Daniel Day-Lewis’s shock decision to retire means the movie industry has lost one of its most mercurial talents. But who is he, really?by Wendy Ide / February 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Most film stars tipped to collect a fourth best actor Oscar—their sixth Academy Award nomination overall—would barely be out of the public eye. But Daniel Day-Lewis has a talent for disappearing. When taking on a role, he hunkers down for months or even years of preparation.
Between films he steps away entirely, provoking speculation that he has abandoned it all for cobbling or carpentry. In a life story populated with ghosts, perhaps the most persistent is the enigmatic, elusive man himself.
Thanks to a lifetime of reticence and fiercely-guarded privacy—he rarely gives press interviews—there is an almost translucent quality to Day-Lewis’s persona, which makes him an actor of rare talent.
The effect is increased by the mythology that surrounds his method-acting techniques. Day-Lewis famously keeps in character for the whole shoot; often other actors and crew members are forbidden from interacting with him.
He embraces hardship, even humiliation—he lived in a cell and insisted on being doused with icy water in preparation for prison drama In the Name of the Father. For Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), he learned how to dismember a pig; for 1997’s The Boxer he spent over a year getting pummelled by ex-fighter Barry McGuigan.
When Day-Lewis does open up, his answers are lyrical riffs, elegantly phrased and noncommittal. In an era of insta-insights and Twitter oversharing, he is that most exotic of oddities—a truly unattainable celebrity.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the mythology is that it works in everyone’s favour. The fans get fitful glimpses of the interior life of this most private of actors. The media get colourful anecdotes; flashes of overwrought near-genius. And Day-Lewis gets to deflect attention away from himself and on to the thing that most matters to him—his work.
The film critic Mark Kermode says of Day-Lewis that “he doesn’t bring any personal baggage to the screen beyond his immersion in the roles. He’s a blank canvas, waiting to be reconstructed from scratch. Every time you see him, he seems like a completely different person, which is the essence of great acting.”
And what work it is. His most recent performance, as the micro-managing 1950s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, is a tour de force of impeccably tailored cruelty. There is a strong possibility that the…