NEW YORK—The conversation has so far been easygoing and amiable. It’s only when the interviewer brings up the subject of shoemaking that his subject’s eyes narrow and his voice, already softly modulated, drops an octave.
“How did you know I worked on shoes?” Daniel Day-Lewis asks.
The interviewer is taken aback. He has to think fast: How did he know about that? He replies that, maybe, Day-Lewis brought it up the last time they’d spoken five years ago about his performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”
Upon further investigation, it turns out there have been several articles that mention Day-Lewis’ other profession. It’s even mentioned on a couple of Web sites. The guess here is that Day-Lewis doesn’t read his press clippings, which, if true, would neither surprise nor confound.
Here’s something else that’s no surprise: Every three years or so, the world-at-large is forced to once more confront the possibility that this retiring professional craftsman, father of three and resident of County Wicklow, Ireland, may well be, at 50 years old, its greatest living actor. Day-Lewis, it seems, is again in a movie for which critics can barely contain their enthusiasm.
And, hard as it is to imagine for a career already celebrated for such movies as “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “In the Name of the Father” and “My Left Foot” (for which he won a 1989 best actor Oscar), there’s more clamor than ever before over the remarkable things Day-Lewis does in this movie—as well as, inevitably, talk of another Academy Award.
In “There Will Be Blood,” an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!,” Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a prospector in turn-of-the-century California whose single-minded, scorched-earth pursuit of oil’s riches transforms both himself and almost everything around him. As the implacable Plainview becomes more obsessed with acquiring land for oil fields, he isolates himself from any emotion, save cynicism and rage. (The film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and opens in limited release Wednesday.)
In sheer impact, Day-Lewis’ detailed, riveting portrayal is as startling and idiosyncratic as the movie that surrounds it. “His performance,” writes New Yorker film critic David Denby, “makes one think of Laurence Olivier at his most physically and spiritually audacious.” The New York Critics Circle has already honored Day-Lewis’ work in “There Will Be Blood” with a best actor award and he’s collected his fifth Golden Globe nomination for best actor. To repeat: This is happening before the movie opens in theaters.
To this slow-building storm of acclaim and attention, Day-Lewis brings a demeanor of self-containment and grace. Huddled in a corner of a chilly club room in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel one recent afternoon, Day-Lewis, bundled in coat and scarves, emits warmth and ease in self-expression and—up to a clearly marked point—in self-disclosure.
Such calm belies the prevailing image of Day-Lewis as a mercurial and intensely committed actor whose profound sense of detail and verisimilitude, whether it’s as the quadriplegic writer Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” or as the Irish revolutionary turned fighter in “The Boxer,” is often terrifying to behold. He’s the kind of actor who, to keep his sardonic anger honed to a razor’s edge as antebellum New York crime lord “Bill the Butcher” in “Gangs of New York,” kept pumping his ears full of Eminem’s raps.
He’s only done one movie since “Gangs of New York.” In 2005’s “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” written and directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller, Day-Lewis played a single parent choosing to live more or less reclusively on an abandoned island commune. Some believe the role is as close to Day-Lewis’ real life as any he has played, because he spends much of his time out of the limelight in Ireland as a cobbler.
“I never choose to speak about that,” Day-Lewis says of the cobbler gig and indeed of his off-screen life in Ireland. He does speak, with mild amusement, of this image he has of being a “misanthropic hermit ... which is an image I don’t recognize, but I guess others have.
“I’ve never regarded my life as being a retreat from this work I do on screen, but actually as a search for other things.”
Going back to Ireland, he says, “is my way of re-engaging with the world in the hope that one has experiences in life that are more than whatever happened on the previous movie set. And time spent indulging a fascination with life itself is not time misspent.”
His trade also allows him the freedom to pick and choose roles at his own pace. He is asked what it takes for a script to pry him loose from his regular life and back onto screen every two, three years.
“Well, I don’t necessarily need to be pried,” he says. “Once my curiosity is unleashed, then I’m gone. No one has to entice me or sell anything to me. It’s either there on the page or it isn’t. And I suppose that sense of irrevocability comes to me in infrequent intervals.”
Day-Lewis says he found such irrevocable intensity in the script for “There Will Be Blood.” Indeed, he seemed as unsettled and stunned by the force of the script as many critics would be by the finished movie.
“It was utterly unique, from that prologue where page after page describes this man’s life in detail and tells you everything you need to know about him without him saying a word. And the audacity of that struck me in the most delightful way. I had the sense of moving completely into this unknown world as one’s own life recedes a bit. Those are the things that quicken my pulse.”
Day-Lewis, the son of onetime poet laureate of England Cecil Day-Lewis and actress Jill Balcon, is drawn to powerful narrative and complex characters and absorbs himself deeply in his roles. As thrilling as the prospects were for working on the film, it had to be a little daunting to visit the bleak and volatile emotional terrain that is Daniel Plainview’s soul—“a shredded soul,” Day-Lewis agrees.
He concedes that such journeys are “a little bit” forbidding. “I don’t always know where they’re going to take me at the outset. But I always have to ask myself if I could be a real ally to the director in the telling of a story. And quite honestly, I’d have to say I didn’t know the answer to that. Some part of me might have taken a moment to wonder.”
After a pause, he adds, “Paradoxically, I also have to say that there’s also joy in these aspects of the work. Absorbing yourself in a character is not a self-flagellating process as sometimes suggested. It’s a joy of discovery. If there’s trepidation going in, it’s not about, `What is this going to do to me?’ It’s more like, `Will I be able to find what I’m looking for?”“
Will we have to wait another three years for Day-Lewis to leave Ireland for a film set? “Well, fortunately, I can tell you the next thing is on this home front because Rebecca is making a film in the spring (“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”) and God forbid that we should be working in separate places at the same time. It just wouldn’t work. So I’ll be very happily filling the gap over on this side of the ocean.”