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Monday, December 29 1997


Tale of the Tape with Daniel Day-Lewis
by Jan Stuart, Newsday

DATELINE: NEW YORK
Even his trainer thought he was becoming a little too, um, enthusiastic.

When it was decided that Daniel Day-Lewis was going to play a boxer in "The Boxer," a new screen collaboration by the "In the Name of the Father" team Jim Sheridan and Terry George, the actor threw himself into preparations with a fervor that could be conservatively described as whole hog. He trained like a man possessed. During the course of 2 1/2 years, he boxed more than 350 rounds with his trainer, world featherweight champ Barry McGuigan. He got his nose bloodied. His eyes blackened. His lips thickened. But every day he bounced back, chirpy and indefatigable as a jack-in-the-box. Before the end of filming, in McGuigan's opinion, the newly resilient star was ready to take on the pros.

And then he coughed.

Just a few short weeks ago, Day-Lewis' body rebelled. Big time. First came the coughing fit, and that triggered a herniated disc. Trouper that he is, he went ahead with a taping of "Charlie Rose," stoically screening out one of the great spinal agonies known to man.

Two weeks and a few shots of cortisone later, he sits in a New York hotel room, stiff and erect, a stone pharaoh guarding a tomb. He recalls his coughing spell, remarking, "An ignominious way to get an injury if there ever was," then grins sheepishly as if he had been caught with his Achilles' heel in his mouth. When he is told, by way of consolation, that he can now get one of those wheelchair insignias for his rear-view mirror that will enable him to park up close at the supermarket, he wants to know: "Can I put one on my motorbike?"

The obsessional, martyr-for-his-art attitude with which the 40-year-old star readies for all of his roles generates the kind of tales that make intimates wince and biographers dance jigs in the street. He shaved his head to play Russian poet Mayakovsky. As an Irish writer with cerebral palsy in "My Left Foot," he confined himself to a wheelchair on and off camera and had himself carried onto the set. He learned to trap and skin animals for "The Last of the Mohicans," in which he played an Englishman raised by Native Americans. He holed himself up in a plain wooden cabin for "The Crucible," and, to take the cake, had himself shut into a cell for "In the Name of the Father," not to mention interrogated by real cops, doused with ice-cold water and deprived of sleep.

It was during the filming of the latter picture that Day-Lewis began to do gym workouts with a production staffer who had been an amateur boxer in Belfast. The actor eventually hooked up with McGuigan through the film's director, Jim Sheridan, a friend of the fighter who was in the midst of preparing a book about his life and career. Sheridan and his leading man entertained thoughts about one day filming McGuigan's story, and although the discussions were entirely off-the-cuff, Day-Lewis decided to go into training with McGuigan anyway. That initial training would last for a year before plans for a film began to take shape.

"I wanted to know what I could make of this, if there was anything in me for it," Day-Lewis explains at a typically deliberate pace that suggests to the listener either a well-honed talent for circumspection or perhaps the residue of muscle-relaxing pharmaceuticals. "Because I didn't see the point in doing a film unless I could really learn to fight."

The McGuigan bio, as it happened, never materialized. Instead, Sheridan and George concocted a fictional scenario about a Belfast boxer being released from a prison after serving 14 years for Irish Republican Army activities that he has come to deplore. While the resultant film would take on the implosive, bottled-up character of its protagonist, it would feature three full-throttle boxing sequences, as Day-Lewis' character attempts to reignite his career and reinvigorate an old relationship with a now-married former girlfriend, played by Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves").

When McGuigan was officially recruited to help stage those scenes, Day-Lewis' education in the ring began in earnest.

"What helps me an awful lot is to somehow get rid of the illusion that one is making a film," he says in an effort to make sense of his total immersion tactics, "because that, in itself creates a sensation of unreality. The great advantage of working with Barry was that he just treated me like any run-of-the-mill athlete who wanted to try and achieve the best they could. So for that period of time I could pretend I was training to be a fighter, and the film became something unspoken rather than a distant, illusory possibility."

McGuigan, a slight but solidly built man, was startled by his trainee's drive at the same time as he identified with it. "I worked my ass off," recalls this southern Ireland native of his own glory days. "I worked till I couldn't stand up. People say, 'Oh yes, it's natural.' There's no such thing as natural. You have athleticism, and the rest is hard work.

"Daniel doesn't do anything easy. He trained like a nut. He trained harder than any fighter that I've ever worked with. Daniel worked twice a day, seven days a week. I said, 'Daniel, you don't have to make it this tough.' He said, 'Look, in order for me to understand what a fighter goes through, I have to simulate what it's like.'

"It was amazing. I commentate on sports every week, and I have no hesitation saying that, of the top 15 middleweights in the country, if you eliminated the top five, Daniel could have boxed any of the other ones. Without any problem. And that's how good he got. But that's due to his assiduous attitude toward preparation."

Good as his pupil was, McGuigan was obliged to map out the matches in such a way that served the story's design, minimized the chance injury and yet allowed some latitude for spontaneity. The balance was struck by weaving tightly planned moves into a prelude of free, come-what-may fighting.

"We looked at all the Hollywood fight scenes," says McGuigan, who spikes his boxing jargon with the no-nonsense feistiness of a seasoned sports analyst. "I don't mean to be denigrating, but a lot of them would have these clean hits, smashing punches and exaggerated effects. I'd watch them and think, C'mon, guys, don't give me that.' We wanted to take a step back to make it realistic: Put in half hits and blocks, and grabbing, and punches that miss. So we'd have some free sparring and some choreographed stuff, and try to make it look continuous."

Pugilistic pursuits are no stranger to Day-Lewis, who, despite his comfy upbringing (he is the grandson of Ealing Studios magnate Sir Michael Balcon and son of England's Irish-born poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and actress Jill Balcon) was initially sent to a rough-and-tumble local school in southwest London.

"I grew up in a neighborhood where there were lots of gangs," he says. "If a kid gave you a problem, you just socked him, and that was that. I got into scraps. I never particularly enjoyed it, but I think if someone had taken me in hand and helped me to discover boxing at that age, I would have loved it. As it was, I was defenseless in situations where you had to be pretty vicious."

The actor is intrigued by the great irony presented by "The Boxer," the notion that a violently confrontational sport can be used as a lightning rod with which to unify a people embedded in, and separated by, violence.

"There was an extraordinary atmosphere in Ireland during Barry's career. The Troubles [as the political violence in Northern Ireland has become known] were very bad at the time. And Barry single-handedly, through some form of violence controlled by rules, somehow managed to draw two warring sides together. It brought out in the community, if never at a conscious level, a very simple fact--which is that these people are the same. The same experiences, the same culture, the same hopes, the same fears. What they have in common for two supposedly different communities is so much more than what divides them."

Day-Lewis seems as passionate about his acquired sport as he is about his chosen profession. The temptation to look for connections between the two is irresistible, particularly in the wake of David Mamet's recently published snarling on the actor's craft, "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor," peppered as it is with analogies between acting and boxing. Day-Lewis concedes some parallels, albeit with a cautiousness that reveals a person anxious about never taking a false step, either intellectually or in performance.

"Although a boxing match seems so personal to those two men going at it in the ring, it's very much to do with a very strange exchange that takes place between the spectator and what goes on in that arena, or stage, if you like. The one I am always dubious about has to do with risk and fear. Actors talk about 'taking risks' and 'overcoming our fears.' But there is something so pure about the fear you experience when you step through the ropes and face up to somebody who is trying to do you harm. Not just the fear of getting hurt. Thefear of not acquitting yourself well, the fear of being vanquished in an unseemly way. That fear washes through you like white lightning.

"So, I've been loathe to compare that. I mean, what is the worst that can happen [to an actor]? You can make a bad film? So what?"

Mamet, whose book disdains the pretensions of academic acting methods, would have a field day commenting on the elaborate lengths to which Day-Lewis has gone to prepare for a role. When a relevant Mamet pronouncement is shared ("All the knowledge in the world of the Elizabethan era will not help you play Mary Stuart"), the actor stares down at his lap and offers up a laugh at his own expense. "But it may make you think that it helps you," he says in his defense, "and that's as good as anything. Whatever it takes to loosen up that place inside you that either gives you something or doesn't.

"Boxing would not be at all bad training for actors actually. Because it teaches you discipline, the ability to overcome problems both physically and mentally, and it certainly deals with the confrontation with fear and anxiety. The great irony being that in the ring, you can only fight well when you are relaxed. It's not natural to feel relaxed when someone is trying to belt you around the head. So you have to achieve that somehow. That's something you learn by endless repetition."

The gold band on the actor's left ring finger attests to his 1996 marriage to actress Rebecca Miller, whom he got to know over the course of making "The Crucible," written by her father, playwright Arthur Miller. That union put the brakes on a head-turning parade of purported affairs with such women as Juliette Binoche (his "Unbearable Lightness of Being" co-star), Winona Ryder (his "Age of Innocence" co-star), Greta Scacchi, Tilda Swinton, Julia Roberts, Sinead O'Connor and, most prominently, Isabelle Adjani, with whom he shared a six-year relationship and fathered a son. Could his current spinal malaise be seen as hubris for a sensationally athletic social life?

That question would be better addressed to his former flames than to Day-Lewis, whose go-for-broke performances belie a characteristically tight-lipped English reverence for privacy. Even in matters surrounding his work, the actor can be evasive, if charmingly so. When asked if there were any among his many chameleonic roles that presented a greater challenge than his Oscar-winning assignment as the disabled Christy Brown in "My Left Foot," he demurs at first, then protects himself with a litany of maybes.

"I don't know. At the time, they all seem more or less impossible. And then you claw your way to some kind of an understanding.

"I think maybe the toughest film to make, maybe, was 'In the Name of the Father.' Maybe psychologically, it was more stressful. Maybe. The mind plays tricks. In a strange way, Christy's predicament, his [physical] incarceration, was the same as Gerry Conlon's. But the shooting of 'In the Name of the Father' took much longer, and the pressure of that work seemed much harder to bear, to hold onto that reality. Living within prison walls, that's a tough thing. And we got out at the end of the day."

Both of those films, like his upcoming release, purveyed a favorite celluloid theme: the triumph of the common man over adverse situations. Which leads us to wonder: If Day-Lewis' life (famously riddled with sorrowful boarding school days, a migraine pill overdose in his teens and a nadir of exhaustion that prompted him to bail out in the middle of a performance of "Hamlet") could be crunched to fit the narrative requirements of a screenplay, where would he locate his own triumphs over adversity?

'If I look back upon my life, I see there are periods which I know to have been tremendously difficult. The triumph, it's not a sense of triumph, but a sense of having just got on with it and stuck around. And I think that's what most people seem to go through in their lives. Life itself has a gravity which can threaten to drag us down at certain moments. To some people, getting out of bed in the morning is a great triumph. Not taking a drink during the day is a great triumph to others. I don't think I've been spectacularly challenged, but there have been times when I've felt, as we do sometimes, as if the gods were persecuting me. Nothing more dramatic than that.

"I do feel like I've been given a chance to do things that I really wanted to do, not just once or twice but maybe half a dozen times. And that is a gift that sometimes isn't bestowed on people once in their life. I've been hugely blessed in that sense."

Rising carefully from his chair as the interview winds down, Day-Lewis apologizes for not being more succinct in his responses. As he inches toward the door with a robotic gait, we ask what he plans to do after his body mends.

He breaks into a smile that seems to confess his gluttony for punishment, then replies without hesitation, "I'll probably jump back in the ring."