January 28, 1994
Be it an Irish prisoner, english dandy or American frontiersman, he finds the fit. Playing himself seems to be the hard part.
"Very often there's this misapprehension about actors being people that need to display themselves, to reveal themselves in public," says Daniel Day-Lewis. "The paradox is that very often it's the sense of losing yourself in that public situation which is the drug."
Day-Lewis is holding a mug of tea and looking down at a spot somewhere between the eyes of his questioner and the flames licking efficiently in the fireplace of the sitting room of director and friend Jim Sheridan's handsome Dublin town house. He has just made the 30-mile trip from his Wicklow country home by motorcycle, and he's sheathed for the journey in fierce boots, black trousers, a nubby gray-green sweater, and a padded black jacket. His dark hair is a short, rumpled thatch. His narrow face shows a weedy growth of beard. He's 6' 2" and as thin and pale as the light in the streaky Irish winter sky. He wears tough clothes, but his presence is soft, almost blurred.
He is revealing about as much of himself as a visitor with a tape recorder is going to hear.
"More tea?" asks Sheridan, helpfully.
As Gerry Conlon in Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, the 36-year-old British-born actor metamorphoses with long, lank hair and Irish accent into a sullen Belfast layabout locked in a British cell for a terrorist act he didn't commit. It's a big, passionate performance in the kind of role that Oscar nominators like. As Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's recent movie adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, he metamorphoses with a well-bred, turn-of-the-century New York accent into a gentleman of manicured bearing, fighting the forces of his own desires that threaten to wreck the genteel society to which he is bound. It's a subtle, passionate performance in the kind of role that Oscar nominators like. (Those who worry about Oscar voting indeed worry that his two strong showings will cancel each other out.)
It is only as himself that Day-Lewis falters and seals over, withholding the intensity and clarity that have come to define his acting strengths. Exposed to the camera, he's one of the most compelling film actors working today, projecting a startling magnetism that has marked his work since he first came to notice eight years ago in two dramatically different roles: as a young, gay, bleached-blond working-class punk in Stephen Frears' offbeat film My Beautiful Laundrette, and as a priggish Edwardian suitor in the Merchant Ivory production of A Room With a View. (In New York, the two films opened on the same day in 1986.) For his tour de force performance as Christy Brown, the Irish artist with cerebral palsy in Sheridan's 1989 film, My Left Foot, he won an Oscar; for his virile portrayal of Hawkeye, the white man raised native in Michael Mann's 1992 authenticity-obsessed adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, he shored up his sex-symbol status, a quality he first acquired in 1988 when he appeared as a Czech lothario in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A measure of the star's audience-grabbing power: He was a leading contender to play the AIDS-stricken lawyer in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia but passed on the role.
It's when he's in the public eye that Day-Lewis is least at home in his skin. The result is that he has been portrayed by the press as mysterious, eccentric, hermetic, idiosyncratic, dark. And here he is, being so very opaque: an obscure character who shines only when he assumes the characters of others. "The problem is," he says, circumventing most questions and his questioner's eyes by focusing on the coffee table, or perhaps it's on a piece of lint, "people are always trying to talk about things on your behalf, and I'd always rather keep my mouth shut. Then again, every now and then you're put in the position where you have to sort of put it back in the place where it was instead of spreading out all over different things." You see. The fact is, there is nothing else besides impressions of Daniel Day-Lewis to seize upon: What is the core of an artist who specializes in completely replacing his core?
Hence this meeting at the house of a friend, designed to warm the subject up and thaw him out. The host does his part, clattering around the airy kitchen boiling water, buttering toast. The phone rings. It's Sinead O'Connor, anxious about the Father music video of the song cowritten by U2's Bono, "You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart," which she sings and which Sheridan is set to direct that afternoon.
Daniel Day-Lewis is known for his need for privacy, and for his ability-his requirement, in fact-to submerge himself in roles through a process of rigorous preparation (like locking himself in a cell to play Conlon) and sustained acquisition of character (being carried around even off camera when he was playing Christy Brown, for instance). He is also known for the grave good manners with which he keeps an intrusive world at bay. "He did go around with his walking stick off camera, talking like Newland," recalls Martin Scorsese, "and we made some fun of that. But, actually, the polite way Newland speaks is not far from the polite way Dan speaks."
What did Day-Lewis think of working with Martin Scorsese? How was it to costar with Michelle Pfeiffer? What does it feel like to fill oneself with fictional personalities? "I'd prefer not to answer that question," Day-Lewis says time and again, in the most modulated of English accents.
"James Joyce said of writing that the only thing you couldn't take away from him was courage," says Sheridan. "And Daniel's got courage-it's nerves of steel. More tea?"
This is what one knows about the man: that he is the son of the late Cecil Day-Lewis, who was poet laureate of England from 1968 until his death in 1972, and Jill Balcon, an actress whose father was head of England's Ealing Studios from 1937 to 1959. That he and his older sister, Tamasin, a documentary filmmaker, were raised in a household that combined high aesthetics and comfortable surroundings with socialist political inclinations. That the father died when the son was 15. That Daniel thought seriously of becoming a furniture maker.
"His mother is a friend of mine," recalls Miriam Margolyes, who sparkled in the role of the formidable socialite Mrs. Manson Mingott in The Age of Innocence. "When I knew him, he was a very good-looking young man who wasn't sure whether he should be a woodworker or an actor." The young man's chosen profession, she thinks, suits him. "He's a very private, thoughtful person whose inner life looms unusually large."
"The one thing that I appear to have been given," Day-Lewis assesses, "bearing in mind that I am capable of being very, very scatty and extremely lazy, is the ability to concentrate on something I choose to give my time to." He sits impressively still; he barely shifts in his seat. "That would apply to making furniture as well. I could probably continue working on a piece of furniture for five days and forget to eat." He analyzes his ultimate choice of careers: "I suppose I have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion, so it's no problem for me to believe that I'm somebody else!" Here he smiles, then laughs. He's got a lovely, shy hiccup of a laugh.
This is what one reads in early magazine articles: that the death of the father haunts the son, who, in his newest film, plays a young lout who comes to terms with filial love only after sharing a jail cell with his Da for four years of his 15-year ordeal. That the tormented Daniel once drank too much migraine medicine. That, grappling with the ghost of his father, he once walked off the stage midway through a 1989 performance as Hamlet, never to return for the run of the production.
Perhaps these stories are what come about from an accretion of replies that include the refrain, "I would rather not talk about it." On this blustery January day, the explanation goes like so: "In a way, it's an unfortunate coincidence that Sea (Day-Lewis calls Jim Sheridan Sea-pronounced "Shay"-short for Seamus, the Irish for James) and I decided to do this film. Because I have always felt that after a few remarks I made in the past, my own relationship with my father has always been grotesquely overemphasized and distorted.
"Various connections have been made which are entirely specious between my missing my father, my getting in trouble, me ending up inadvertently taking some pills because I was having a good time, which actually happened years later and had nothing to do with my father whatsoever. And then this sort of incident with Hamlet added to this list of apparently ghoulish coincidences. I had no problem. I still relate to my father very much. I mean, I talk to him in a certain way, as we do talk to the dead. But I don't feel I've any problem there. And, of course, working with Sea on this film would seem as if there's some resolution we're looking for through the father and son coming to understand each other."
He looks in the direction of Sheridan, who is draped on a white couch, rumpled as a pal in a pub listening to a familiar tale. "I suppose," continues Day-Lewis, "in a facile way, it's true that my relationship with my father was unresolved when he died. But all relationships with all parents remain unresolved, particularly between father and son. I never had to escape from my father, because when somebody dies they do the job for you, you know? In a certain way. Although in some ways they make it thereafter impossible for you ever to escape." He looks at his massive boots.
Before Daniel Day-Lewis met Jim Sheridan, he had temporarily withdrawn from filmmaking-as he has done from time to time throughout his career. Then the script for My Left Foot arrived unheralded through a slot in the door. "As I remember it, it was dusk, so the light was just falling in the house, and this thing, this luminous thing came through the door," Day-Lewis recounts. "All I was thinking was, 'I don't care if I don't work on this, but I love it for giving me back the desire to work.'" He and Sheridan met-and clicked. "Sea's somebody that, if I say I want to, sort of, you know, dangle upside down from a hundred-foot crane for a couple of hours to get some blood into my brain, he'd encourage me to do it. I suppose I had never met anyone mad in quite the same way. Before, I never felt that I could do things the way I really wanted to. Because I always felt I had to fit in with everyone else's way."
The Day-Lewis way involves massive preparation and complete concentration within the role. Lena Olin, who wore nothing but a bowler hat in her love scenes with him in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fondly remembers her costar: "He was obsessive. I'd want to giggle. I love to work with him, but he's not somebody who you can try to make laugh when you're shooting." As a result of what he feels is excessive attention to what should be nobody's business but his own, the actor now hates talking about how he does what he does-even as he has learned to ask for exactly what he needs to get the job done. For The Age of Innocence, he registered at a New York hotel under the name Newland Archer and went about daily life carrying his walking stick and smelling sweetly of cologne. ForIn the Name of the Father, he ate a prison diet, lost 30 pounds, spoke only with a Belfast accent, and underwent police interrogation to hone his sense of terror. "Essentially, the process of working towards the presentation of a life that isn't yours is a process of working towards unconsciousness. So if you've done the work properly, you're absolutely unconscious to what extent that life has become you or you have become that life," he explains. (For this leg of the conversation, he looks at the mantel.)
Michael Mann, who directed Day-Lewis in Mohicans and who shares the actor's passion for research, describes weeks of training-including lessons in hunting, shooting, rappelling, tracking through woods-and admires how thoroughly the man became the part. "On the last day of shooting," he recalls, "Daniel said, 'I've got no idea how to not be Hawkeye.' He said he had a real difficulty with decompression."
Indeed, Day-Lewis is most likely to drop out of sight after a project. "There is a craving for a certain kind of solitude," he says, and he claims that he is as happy not working as he is when he is engaged in a project. Anyhow, happiness, what is that? Unconsciousness, he supposes, "is my sort of closest definition of happiness. Unless you are a fully realized being, of which there's only a handful on this earth, I think the best you can hope for are periods of time where you don't notice time passing."
Day-Lewis is content not seeking projects-but these days his name is always mentioned for the biggest of them. (Although Anne Rice was keen to have him cast as her hero in Interview With the Vampire, he never bit and Tom Cruise got the role.) And when his name does float up on bold-faced lists of candidates negotiating for prize roles, the information is usually wrong. (A future starring role as Errol Flynn's son in Two Missing? "Never heard of it.") Similarly, when his name floats up in bold-faced items about rumored romances (with Winona Ryder? with Julia Roberts?), the gossip usually does not stick, though he is known to have been involved in a long on-and-off, England- to-France romance with the French actress Isabelle Adjani. Question: "Are you in love?" Answer: "Ah, it's good you (saved) that question. If it had been the first question I might have got back on my bike." Follow-up: "So you're not going to answer?" Confirmation: "It doesn't seem like it from here." Smile. Lovely smile.
Day-Lewis carries an Irish passport and feels most spiritually at home in Ireland; his house in the country is not far from Sheridan's own rural retreat. Yet he continues to foster a reputation for homelessness-for having no permanent address, no place to stash his Oscar, no place to hang his biking helmet. "Apparently, according to all reports," he agrees. The truth? "I'd hate to disappoint people. I'd hate to tell people I'm not haunted by the % ghost of my father. I'd hate to tell people that I live in a really nice place and intend to live there for many years to come."
"Most people don't confront Daniel directly," understates Miriam Margolyes. "You are conscious that you are in the presence of something quite different. I think you will find that because of his own reticence, he breeds reticence in other people. I partly do that out of a sense of protection for him. He is extraordinarily vulnerable, and he has built a carapace around himself."
It's time to confront him directly; the tea is running out. Is he indeed an eccentric hermit with a father fixation? "It pleases people to think I'm a kind of roaming maverick on the edge of either committing suicide or killing somebody else and popping all sorts of strange things into my mouth and homeless and totally unpredictable," he says, considering the faintest of smiles. (Is he a naif, or does he know exactly how he comes across?) "And I suppose all those things sound quite appealing. And even if all of them at some time in one's life may have a certain degree of truth, it doesn't begin to describe me."Because he is so hooded and because his sentences are often so exquisitely controlled, Day-Lewis says he is often misinterpreted. Catch him with a corner of his mouth turned up and you can tease out an image of a guy who likes to laugh with his mates, jaw with the lads, and gun his motorcycle to uncivilized decibels (he was ticketed in England last year for speeding). "People ask me serious questions and I've got a serious-looking head and little by little a portrait has emerged, like a (photo ID kit) when someone's on the run from the police and you end up with this kind of extraordinary mismatch of bits and pieces," he concludes. "People always choose to concentrate on the kind of grim aspects of one's life, or what appears to be the grim aspects. But I've also had interviews where we've had a good laugh and they still make it sound like you're an undertaker."
The grandfather clock chimes. Day-Lewis looks hopefully at Sheridan-his pal, his protector, his collaborator, his partner in the mysterious alchemy of making drama.
"You know," says the director, rubbing his doughy face, "I feel like an idiot goin' on these interviews."
"Why?" counters the guarded soul, leaning toward his friend and smiling his warmest, loveliest, most magnetic smile. "Anyway, I'm always talkin' shit."