Daniel Day-Lewis is widely considered to be one of the most accomplished performing artists of all time. He is the only actor to have won three Academy Awards for Best Actor and has various other accolades to his name, including four BAFTAs and two Golden Globes, among others. Over the course of his distinguished career, Day-Lewis built his reputation as an extremely talented method actor capable of absolutely anything.
“I haven’t figured it out,” Day-Lewis said while talking about his retirement. “But it’s settled on me, and it’s just there…I dread to use the overused word ‘artist,’ but there’s something of the responsibility of the artist that hung over me. I need to believe in the value of what I’m doing. The work can seem vital. Irresistible, even. And if an audience believes it, that should be good enough for me. But, lately, it isn’t.”
He added, “I didn’t want to get sucked back into another project. All my life, I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion. It was something I had to do.”
On his 64th birthday, we take a look at ten of Daniel Day-Lewis’ roles where he lost his own identity while immersing himself in the method-acting approach.
Daniel Day Lewis’ 10 craziest method acting stories:
My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears – 1985)
This 1985 comedy-drama explores the social dilemmas concerning the Pakistani and English communities in London during the tenure of Margaret Thatcher. Although the director was hesitant about casting Day-Lewis as a working-class punk, due to his privileged background, the actor convinced him by mailing a letter that announced that he would break the director’s leg if he did not get the part.
His co-star Gordon Warnecke commented: “Daniel has this intense reputation, but he was a complete gentleman. We went out to lunch one day and talked about our upbringings. Despite playing a Pakistani of mixed parentage, I’m half South American and half German. He’s from south London and a Millwall supporter, so was totally in tune with his part, even with his establishment background.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman – 1988)
For this film adaptation of Milan Kundera’s acclaimed 1984 novel, Day-Lewis learnt how to speak Czech even though the script was written in English. However, he wasn’t satisfied with his efforts because he thought he failed to “become” Czech.
“The idea of speaking English with a Czech accent without actually speaking Czech meant it wasn’t coming from anywhere,” the actor said. “I knew that that kernel of truth that I need to have somewhere in a role would be missing.”
My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan – 1989)
Based on Christy Brown’s memoir, My Left Foot featured Day-Lewis as a cerebral palsy patient who could only control his left foot. To get into character, the actor refused to go anywhere without his wheelchair and even insisted on being wheeled to restaurants and around the set.
The director’s daughter Kirsten recalled: “He’d call you by your film name, and you’d call him Christy. It was madness. You’d be feeding him, wheeling him around. During the entire film, I only saw him walking once.”
Hamlet (Richard Eyre – 1989)
Probably the most famous entry on this list, Daniel Day-Lewis claimed that he saw his father’s ghost during a 1989 production of Hamlet at the National Theatre in London.
After having this supernatural experience, he quit the production and did not return to the theatre.
“I had the strange sensation I was talking to my father,” he reported in 1992. “What he said to me on that night seemed particularly hard to bear.” The actor later clarified that he was talking about metaphorical ghosts: “To some extent, I probably saw my father’s ghost every night, because, of course, if you’re working in a play like Hamlet you explore everything through your own experience.”
The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann – 1992)
Michael Mann’s epic historical drama starred Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, a skilled warrior who engages in colonial warfare. In order to prepare adequately for the role, he learnt how to survive in the wilderness by actually learning how to skin and cook animals.
Day-Lewis also built canoes on his own, trained with tomahawks and figured out how to “fire and reload a 12-pound flintlock on the run.”
The filmmaker heaped praise on his star: “Daniel’s ambition is spectacular. I mean, every actor should be as intense and serious and legitimate as he is. He is totally authentic and totally legitimate. As a director, it is a blessing to have that.”
In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan – 1993)
Based on actual events, Sheridan’s 1993 biopic starred Day-Lewis as a wrongfully accused inmate who spends more than a decade in prison. The actor got into character by losing 50 pounds and spent around 48 hours in solitary confinement without any food or water.
“The one thing that I appear to have been given, 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,” the actor said.
“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!”
The Boxer (Jim Sheridan – 1997)
Jim Sheridan’s 1997 sports drama starred Day-Lewis as Danny Flynn, a boxer who is determined to restart his life after getting out of prison but his past continues to haunt him. For his performance, Daniel Day-Lewis received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
While preparing for the role, Day-Lewis reportedly trained for three years to get into the proper head space of a pugilist. According to his trainer, Day-Lewis attained the required skill level to compete at a professional level “if you eliminate the top ten middleweights in Britain.”
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese – 2002)
Martin Scorsese’s 2002 historical crime drama starred Day-Lewis as the notorious crime lord, Bill ‘The Butcher’. In order to access the twisted psyche of such a demanding character, Day-Lewis listened to the songs of Eminem at five in the morning with special emphasis on ‘The Way I Am’ from the Marshall Masters LP.
“I’m always on the lookout for music that might be helpful to a role,” he said while explaining his approach to this particular role. “It bypasses the intellect in a particular way. With this film, I realised I was listening to Eminem more than usual.”
The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Rebecca Miller – 2005)
Rebecca Miller’s 2005 drama featured her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis as an ailing environmentalist who has retreated to an isolated island with his daughter (played by Camilla Belle).
To prepare, Day-Lewis learnt more about isolation by living in a shack without his family for most of the production.
Camilla Belle said: “It was more inspiring than anything. By watching him and his preparation, I kind of got into that world as well, trying to be the character instead of just acting like her. Daniel even knew how the character would roll a cigarette. He knew how the character sat down, walked, and everything.”
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg – 2012)
Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed biopic starred Day-Lewis in the titular role. It was evident that the actor had done extensive research in order to get the tiny mannerisms right, but that wasn’t all. He asked everyone to call him “Mr President” and signed off text messages to his colleagues with “Abe”.
“He’d sign it, ‘Yours, A.,” his co-star Sally Field confirmed. “I would text back as Mary, criticising him for the waste of his time when he might have been pursuing something more productive.” For his splendid performance, Day-Lewis received the prestigious Best Actor Award at the Oscars.