name of the father
In a rare interview, Daniel Day-Lewis talks candidly to Simon Hattenstone about winning a Bafta, the Oscars, and the night he saw his father's ghost on stage
Friday February 28, 2003
Daniel Day-Lewis: 'The important thing is acting's a game'
Daniel Day-Lewis's bedroom is dazzling in its whiteness. It takes a while for my eyes to adjust. Eventually, they see beyond the white walls, white chair, and white bed (unmade), to the jeans strewn on the floor, the soiled baby bibs, the jars of organic rice pudding. At first glance, this could be the set of a French art-porn movie; at second we're in the chaotic midst of everyday domesticity. Day-Lewis looks as if he has just got out of bed. His eyes are a rheumy mud bath, his nose is running, he could do with a good ironing. He also looks rather wonderful. His shaven head shows off the fine, sculpted skull. His body is svelte and lithe. It's hard to believe he's 45.
Day-Lewis is visiting London to receive his Bafta for his giant performance in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Hence the trendy-posh hotel, where he is staying with his wife Rebecca Miller and their two sons. Ultimately, this is part of the Oscar trail. Day-Lewis would much rather be home in County Wicklow, Ireland, but the film's producer, Harvey Weinstein, measures out his life in Oscar nominations and is determined that his actors put in the groundwork.
What was astonishing about Day-Lewis's Bafta acceptance speech was how calm and talkative he seemed. After all, he is almost as famous for his reticence as for his Method acting. "Did I talk a lot?" He laughs, sheepishly. "In retrospect I probably was surprised, yeah. I rambled. But I am calm, I think, generally speaking - I have my moments, certain anxieties, but for the most part I am fairly calm." A typical Day-Lewis sentence, stuffed with caveats and qualifications, just in case.
I ask him if Weinstein is forcing him to do lots of publicity. He smiles a beautiful, complex smile - angelic and sexy at the same time. "Yes, it's for him. When he wants something he's got to have it. He's a man of mighty appetites. He was devastated the other night because he had all these nominations and..." Well, he got you; you won for him? "Yes, he got me. He'll have to make do with me."
It is 18 years since Day-Lewis made his name in My Beautiful Laundrette as the peroxide street kid who provided one-half of cinema's greatest gay snogs. After that, he played a series of memorable roles: quadriplegic artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot (for which he won an Oscar); the feral Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans; half-crazed Gerry Conlon wrongfully imprisoned for his role in the Guildford bombing in In the Name of the Father; the cold repressed lover in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. Like De Niro and Brando at their peak, he doesn't play a part; he becomes the character.
The stories of his method are legion. How he spent six months in the wild to become Hawkeye; how he was locked in a jail and interrogated for In the Name...; how he cut slabs with the top butchers for Gangs of New York. Not surprisingly, given the limits to which he pushes himself, he has made only 15 films in 20 years. Before Gangs of New York, he had not worked for five years. He took himself closest to the edge on stage when he played Hamlet in 1989 and became convinced on stage that he was talking to the ghost of his own father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. He walked off mid-performance, and has not returned to the theatre since.
Day-Lewis says he has always felt compelled and repelled by his profession. He was inspired by what he calls the poetry of the inarticulate. "It was Ken Loach, and Barry Keefe and Phil Davis, that opened up the world for me before I came across Scorsese and Mean Streets. I thought for the first time that there was a purpose in this goddamn work other than just strutting around and spouting."
He knows it's perverse to cite such influences, given his own background. "I come from not just a household but a country where the finesse of language, well-balanced sentence, structure, syntax, these things are driven into us, and my parents, bless them, are great custodians of the English language. My mother [the actress Jill Balcon] loves the language. Yet for me, for whatever reason - maybe it was my small rebellion - it was inarticulacy that moved me."
After two unhappy years at boarding school, he left. He then went to the liberal private school Bedales, was extremely happy, and left with barely an exam passed. "When I went to Bedales it was like the garden of Eden had suddenly opened up for me. It was a playground, as I think schools should be."
Day-Lewis often returns to the notion of play when talking about his work. "The important thing is it's a game. And that's what people misunderstand. It's a game, a very elaborate one. But, as far as possible, each of us is trying to go back to the playpen to retrieve that state of naivety which allows us to to to go through solid objects. You know, to create the illusion for ourselves that we are changing. So it's a game, and a game is a pleasurable thing. The work is pleasure, yet it's always presented as a form of elaborate self-flagellation."
Fair enough, I say, there is pleasure, but there must be plenty of pain; after all, few actors scour the soul like he does. He nods. "To this day, it's the reason why most of the British press apparently choose to believe that I'm stone mad. It's the sum of it all; the stuff I said as a kid, the way I work, the Hamlet incident."
Now, he says, he's more haunted about the fact that everyone has the wrong idea about the Hamlet incident. "To me, it was like a natural conclusion to the job I was doing. If I hadn't arrived at that centre of confusion, I would have probably felt a sense of disappointment." He bursts out laughing, and tells me to take a chocolate.
So what did happen? "I had a very vivid, almost hallucinatory moment in which I was engaged in a dialogue with my father...yes, but that wasn't the reason I had to leave the stage. I had to leave the stage because I was an empty vessel. I had nothing in me, nothing to say, nothing to give. I depleted myself to the point where I had nothing left."
But for Day-Lewis, isn't the objective to do just that, deplete himself? "The aim on a conscious level was to try to understand. I don't mean in an intellectual way, because that is the death of all work that we do, but I mean in my... organs."
In a way, I say, perhaps it was the pinnacle of your career; the ultimate achievement? "An ecstasy? All I can say is that it was inexorable in both the spiritual and physical sense, because at least three stage managers tried to push me back on stage, and I had the strength of 10 men."
Did he break down after Hamlet? "I didn't work for a couple of years, but I've done that consistently. In this case it was more obviously related to that experience. I was exhausted." Physically? "And mentally, yes. I don't think I had a breakdown, but I daresay I wasn't that far from it. I broke myself down."
I ask him if he discovered anything about his father when playing Hamlet. "I think I discovered the extent of an unfulfilled need in me, which was very disturbing." He re-read his father's autobiography, The Buried Day, and realised they shared many character traits. "For instance, the predilection for going at the thing that you find fearful... Like a relish of certain physical danger, I suppose. Like a tendency towards reticence, which he certainly had. After he died, I reread his poetry and found it tremendously frustrating... the frustration I felt at the turn at the end of the poem, the downward inflection, the melancholia was so prevalent in a lot of his work, and probably something I felt a little touched by and didn't want to be."
Was he close to his father? "No," he says instantly. "I mean, I was in the sense that I loved him. But I think he needed distance; a remoteness, rather. I probably wasn't aware till after he was dead that it was something I missed, but I did miss it. I missed that. I missed him while he was still alive and even more after he died." Even though he was an impressive man, he says, he never really knew him as a well man. For much of his life, his father was sick with gallstones, heart problems, jaundice and the cancer that finally did for him. "He was always struggling with one thing or another - as well as his own mind." He whispers the last bit.
I look around the room, at the bibs and baby food. It looks as if he is a different type of father. Yes, he says, he was never quite sure what a father's role was - but he has adapted easily. What surprises him most is the intensity of the love for his children. His two youngest sons, Cashel Blake and Ronan Cal, are out with their mother, the writer and film-maker Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller. Back in Wicklow, he says, he can happily doss away weeks and months with them without so much as a blink. He has an Irish passport, and speaks with more than a tinge of brogue.
His oldest son, Gabriel Kane, seven, lives with his mother, the actress Isabelle Adjani. Day-Lewis and Adjani split up in 1995 when she was pregnant. He was demonised in the press, which coincided with another lengthy retreat into privacy.
I want to ask him about it, but can't think of a tactful way of doing it. So I go for the blunt approach. How did he feel when newspapers reported that he had finished the relationship by fax and labelled him the world's biggest shit? "That's right," he mumbles. I expect him to come to a stroppy stop, but he doesn't.
"I knew at that time only too well what my responsibilities were, and in what sense I had failed myself and people that I loved and so forth. But I was quite appalled by the extent to which that was taken and elaborated - to the point where I seemed to be like an antichrist. Of course, I found that very hurtful. The reality, the facts of that situation, were hard enough... yes I was vulnerable to that stuff, absolutely."
Soon after he and Miller married in 1996, he entered another retreat - his longest yet, five years. Besides starting a family, what else did he do in that time? "Different things." He smiles. "Different things. Some of which I've resolutely chosen not to speak about. For a good proportion of that time I was doing things that made me feel at least that I was learning about something, and those, I think, are the most sublime moments we have."
The most common story is that he was living in Italy, making shoes. Is it true? "That's one of the things that I've just chosen not to talk about." Why is it so important not to talk about it? "Maybe in some pagan sense, you feel the value of something would be diminished by transforming it into something else." Everything quickly becomes a commodity, he says. I tell him I'd heard he was actually making a living as a cobbler. "I wasn't making money, no. It's an insane privilege to be able to take that period of time off without having to worry about the bills."
It's amazing how quickly middle age creeps up on you, he says. Your eyebrows are beginning to look like Scorsese's, I say. "Ha! Yeah, he's well equipped in the eyebrow department. Look, I've got hairs growing on top of my ears." I walk over to him to check out the ear hair, and tell him there is none. "I might have pulled them all out. Can you imagine if you didn't? You'd just end up looking like a troll."
Ah, I say, I've found some buried in your ears. I give them a gentle tug. He starts coughing. "Excuse, me I need to blow my nose." He blows it like a trumpet. "Aah, Jesus!" What is that strange thing on your hand, I ask - part tree, part crucifix. "Oh, that's a tattoo," he says bashfully. "Homemade. I gave myself this one for The Boxer, actually. A lot of guys in jail tattoo their hands. I meant it to be more fucked up than that." Did it hurt? "Erm... not like other things." I don't ask.
The press officer knocks on the door. He goes outside to see her and asks for a few minutes more. There's another knock on the door. He has locked himself out.
He tells me how proud he is of Rebecca's new film. "We came back from Rome - eight months' shooting for Gangs of New York - and then we went to upstate New York, and she had that film shot in three weeks." Amazingly, he has already got his next project lined up: a script written by Rebecca.
I ask if he and Rebecca bonded over having famous literary fathers. He laughs. "Arthur's very different from my dad. Arthur's way with words is a very different thing. It's quite wonderful. He's ceaseless, y'know, he was on the anti-war march in New York. It was bloody freezing. I think it nearly toppled him over."
Day-Lewis seems so relaxed now, so gentle. Is it true that when he was playing the psychopathic butcher in Gangs of New York, he was so absorbed in his character that he kept getting into fights? "I had a few encounters in parking lots in Rome," he says. "The truth is - and this was part of the problem with Hamlet as well - you explore these things, you try to unleash these things which you hope will inform the life, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be in control of them once you've opened the box."