The description of a heart throb doesn’t sit easily on Daniel Day Lewis who often questioned the validity of being an actor at all.
Yet, the decades which followed his acting career would see him inhabit with raw intensity a string of diverse roles, turning out vivid portrayals of among others a tortured soul, a wronged irishman, a hideously unhinged New York gang leader, and a chilling oil prospector before astonishing audiences the world over with an amazing performance as one of America’s most revered presidents Abraham Lincoln.
Daniel’s immense talent for assuming another’s identity on screen perpetuates the mystery of who this gifted chameleon is in real life.
At a young age he was attracted towards acting. He had his toys together with a vivid imagination and had his own first recollection of performing for an audience dressing up in a soldiers uniform and doing Fainting Guardsman acts.
Daniel as a kid was also fascinated by Yuri Gagarin the Russian cosmonaut and watching him on TV Daniel would often pretend to be the Soviet hero by improvising as best he could and by using a string shopping bag in place of the spaceman’s helmet. He would while away the hours like this, happily locked in his make believe world.
His first ever role at a tender age of twelve was in the film Sunday Bloody Sunday were Daniel was one of three kids who was required to play a vandal. For a couple of days Daniel got to run amok, scratching cars with broken bottles and be paid for it.
Over the course of his teenage years Daniel built up a reservoir of deep resentment and frustration due to not liking his school surroundings he preferred to channel his energies into a wide range of activities and found that he was not only good with his hands at woodwork classes but that it had a very therapeutic effect on him.
He began to consider a career as a cabinet maker but also started to take part in school plays, attracted to the sense of escapism. Expressing the creative side of his personality helped to lighten his outlook in general and allowed a happier, more carefree young man to emerge.
At school he had appeared in several stage productions nothing of significance, yet to his mother, early shoots of real talent were already beginning to show.
It was not so much Daniel’s delivery of the lines, but the way in which he listened closely to the other actors, tuning in to every nuance around him. This heightened and sharpened his responses, which in turn breathed increased life into his own portrayal.
The tantalising aura of escapism that the theatre offered continued to appeal to him very much – even more so in the light of the bleakness which had shrouded his recent past.
The Bristol Old Vic Drama School had an excellent reputation and was the only acting school to which Daniel applied. He went on to enrol on a three year course.
Very quickly the daunting experience of being at theatre school was that Daniel had to be prepared to learn very quickly how to make a complete and utter fool of himself in front of others. This was not an easy thing for such a private person.
Yet, for the first time Daniel felt he was really investing his time and energy in something worthwhile even if he became frustrated that it was over a year before he was allowed on a stage.
When he completed his three year stint at the drama school Daniel was one of three students transferred straight to the Bristol Old Vic Repertory Company on a one year contract.
Let loose on the famous Old Vic stage he would now have his work cut out appearing in no less than eight productions which were scheduled to run back to back over the next 12 months.
These twelve months had been valuable experience learning his craft but with his year’s contract up at the Old Vic, Daniel found himself back in London suddenly adrift and rudderless with no idea of where, professionally, he was going next.
For the first time in his adult life he found himself without a job and he didn’t like it. He began to draw unemployment benefits and scoured the pages of the weekly trade newspaper The Stage for job adverts and wondered where his next part was coming from.
He was desperate to work but the immediate future looked bleak. The stretch of being on the dole looked set to last indefinitely. It was such a demoralising prospect that for a while Daniel let himself go.
He had no daily routine to follow and the disciplines he had had drummed into him at school deserted him. As a result he turned himself into a tired and lethargic wreck who had lost a great deal of pride in his appearance.
Realising he was in danger of sliding ever downwards in a hopeless spiral, Daniel made determined efforts to pull himself together. Stringent exercise had worked before, so the running shoes came out and he began pouring the pavements. Physically as well as mentally he needed to get himself into shape and he drove himself hard.
Finding a productive purpose to the day was important to him. Having discovered that it was impossible to find any paid employment Daniel fixed himself up with some voluntary work as a despatch rider making deliveries to London’s St Stephen’s Hospital.
Then fate smiled on him when he unexpectedly landed the role of the rebel Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, John Osborne’s groundbreaking 1956 play.
The theatre critics gave Daniel a fair pasting in their reviews of the opening night performance. Some of the critics were savage and Daniel was unprepared, and took it deeply to heart.
If he was miscast, however, Daniel tried hard with the role and recovering from his first critical onslaught attacked it with heart, vigour and his own brand of moody intensity – familiar hallmarks which would surface frequently in the future. All this helped the play to make up for its disappointing beginning by gathering strength and with it popularity.
Following that Daniel went on to perform in the production of Dracula and a TV drama production for the BBC called Frost in May. In later years Daniel would become famous for inhabiting his roles to a sometimes excessive degree. Daniel went deep in the character and made a thorough study of his subject. He pored over the novels and script, getting under its skin so much so that he actually became the character and lived his role.
Next for Daniel performing in a bit part in the film Gandhi, he was thoroughly captivated by Ben Kingsley’s approach to the role, in particular by Ben’s total concentration and the strange other worldly quality he exuded even when not in costume and on set. Film work itself excited Daniel as nothing else in the acting business had done. It had an entirely different feel to either stage or TV and also offered more scope for rehearsal. This eased the pressure on the actors a little, especially for someone like him, who already took preparation so deadly serious.
The 80’s cinema marked the beginning of a new breed of actors that began to emerge. The new generation which embraced Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Daniel, chose to focus mainly on disaffected, aggressive types of roles, on the mixed up loners. Although Daniels range was to greatly expand in time, these were the parts to which he was most attracted and at which he seemed to excel.
One of the first film roles that Daniel really desperately wanted to secure was that of a gay south London punk called Johnny in Hanif Kureishi’s drama My beautiful Launderette. Daniel saw in the character a juxtapose role of a young south London lad, outwardly rough and unattractive but in private tender, loving and a homosexual.
To convince Stephen Frears the director that he’s the right actor for the job he bombarded him with letters filled with colourful threats. Frears caved in on the grounds that if Daniel was prepared to go to such lengths then he deserved the part for that reason if nothing else. The director would frequently say of actors, ‘A good part – it’s like sex to them. They can smell it.’ And Daniel was certainly not to let him down for the role of Johnny which was to become his film breakthrough.
For his next role in the Merchant Ivory Film ‘A Room with a View’ Daniel did not want the romantic lead and preferred the lesser role which the director found frankly fascinating. Daniel’s reason was that the character of Cecil Vyse was a man whose skin he could occupy in some of his worst nightmares. Daniel detected something deeper and the challenge of infiltrating this characters mind held a peculiar fascination for him.
When Daniel read the script he felt a strong sense of compassion for the character recognising all the unattractive qualities that most people would hate to believe themselves capable of possessing. Daniel set out to convey that compassion to his audience, drawing forth a tangible sympathy for a character all too easy to dismiss as a spineless wimp.
Daniel is also a slow reader because of his dyslexia. Therefore, when he reads he concentrates, knowing every word and nuance in the script – taking every single thing in. This is believed to have a direct bearing on the way he acts. He encounters the character in such depth and then translates that into what he does with it.
There seems to be a need for Daniel to break himself down completely and recreate himself as the character required for the particular role. It’s a facility in Method acting which can be glory and also a burden. Thus his practice of staying in character even when the cameras had stopped rolling would be legendary.
Daniel certainly preferred working on locations and this appealed most strongly to him because of the lack of confinement that it offers. Yet he also believes that the theatre provides him with the freedom to create his own reality and therefore returned every so often to act on stage in between his film performances.
His desire to shut himself off so much – to remain locked into his character at all times – stems from his unshakable belief that to bring the required authenticity to a character it is vitally important to maintain the insular world within which that character exists.
This was the sort challenge which was earning him the respect and acclaim of US and British audiences and critics alike but it was not without its problems for the actor.
Sometimes it would take him weeks to exorcise the character he portrayed from his mind. And the degree to which Daniel inhabited his roles meant there was a considerable amount of emotional baggage too and it’s hardly surprising that he would still hold the ghosts of his previous characters which would perhaps force him to vanish for a lengthy period suddenly and unexpectedly.
No one knew where he would go, what he would do and when he could be expected to return. It all added to his burgeoning reputation as a loner, fuelling too his own uncertainty about the profession he had chosen.
For acting in My Left Foot Daniel’s reaction to the role was purely personal and on an emotive level. All his instincts led him to believe that he had a complete and immediate understating of this real life person whom he had never met called Christy Brown.
On his quest to become the character meant to embark on his most exhausting preparation to date. He set about learning how to write and paint literally with his left foot. He also spent two months studying cerebral palsy sufferers and the therapy techniques employed with them.
His ultimate objective was to prevent the viewer from remembering for a single second that he could actually get up out of the wheelchair and walk off for a lunch break. From the moment filming began Daniel remained wheelchair bound in the real Christy’s chair, his head and limbs painfully twisted to simulate cerebral palsy.
Each morning he insisted that he be carried across the lengths of lighting cables to reach the set and at every mealtime he insisted on being spoon-fed. If no one would oblige him, he literally did not eat. It was behaviour which spawned various reactions.
Professionally speaking it was a performance from Daniel which strips the senses raw. Often without a single word he communicates, by a combination of masterly facial expressions, subtle body language and barely discernible mannerisms, the whole gamut of life’s emotions.
Even for the role of Gerry Conlon in the film In the Name of the Father Daniel went to unprecedented lengths for his art. Some of the stories which emerged from the set included that for nights on end he refused to sleep, so that he could experience for himself the true effects of such fatigue, and that he insisted on eating slops – prison style food. There were also rumours that a handful of locals were hired to kick and beat on the door of the built cell which he lived in so often in order to prevent him from getting any rest or peace of mind. And if not doing this, they were lobbing pails of icy cold water over him while shouting abuse: all in the drive to experience the characters misery as closely as he could.
Each actors way of working is a very personal thing and Daniel admits that his preferred method is not perhaps what every person can associate with, but he needs the totality of it both on and off set.
He was a breed of an actor for whom it is vital to jealously guard his own space both on and off the set. A self confessed fear Daniel harboured is of turning up to start filming and feeling a stranger to the role. Beyond that, once having captured the character he firmly believes the chain must be maintained and never broken. The world he creates is as complete as he can make it and within those confines he can then shut out all that is not directly related to his characterisation.
His methods are not foolproof. Nor is there a set sequence of steps to take. Rather it is an intangible process which frequently leaves him with no certainty that specific actions will automatically guarantee a successful outcome.
Daniel’s riveting portrayal of Abraham Lincoln has further cemented his power as a true screen star and strengthened his reputation for startling versatility. The way he nailed long, stamina draining scenes and the flawlessness with which he delivered enormous amounts of dialogue is worthy of admiration.
There aren’t many actors who can claim to have won three oscars and Daniel is one of those.
Now considered a retired English actor Daniel is described as one of the preeminent actors of his generations.
An intriguing chameleon, with the intense energy he brings to each diverse role never fails to impress and as a man of innate grace, his genuine humility effortlessly endears him to successive generations.
Who knows if he’ll ever make it back to the screen, I guess time will only tell if he’ll come out of his shell.