Matinee idol or tortured perfectionist. From My Beautiful Laundrette to In The Name of The Father, from My Left Foot to Age of Innocence, Daniel Day Lewis is nothing if not versatile. Alan Morrison tries to separate the method from the madness.
6 The List 28 January—10 February 1994
‘You never know how things affect you because there are parts of each
piece of work which become assimilated into your life in a way that you’re entirely unconscious ot.’
ome actors breeze from role to role leaving behind a string of screen characters whose personalities are only slight variations of their own. Others treat themselves as empty vessels which they ﬁll to the brim with the tiniest details of the person they are playing. Daniel Day-Lewis is undoubtedly an actor of the second group. His work is marked by a total commitment to creating physically, psychologically, emotionally complete beings who exist at some remove from himself.
His chameleon-like versatility was noticed by
critics early on in his ﬁlm career, with the back-
to-back releases of My Beautiful Laundrette and
A Room With A View. In the former, he was a
homosexual punk in a donkey jacket; in the latter. he was a foppish Victorian with pince- nez. But while his appearance changed from role to role, his charismatic presence remained constant: by the time of 1988’s The Unbearable Lightttess Of Being. he was ready to become Britain’s premiere arthouse hunk, bringing a combination of cold intelligence and hot sexuality to his screen seduction of Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche. America was next to fall into his arms, ﬁrst with an Oscar-winning performance as cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot. then as a mainstream action lead in The Last Of The Mohieans. In fact, a comparison between these two films most clearly reveals how unpredictability is central to both his talent and box—ofﬁce appeal. In My Left Foot, a twisted, drooling Day-Lewis seems to be squeezing himself into an invisible box that is too small for his damaged body and a scene where the adolescent Christy Brown’s friends are playing street football. his penalty kick, using his only functional limb. is a momentary release from the physical confinement. It’s hard to believe that, a few years later, it’s the same actor who is racing towards the camera in loose buckskins, his long hair flowing behind strong chiselled features and the rippling muscles of a perfectly-toned torso. But such perfection comes at a price: stories about Day-Lewis’s obsessive preparation techniques abound. How he had fellow cast members carry him everywhere and spoon-feed him on the set of My Left Foot; how, even away from the studio and locations, he refused to leave behind the antique ﬁintlock rifle he used in The Last Of The Mohieans, as a true frontiersman would never be without his weapon; how he slept in a reconstructed cell during the shooting of the forthcoming Guildford Four drama In The Name Of The Father (in which he stars as Gerry Conlan) and had four Dublin hardmen constantly harass him to make his depiction of prison exhaustion all the more realistic. All of which would suggest that there is madness in his method. ‘What tends to happen is that people talk on my behalf about that part of the work and I usually resist. as far as I possibly can, talking about it myself,’ he says in quiet, deep and distinctly sane tones. ‘lt’s a very murky business, it’s not a clear thing to me, and it’s not a system of any kind. This idea of total immersion, whatever that means — immersion can take many different forms. Very often it seems as if one is plunged into a mud-bath looking for gems of some kind, and there’s no guarantee that they’re there. And when you ﬁnd them, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be in any way useful to you. It’s very much a blind process, and I don’t really understand it. ‘What’s terribly important,’ he continues, ‘is that — bearing in mind that the only things that can ever succeed on ﬁlm or in any sort of performance are when people communicate in some way - if you isolated yourself through some way of working to the extent that other people became excluded, then of course that is