The driver who picks me up from LAX is called Curry Grant. Truly. He is 80, from Louisiana, and full of good stories.
He asks me whether I'm an actress. I tell him I'm here to interview someone. He asks me who.
“Daniel Day-Lewis,” I say.
“Nicest guy I've ever had in this car. Picked him from the Hotel Bel-Air 10 years ago, took him to the airport; the nicest guy in the world. Him and Mel Gibson.”
Curry Grant's accolades increase my anticipation. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Day-Lewis, Golden Globe winner and favorite for this year’s Best Actor Oscar: He's difficult, he's beady, he's spiky, he's mad.
I will not be seeing “There Will Be Blood” until the day before I meet him, so I plunge into his early films to see if I can get a sense of him. On the screen, I meet Christy Brown (the wheelchair-bound writer and artist of “My Left Foot,” which earned Day-Lewis an Oscar for Best Actor in 1990); Hawkeye (“The Last of the Mohicans”); Newland Archer (Martin Scorsese's “The Age of Innocence”); Gerry Conlon (“In the Name of the Father,” and another Oscar nomination); Bill the Butcher (Scorsese's “Gangs of New York,” Oscar nomination No. 3); Jack Slavin (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller, with whom he fell in love after working on her father Arthur Miller's “The Crucible” in 1996). But nowhere to be found is Day-Lewis himself, not a trace of him, even in his physical self. His ability to inhabit each role down to its bones is the stuff of legend.
“One of the advantages that Daniel has,” says Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of “There Will Be Blood,” when we speak on the phone, “is you don't see him everywhere, so you don't really know who he is or suffer through having to see him every day in the newspaper. So he already has that advantage to be somebody else.”
Design your Oscar outfitBut there are a few things that, prior to meeting him, I do know about Daniel Day-Lewis. He was born on April 29, 1957, in London. His mother is the actress Jill Balcon and his father was poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who died in 1972. Day-Lewis went to a boarding school called Sevenoaks, which he hated, followed by another called Bedales (which I also attended), a progressive school he loved and where he discovered craftsmanship, in woodworking as well as in the theater.
Over his career — which goes back to 1971 and a small role in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” — he has made some 25 films, but only four in the last decade or so. In 1989, Day-Lewis took to the stage to play Hamlet at the National Theatre in London. He left before the end of the run, dogged by rumors that while he was onstage he had been confronted by his father's ghost, which spooked him sufficiently not to continue. Beyond that, it's all a bit of a mystery. The layman knows that Day-Lewis is one of the most dedicated and disciplined actors of his generation, totally immersing himself in the roles he chooses.
On the day of our interview, the 6-foot-something enigma arranges himself on a hard-backed chair in a suite at the Hotel Bel-Air. A rib is bothering him — a war wound from filming “There Will Be Blood.” He wears gold hoops in his ears like a pirate, and faint, scratchy tattoos weave up his arms.
He starts talking about the first time he read Anderson's script: “I was very unsettled by it. I felt drawn in by it, rather than repelled by it. It just felt very true.”
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Meet the Oscar nomineesIn the film, Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a civilized barbarian. Plainview is ruthless and will stop at nothing in his bloodlust for oil. Day-Lewis inhabits him with feral elegance.
“It was like a fever that took them,” he says of the oil prospectors. “Not that that excuses them their murderous behavior. They'd lived like animals, in many cases behaved like animals — been through pits of unredeemable despair, probably having lost everything. And yet, that fever seemed to be incurable once it took people. But, in this case, there was a reward of completely insane proportions.”
Although it is set in California, the film was shot mostly on a ranch in Marfa, Texas. The filming lasted two intense months. Anderson and Day-Lewis worked closely together throughout the entire process, often in companionable silence. After the completion of the film, Day-Lewis had to contend with two tangible losses: the day-to-day of working with Anderson and the character — however reprehensible — that he'd brought to flesh.
“You get towards the end of something, even if everyone's working flat out, and some part of you is begging for mercy, and everyone needs to finish. They've just used themselves up. It doesn't matter if it's four weeks, four months, or a year. Somebody says, ‘Well, that was it,’ and everyone starts drifting off. And it is bewildering, especially if the work you're doing requires you to unleash a storm of conflict in your soul. You can't necessarily just turn it off. It's a paradox, I suppose, but it's a very joyful thing, doing the work.”
Quite a meal has been made in print of the way Day-Lewis works, as he is known to stay in character for the duration of a shoot, whether he's playing a sadistic 19th-century butcher or a quadriplegic writer and painter.
Toward the end of our talk, he turns quiet. “My gratitude for what I do is very keenly and privately felt and acknowledged,” Day-Lewis says. “I'm completely aware, and have always been aware, of the privilege of being able to work when I want to work, and to not work when I don't want to. Those two lives have always gone hand in hand; they're part of the same thing. Whereas the perceived notion is that there is this great abyss between the two — there's a hermit on one side of it and a reluctant performer on the other.”
He finishes his strong black coffee and smiles. “And, you know, I don't see it like that, not at all.”
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