest is the long, slow simmering of an untold mixture of influences until they begin to reveal some kind of life to you.”
Once he gets inside a character, he stays there and is reluctant to leave.
“It’s a testament to his willpower and his perseverance and level of commitment to be able to do that,” said co-star Paul Dano.
But when filming wraps, it can be difficult for Day-Lewis to extract himself from such deep immersion, perhaps one reason for his intervals between films.
“There’s no part of you, really, that possibly wishes to let go of it,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to have so elaborately constructed this illusion for yourself to then dispel it in a moment.”
He found it toughest to shed the characters he played in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “My Left Foot” and “The Name of the Father” — a dying dad, a palsy-stricken Christy Brown (for which he won an Academy Award) and falsely accused Irishman Gerry Conlon, respectively — as well as his latest part.
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“As alarming as it might seem to say it, Plainview, he was in no hurry to go home,” Day-Lewis said.
Enjoying his ‘slothful’ periods
Another reason for his absences from the screen has to do with his personal creative rhythm, which he playfully described as “a slothful one.” From the time he decided on an acting career — a pursuit he first fell for at age 12 — he knew he’d have to proceed at a slower pace than most.
“I feel as if the periods when I’m not working are very closely related to the periods when I am working. There is no division between those two lives,” he said. “And I feel misrepresented because I keep quiet when I’m not working, (and) on the occasions when I once again step into a public arena, some people tend to see that there’s almost a kind of bipolar existence going on. But of course for me they’re both essential to each other.”
How he spends his off time isn’t something he likes to share: “I’m always a little reluctant to talk about that, and maybe that’s how I manage to create the apparent rift between one world and the other.”
A father of two with his wife, screenwriter-director Rebecca Miller, Day-Lewis does reveal that he “loves motorbikes,” enjoys woodworking and has “a fascination for shoes, for the construction of shoes, which is a very complex and beautiful process.” (He famously took time off to work as a cobbler in Florence, Italy, before taking on the wonderfully villainous part of Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.”)
He’s fully aware of the luxury it is to work at the pace that best suits him, “bearing in mind that the experience of most actors is that they go through lengthy, soul-destroying periods of unemployment,” he said. He pays tribute to the privilege “by doing the work, by not doing it in a thoughtless way.”
‘He’s the best actor in the world’
He takes on a film project only when he’s struck by what he characterizes as an unshakable feeling of inevitability.
After reading director Paul Thomas Anderson’s script for “There Will Be Blood,” Day-Lewis “allowed myself the illusion, as I infrequently do, that this thing could not be avoided, that it was something that I had no option but to be a part of in some way.”
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings That was good news for Anderson, who knew “very early in the writing” that he wanted Day-Lewis to play Plainview.
“He’s the best actor in the world,” said the director. “That’s the short and sweet answer.”
Both Anderson and Dano — who also appeared in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (which Miller wrote and directed) — said working with Day-Lewis improved their game.
“It feels like I played tennis with Roger Federer,” Anderson said.
For Day-Lewis, now comes the least favorite part of the job: “the whole paraphernalia that surrounds it.” That includes giving interviews, avoiding personal questions and deflecting awards talk.
“It seems like you on a kind of crusade of self-promotion,” he said with smiling eyes, “and you can’t explain that I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t that I had to.”
So what’s next for the mysterious movie star?
“Rebecca’s going to make a film and I might beg for a job on the construction crew and maybe swing a hammer for awhile,” he said. “That’s always a good antidote to talking about yourself for weeks on end.”
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