“Maybe it’s presumptuous to say this, but from a director’s point of view he’s the Holy Grail of actors, isn’t he? At least he always was to me. Like, `that’s the man, that’s the man.’
“There’s no two ways about it, is there?”
There Will Be Blood
Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciarán Hinds, Kevin J. O'Connor, Mary Elizabeth Barrett
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 26 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 15 Feb 2008 (General release); 2007)
That’s Paul Thomas Anderson talking about Daniel Day-Lewis. And while it is customary for directors to sing the praises of their stars, the awe in Anderson’s voice is palpable as he recounts the five months he spent working with the actor last year in Marfa, Texas.
Their project together, “There Will Be Blood,” is a roiling, early-20th-century epic about greed and God. It opened last week in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. And boy, will it be considered. Day-Lewis is surefire for a best-actor nomination.
“The honor and the privilege was not lost on me,” Anderson, 37, says about working with Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar in 1990 for “My Left Foot” and has been nominated twice since, for “In the Name of the Father” and “Gangs of New York.” “But it’s funny because that sense fades away as you’re making the movie. The madness and the fever takes over you. ...
“I would be doing a disservice to him if I was not participating in it with him, and together having this collective insanity. So, you have to drink it in and be as drunk as he is in the middle of it.
“It wasn’t until about halfway through editing when I kind of sobered up a little bit and thought, I can’t believe it, he is absolutely incredible, isn’t he?”
The tales of Day-Lewis’ dedication, his total immersion in a character, his singular focus, are legend: He spent days in an Irish prison to prepare to play the wrongly convicted Gerry Conlon in “In the Name of the Father.” During his time on the set of Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” Day-Lewis went barefoot, built a canoe, tracked and skinned animals, and took his flintlock with him to dinner.
For the role of Daniel Plainview, an early-20th-century prospector who becomes an oil baron - a character loosely based on petro-millionaire Edward Doheny - Day-Lewis would prowl the ranch where shooting took place, and where period oil derricks and an entire frontier town, Little Boston, had been constructed. He’d be scowling and glaring at his costars: Plainview is not a nice guy, and Day-Lewis began inhabiting that not-a-nice-guy-ness.
But the actor, who is 50 and lives in Ireland and New York with writer and filmmaker Rebecca Miller and their three sons, isn’t keen to talk about his process, where his performance comes from.
Part of it, obviously, comes from the script - in this case, Anderson’s freewheeling adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel “Oil!”
“Paul Thomas Anderson is a remarkable writer,” says Day-Lewis, reached on the phone in New York a little later the same day that Anderson was interviewed. Anderson’s previous work includes “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.”
“Therefore, it’s not just like a skeleton that then has to be fleshed out. For me, it seems as if he already as a writer has begun to invent and occupy a different world, and indeed to see the world through the eyes of those characters that he’s created.
“A lot of it feels very unconscious in the best sense of the word, where the intellect is at the service of the unconscious, and therefore it felt very truthful for me. As outrageous as it was, the life of all those people ... had their own innate truth, and so that certainly gave me a huge amount to begin with.”
As for where the rest of Day-Lewis’ Plainview came from - a slow-talking, ruthless soul full of wiles and bitter smiles - “luckily that remains something of a mystery,” he says. “I have very little control over it. Maybe I could deconstruct it, but I try not to. ...
“Having said that, there is obviously work to be done, there are decisions to be made, there’s learning to be done about a period or a society that isn’t well-known. And there was a great deal of documents, books, correspondence available from that period, and some of it’s very, very personal.
“But once that’s been done, and absorbed a little bit, then the real work begins. Which is the work of the imagination.”
Day-Lewis has made only four films in the last 10 years: “There Will Be Blood,” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (which his wife wrote and directed), Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer.” It’s a spare list, suggesting, perhaps, that the actor is fastidious, picky.
“Other people seem to think I’m choosy,” says Day-Lewis, “whereas from my point of view it feels that when I’m taken with the notion of doing something, I’m taken wholeheartedly, and with great joy. And I have the sense, I suppose, that one is chosen rather than doing the choosing - it feels as if there’s a certain inevitability about it. Perhaps it sounds far-fetched to talk about it in that way ... that there’s no avoiding certain things, you can’t circumnavigate them, you just go right through them and out the other side.
“So there’s no part of me that makes a conscious decision to work rarely,” he continues. “But I do need those periods of time away from the work. ... I enjoy exploring other things, and I feel that the two go very much hand in hand. I feel that that time spent away from the work allows me to do the work the way in which it should be done. I can’t imagine the one life without the other, and of course to me they’re part of the same life, whereas, I suppose, viewed from the outside by people involved in film, and writing about film, talking about film, it seems that there’s some schism there between one part of my life and another. That I retreat from one to live this sort of reclusive life when I’m not working.
“For me, it doesn’t feel that way at all,” he says. “I feel that I reoccupy the world with great pleasure when I’m not working.”