Spending time with Daniel Day-Lewis Saturday evening illuminated his personal brand of artistry while simultaneously underscoring its mystery, even to him.
A two-time Academy Award winning actor some call reclusive, the 55-year old Day-Lewis is notorious for taking on few roles. But when he does, as director Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans) said in his introduction, “His work is so extraordinary he inhabits a character’s body and soul, in dimensions of authenticity like we’ve never experienced.”
According to Scott Feinberg, columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and the evening’s interviewer, Day-Lewis’s authenticity has reached the level of Chaplin, Bogart, Tracy, Brando, Nicholson, Duvall and others through the decades, and is perhaps unparalleled at this moment.
So, the question constantly begged is: how does he do it?
Day-Lewis provided keen and unguarded insight into this last night and, while certainly revealing it also underscored how mysterious the artistic process truly is. Only direct quotes from the actor mid-way through the evening conversation do this subject justice:
“What happened with My Left Foot is that because we had no money, therefore we had no schedule, therefore we had no deadlines…I could work as long as I wanted to as I found my way into this experience of occupying this other life.’
“And it was what I’d been waiting for – to be connected through my training, and without time can’t really absorb these things in the way that you need to. You can’t have the sense of familiarity that you need. With My Left Foot I finally realized a working situation that suited me, and I knew from that moment on if I were to carry on doing this work I could only work in that way.’
“That accounts a little bit for the working part of it but beyond that, perhaps more importantly, from the outside I think some view [my life] a paradox of a public presence of work and then a reclusive need to withdraw from all of that. But from my point of view these two things are mutually dependent upon each other. I cannot do the work that I love to do unless I take time away from it. The time taken away from it, when God forbid I re-engage with life, that allows me to do the work in a way that I hope brings something of my experience to that work.'
“As much as I love the work that time away from it allows me to come back to it. For all of us, no matter what we are doing self-knowledge is the key to things. And I don’t know why I was allowed this little kernel of knowledge at a young age but without it I would have probably given up this work a long time ago because I would have exhausted my capacity and drive to do it.’
“It’s not an endlessly regenerating compulsion. It’s something that must be recognized when it comes and honored when it comes. When it comes you hear it or recognize it and you go to work. If it’s not there you should be occupied doing something else. If artists were to take an oath, and maybe we should – then it would be to take an oath to work only when we feel the deep personal need to do so. Because if you don’t feel that then what is it you are trying to offer?”
And offer Daniel Day-Lewis has. The diversity of characters he has ‘occupied’ is breathtaking:
- Street punk and gay lover Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette
- Rigid and repressed Cecil Vyse, in A Room with a View
- Lothario Tomas, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
- Real-life writer/painter with cerebral palsy, Christy Brown, My Left Foot
- Adopted Indian Hawkeye, The Last of the Mohicans
- Real Irishman Gerry Conlon, In the Name of the Father
- Macabre Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting, Gangs of New York
- Ruthless and terrifying Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
- President Abraham Lincoln, in Lincoln
One need look no further that Lincoln, currently in theaters, to appreciate how Day-Lewis inhabits a character. Abraham Lincoln is so closely identified with the American experience that portraying him is dangerous territory; yet when watching the man with top hat and beard on screen the actor disappears and becomes Lincoln…and it’s difficult to reconcile that the nicely dressed man on-stage last night is the same person.
Indeed, aside from green-stripped socks (only celebrities and hipsters get away with that), Day-Lewis came across as a normal guy, no affectations nor vanity. Under a full moon, the actor was greeted outside the Arlington to the cheers of hundreds of fans, and to their delight he signed autographs and smiled for pictures with all who desired to meet the man.
Through the nearly two-hour interview Feinberg did a nice job steering the conversation through the actor’s early years, as a young rebel from a very artistic family from southeastern London, his schooling and finally exposure to theater - where he was delighted by the discovery that there’s “an alternate universe.”
And like many from his generation the works of Martin Scorsese were a profound influence. “I watched Taxi Driver five times the week it opened,” said the English and Irish citizen. “I just couldn’t understand how it could be possible to do work of that power, of that depth of truth. I was dumbstruck.”
In the last question of the evening Feinberg asked Daniel Day-Lewis, “Are you ever able to step back and remove yourself from being in the middle of this experience and appreciate the impact these films and collectively your career have had on so many people?”
“No I don’t think so,” responded the actor. “If something works I’m always amazed…that amazement comes partially from…I look at that thing and I don’t really feel in any way responsible for it.’
“Even now, though I’m still connected to Lincoln, I look at that work experience and I don’t really understand what happened, I don’t know how it happened. It feels almost as though I’m examining somebody else’s experience. I’m delighted and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am when people watch these films.’
“I don’t begin with any kind of ambition other than a selfish thing that I’m drawn to the part. But when people take to a thing it’s a wondrous thing to me. The sad thing is that I really don’t think it has anything to do with me whatsoever, and yet, how else could it be?” [This twist of intentioned humor and irony was meet with applause.]
In the end, one could say that the candid and appreciative Day-Lewis embraces the mystery of his muse. He’s also uncomfortable with attention, particularly the accolades. And, after two heart-felt tributes by film fest director Roger Durling and recent co-star actress Sally Field, Daniel Day-Lewis warmly received his Montecito Award and, without a closing speech, he was gone.