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In preparing for his role in The Boxer, Daniel Day-Lewis sparred a total of 350 rounds, acquiring a broken nose and a fat lip in the process. Barry McGuignan, the consultant for the fight scenes, was alarmed. "Daniel, it doesn't have to be this tough," he said. "We can make it easier on you." But anyone who has worked with the actor would confirm that "easy" is not the Day-Lewis way.

"I want to understand what a fighter goes through," he said. "I want to, in some way, simulate what it has to be like."

This determination to delve as deeply as possible into the lives of the characters he plays meant that Day-Lewis never left his wheelchair when portraying Christy Brown, the paralyzed artist, in My Left Foot. For The Last of the Mohicans, he learned to live off the land, skin animals, and to fire a musket. Later, he worked himself into a rage by listening to Eminem before stepping before the cameras as the sadistic Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.

"I just found a way that suits me some years ago, as every actor does," he told Alec Cawthorne of the BBC. "It seems a little bizarre to some people." This dedication to acting led to his being dubbed the "English Robert DeNiro," appropriately so since Day-Lewis has referred to DeNiro as his "champion."

Like DeNiro, Day-Lewis was born into a family that valued the arts. DeNiro’s father was a painter. Day-Lewis was the son of Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet laureate of England, and his wife, actress Jill Balcon. His grandfather was Sir Michael Balcon, a name familiar to film buffs as the producer of such classics as The Ladykillers, Dead of Night and many of the early English films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Born April 29, 1957 in London, Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis was a quiet, introverted child. The family later relocated to Croom’s Hill, Greenwich, where he found himself in an environment at odds with his "posh" background.

"Everyone was into gangs and scrapping," he told Time. By joining a gang himself, he found some protection from the bullies who saw him as an easy target. "In my case, they could have chosen any number of insults, since I was Irish and Jewish, and from a different class to most of the kids." Day-Lewis also adopted a working-class style of speech which baffled his older sister. "To her, there was hypocrisy involved. To me, it was absolutely unconscious. It was raw survival."

Dismayed that their son was coming under the influence of those less "posh" than he, his parents enrolled him in Sevenoaks School in Kent when he was 11-years-old. Although he would later complain that he wasn’t happy there, it was at Sevenoaks that he discovered acting and developed a passion for cabinetmaking. Making a Ping-Pong table at age 12 "was the beginning of what became one of my greatest abiding loves." He even considered a career in the latter trade, but his lack of experience meant he was turned down for an apprenticeship.

At Sevenoaks, he was already beginning to show an impressive dedication to the craft with which he would become famous, although his motivation may have had more to do with his rebellious streak than artistic integrity. When he found it difficult to remove all of the makeup for his role as a young black boy in a production of Cry, the Beloved Country, he was delighted. "Every night it sullied the sheets. For once I could be a disruptive influence with the excuse to be legally disruptive."

Around this time, he found another outlet for his rebellious side. He was cast as a young hoodlum in John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and took great delight in his small role because it required him to vandalize luxurious automobiles.

By the time he turned eighteen, his father had died, and Day-Lewis began to seriously consider his future. With cabinetmaking no longer an option, he tackled acting full-time, performing at the Bristol Old Vic and, in 1984, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company where his roles included Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. It was not a happy experience, however, and he later admitted to Time that "most of the time when I go to the theater, I am bored to distraction."

It was in 1986 that his film career began to take-off when he played diverse roles in a pair of films that opened simultaneously in New York. In My Beautiful Laundrette, he played one half of a gay bi-racial couple, while in A Room With A View, he was the insufferable fiancé of Helena Bonham Carter. Critics took note of his versatility, often praising both performances regardless of which film they were reviewing.

"Seeing these two performances side by side is an affirmation of the miracle of acting," Roger Ebert wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times. "That one man could play these two opposites is astonishing." In The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised his performance in A Room With A View for a "style and wit that are all the more remarkable when compared to his very different characterization in My Beautiful Laundrette."

The prestigious New York Film Critics Circle cited both performances when naming him the year’s Best Supporting Actor. The next year, he had the starring role as a philandering doctor in Philip Kaufman’s erotic The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

He was attending a party for composer Elmer Bernstein when producer Noel Pearson approached him to play Christy Brown who became an accomplished poet, painter, and novelist, despite the cerebral palsy that left him paralyzed in all but his left foot. Pearson recalls that upon hearing Brown’s story, Day-Lewis was "riveted. But I thought he was riveted with boredom and just being polite. He’s forever polite."

Jim Sheridan’s 1989 film, My Left Foot, based on Brown’s autobiography, found Day-Lewis once again taking the Method approach to his role. The crew was annoyed that the star’s insistence on always remaining in character meant they had to carry him in his wheelchair across the set, but Sheridan was impressed, calling him "a producer's dream. I only worry that he never relaxes, never lightens up."

The on-screen results were remarkable. Critic Pauline Kael would note the star’s "manic eyes," and attribute much of the success of the film to his portrayal. "The greatness of Day-Lewis’s performance is that he pulls you inside Christy Brown’s frustration and rage (and his bottomless thirst)...Day-Lewis seizes the viewer, he takes possession of you." In The Los Angeles Times, Charles Champlin hailed Day-Lewis for giving "one of the year’s tour de force performances."

Day-Lewis would win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, and also earned the dubious distinction of being chosen one of People magazine’s "50 Most Beautiful People." Rather than cash in on his sudden popularity, he disappeared from the screen for three years.

Putting his aversion to the legitimate theater aside, he returned to the stage to play the title role in Richard Eyre’s National Theater production of Hamlet, a performance that became the stuff of legend for reasons other than its quality. One story said that Day-Lewis collapsed and began to sob uncontrollably before departing the stage in mid-performance. He acknowledged to Time Out that "something very disturbing and frightening happened that night," but dismissed the lingering rumor that he had seen his own father’s ghost and was too spooked to continue. The official reason given for his behavior was "nervous exhaustion."

He returned to the multiplex as star of Michael Mann’s unabashedly commercial reworking of James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the success of which took him by surprise. "It didn’t even have a story," he said. But it had plenty of sex appeal with the bare-chested Day-Lewis romancing sultry Madeleine Stowe against the backdrop of the French and Indian wars. Janet Maslin in The New York Times observed that Day-Lewis’s "fierce and graceful body language speaks much louder than words," but words were less important than action in this exciting adventure film. Desson Howe in The Washington Post dismissed Mann’s epic as "The MTV version of gothic romance," but he also found it "stirring." Audiences agreed, and The Last of the Mohicans would emerge as one of 1992's most popular films. It also did much to establish its star as a sex symbol. But the attention he was receiving from the public had its drawbacks.

"I love to sit and watch people," he told Richard Corliss in the European edition of Time. "And I do bitterly resent the fact that that's not always possible anymore. When the mantle of the observer is taken away from you, and you become the observed - when the cloak which allows you to observe is stripped from you - then the most useful and fascinating tool of your work is taken with it."

In 1993, he became a citizen of Ireland, and in contrast to his usually sporadic work habits, he headlined two prestigious films. The Age of Innocence was a departure for director Martin Scorsese, best-known for his studies of the urban lower class in such brutal films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. In adapting Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the acclaimed director’s focus shifted to the upper crust of society in the New York of the late 1870's.

Day-Lewis was cast as the very proper Newland Archer, the wealthy lawyer engaged to be married to the equally proper Winona Ryder but smitten with the less respectable Michelle Pfeiffer. Variety noted that Day-Lewis "cuts an impressive figure as Newland," but also suggested it was a "thankless" part. Many audiences agreed with critic Leonard Maltin who found it difficult to become emotionally involved with these characters.

Day-Lewis approached the role with his customary dedication, insisting on wearing cologne from the period, as well as reading the exact same editions of the books that his character read. "He knew old books are like little time machines," Jay Cocks, co-author of the screenplay, remembered. "They have a way of transporting you back.''

A more dynamic showcase for his talents came in the same year’s In the Name of the Father. Reuniting with Jim Sheridan, the director of My Left Foot, he played the role of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, who spent 15 years in prison for allegedly bombing an English pub, a terrorist act that had actually been carried out by the Irish Republican Army. To prepare for his role, he dined on traditional prison food, was interrogated by real detectives, and spent time in a makeshift prison cell while the crew hurled insults and buckets of cold water at him.

Was such punishing preparation really necessary?

"The only answer to that is that I don't know it's working," he admitted to Time Out. "One of the problems of this mysterious process is that it tries to apply a logical process to what always remains essentially mysterious and illogical."

Calling the film "less than it should be," Roger Ebert still praised Day-Lewis who "proves here once again that he is one of the most talented and interesting actors of his generation." For In the Name of the Father, Day-Lewis earned his second Oscar nomination as best actor. Ironically, Tom Hanks, who won the gold that year, did so for playing the AIDS stricken lawyer in Philadelphia, a role that Day-Lewis had been offered but turned down.

Three more years went by before Day-Lewis was seen on screen again, this time in The Crucible. Scripted by Arthur Miller from the author’s famous play about the Salem witch trials (a thinly veiled indictment of the Communist witch hunts of the 1950's), Day-Lewis played John Proctor, a farmer whose extramarital fling with a servant girl (Winona Ryder) has tragic results when the jealous girl accuses his wife of practicing witchcraft.

The film’s strength’s were a superb cast that included Joan Allen and Paul Scofield in supporting roles, as well as excellent production values. But Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times sensed a weakness in both the film and its source, noting that "whenever a film has hysteria as its subject, as this one does, the danger exists that it will become hysterical itself, and The Crucible, all its promise notwithstanding, falls into that trap with a demoralizing thud."

The Crucible was more significant to Day-Lewis for developments off-screen. During a visit to Miller’s home, the actor met the playwright’s daughter, director Rebecca Miller. Two weeks before the film opened, they were married. They now have two sons, Ronan, born in 1998, and Cashel, born four years later.

Next on his schedule was The Boxer, his third collaboration with director Jim Sheridan. He described his character as a man "involved in an activity that doesn’t require words," but as Danny Boy Flynn, he was eloquently expressive with his fists. Flynn, a former member of the IRA recently released from prison, yearns for peace but finds himself caught in a quagmire of old political conflicts as he rekindles a romance with a former love now married to an imprisoned member of the same organization. Day-Lewis, wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times, "once again breathes fire into the character of a high-minded loner, and his vitality lends real force to the film’s moral arguments." He was honored with a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.  

Something of a high-minded loner himself, Day-Lewis entered what he called "semi-retirement" following The Boxer. He moved to Florence, Italy where he became the apprentice to a shoemaker. In the meantime, Martin Scorsese was about to realize his dream of bringing Herbert Asbury’s book Gangs of New York to the screen. Set in the period between the 1840's and the Civil War, it told of the rivalry between the immigrants, many of them Irish, and the natives led by the ruthless William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting.

"Martin (Scorsese) doesn’t have to convince me about anything," Day-Lewis said in response to those who claimed the director needed all his powers of persuasion to convince him to return to acting and play Bill. "I can only say that I would wish for any one of my colleagues to have the experience of working with Marty once in their lifetime."  

The production was anything but smooth. Day-Lewis supposedly clashed with the top-billed Leonardo DiCaprio, and Scorsese battled producer Harvey Weinstein. The result was judged by Roger Ebert to be "good but not great."

Day-Lewis, however, was outstanding. Sporting a glass eye, a twirling mustache, and one of the worst haircuts in cinema history, he dominates the sometimes unwieldy epic and creates one of the screen’s most memorable villains. During filming, he once more insisted on fully inhabiting his character on-camera and off. He kept his distance from his co-stars and sharpened Bill’s knives in his spare time.

After winning numerous best actor citations and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis was widely favored to win his second Academy Award for his performance, but despite a whopping 10 nominations, Scorsese’s film failed to win a single Oscar.

"Nothing happened over the course of making Gangs of New York that made me think, ‘Why don’t I do this more often?’" he said, adding that the film would be his last. He needed little coaxing to backtrack on that promise when his wife offered him the lead role in a film she was directing: The Ballad of Jack and Rose.

As a terminally ill hippy living at odds with a world whose values he does not share, he approached the role in typical Day-Lewis style, choosing to live separately from his wife during filming. The film emerged as one of his least memorable projects though The Observer acknowledged that Day-Lewis "brings undeniable charisma and presence to the screen."

Daniel Day-Lewis’s name continues to be attached to impending projects, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t disappear once more, this time for good.

"Periodically over the years I've always taken periods of time away from acting," he told the BBC in explaining the five year gap between The Boxer and Gangs of New York.  

But he also once stated the belief that actors often "go on contributing way beyond the time when they have anything within themselves to offer." Considering his extraordinary versatility and the care with which he chooses his roles, it would seem that Daniel Day-Lewis still has plenty to offer. But considering his contentment when devoting his time to making shoes, does acting still have anything to offer him?

--by Brian W. Fairbanks

 

 

 

 



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