Rome, 2001. On a sweltering hot summer’s day in the Italian capital, a wild haired man is pacing his steps as if he owns the land before him. He is a tall, wiry figure with striking eyes and as various strangers pass him by he decides to engage them in unwanted combat. Who is he? A drunk? An escapee from the local asylum? A simple man in a frustrated temper? No, of course not. It is merely an actor going through the motions to prepare for his upcoming role. It would be an understatement to say that this was strange behaviour but then it would also be an understatement to call Daniel Day-Lewis a strange actor. He has been preparing for the film Gangs of New York and his eccentric behaviour will make few friends on set as he escapes into the role of the vicious and bloodthirsty character Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s period epic. He has authentically trained as a butcher for the role in hand and it is these touches of authenticity that will wind the actor in trouble during the shoot. First off, he annoys co-star Liam Neeson by insisting on calling him by his character’s name in the hotel after work, then he catches pneumonia by refusing to wear warmer clothing that hadn’t been invented in the 19th century period in which the film is set; finally his nose his broken when he puts himself at harm during an intense fight scene with the story’s hero played by Learnardo DiCaprio.
Fast forward a few months as Day Lewis talks about his on-set experiences to the website Buzzle. He is calm, engaged, extremely focused and jokes light-heartedly about how mad he went during filming. He uses the English language eloquently and with enviable prose, highlighting an articulate skill with words that comes with being the son of famous poet-laureate Cecil Day-Lewis. When he talks about playing Bill the Butcher it is as if he is speaking about a completely different person; almost as if the character is a friend who he grew to knew on an intense level rather than someone who he helped bring to life on screen. His seamless ability to absorb himself into his character’s life and then jump back into his own skin and reflect and pontificate with such intellignece and insight is part of what makes him such a unique and interesting personality. But how did the son of privileged, highly qualified parents develop the animalistic urge to delve so deep into the psyche of his roles to the point where he is no longer in control of his instincts either on or off set? Today the Other Side of Madness attempts to answer this question as the feature explores the bizarre and wonderful career of one of the finest actors of his era.
FIGHTING ON THE TERRACE
Of the mad pack of Millwall football fans who shout on the terraces and engage in brutal physicality with the opposition’s supporters, Daniel Day-Lewis is most likely the odd one out. His friends will no doubt return to an overly aggressive household of approving parents, the majority of which were probably involved in the confrontations themselves. Not this boy however. He is son of an established poet laureate and as such is born into a home of fine literature and expertise. Throughout his teens he maintains this balance of education and life experience out on the nearby streets of Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford. The streets fascinate him and he has a natural curosity to explore the world. Following the success of There will be Blood Daniel gave an interview to the Independent in which he discussed the importance of this balanced lifestyle in helping him to understand the society around him; a keen awareness which eventually developed his interest in becoming an actor:
“It was such an important part of my life that, give my parents their due, they did not deprive me of. Even though their experiences were very far removed from what I was experiencing, in that neither of them would ever have considered setting foot on the terraces of the Den, both of them were completely open…It was through roaming the streets of Deptford that I started to understand this society we live in, which at the time coincided with a wave of dramatists who used the medium to break down the social barriers: Barrie Keefe [he cites Keefe's Gimme Shelter trilogy with Phil Davies as especially inspiring], Nigel Williams, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and of course my hero, Ken Loach”
Apparently though it was a screening of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough picture Mean Streets which became the greatest influence for the young actor. Inspired by the new wave of Amercian cinema which had made way for the breakthrough of new and exciting movie directors including Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma and of course Scorsese himself this was a daring, unpredictable and exhilerating time for the American film industry and Daniel wanted to experience a similar artistic rebellion in his own country. This was no doubt the greatest appeal of starring in the controversial Stephen Frears picture My Beautiful Launderette which focuses on the secret affair of two homosexuals. Day-Lewis impressed in this role and in his performance as the upper class prat in Room with a View but it was his role as Christy Brown, the cerabal palsy suffering author, which earned him his first Oscar and propelled him to the international stage. My Left Foot was also the film where tales first began to emerge of his slightly unorthodox acting methods.
Day-Lewis stayed in role throughout the entire shoot refusing to break character even when his agent tried to visit him on set and engage in normal conversation. He also remained in his character’s wheelchair and insisted on being spoonfed by a largely bemused cast and crew.
THE METHOD GROWS
But this was just the begining of a career-long obsession with the method. Day- Lewis took his practice to scary new heights in his role as wrongly convicted IRA bomber Gary Conlon in the movie In the Name of the Father. For this role the actor insisted on meagre prison rations inside his freezing cold prison cell and instructed people passing by the sets to throw both emotional and physical abuse in his direction via foul language and throwing cold water at his body. It wasn’t just the physical circumstances that he tried to capture either but also the appropriate mood in relation to the script’s progress. For example if the actor was aware of a particularly aggressive scene coming up he would begin to occupy this state of mind a couple of days in advance of shooting.
On the set of The Crucible he built his own house on set through the use of seventeenth century Victorian tools, testament to both his dedication and natural talent for being able to seemingly pull off anything that his own characters are capable of. The process sounds unbearably exhausting but a very interesting quote from the actor offers a remarkable insight into the perspective of his performances:
I have always been intrigued by these lives I have never experienced. And I love the pure pleasure of doing the work, no matter if that work involves some kind of discomfort – even though I don’t see it as that, one just deals with the day-to-day challenges of the character. I do it our of curiosity and I enjoy it. But the way people would have it, it is like a game of self-chatisement and it has never been that way for me – it’s all just a big, funny game.”
OUT OF CONTROL?
This insight into the incredible transformations that the actor undertakes perhaps gives us a greater appreciation as to how someone could train in the masochistic environment of the boxing ring, twice a day, for seven days a week, for pretty much three years straight as the method actor did next in training fo his role in The Boxer. Much like Robert De Niro and his training for Jake La Motta, the performance could not be faked. Day-Lewis had to make the audience very much aware of the authentic skill on display because otherwise it would feel like cheating. Day-Lewis and De Niro do in fact share many characteristics within their acting styles. Both men are rigurous within their preparation and have often fully developed the personality of their character before the cameras have even started rolling. They are also both famous for staying in role on set and treating people how their character would treat those said people within the script.
There is however one key difference between these method actors. De Niro suffers for his art and uses a method of controlled madness to develop his character; Day- Lewis however genuinely seems to enjoy the process of metamorphasis and his method is rather less controlled. It is one thing to stay isolated on set and give people a few glares from time to time ala De Niro, however it is quite another thing to be so firmly lodged in the mind of your character that you end up putting yourself and others at harm. Day- Lewis may call it a fun game but at times it seems that his method has slipped rather out of control. Take, for example, this quote from There will be Blood co-star Paul Dano as he describes the scene in which Day Lewis’ character begins to take him out with some bowling balls; a sequence which became all too realistic for the unfortunate actor:
“They start flying and I realise he’s getting into it. Then a ball bounces up and hits me in the leg, and I’m thinking ‘fuck, those are heavy; this is getting serious – I’d better duck.
Part of Daniel’s ability to transform himself also owes a great deal to his addictive personality. After all during his five year hiatus from filming he didn’t just take up the hobby of cobbling – he practiced it meticulously until it became an obsession and not long after he had developed an interest in carpentry than he was suddenly assisting the film’s carpentry department for one of his wive’s films. It is an obsession ingrained in his personality that makes him strive for perfectionism in every craft that he tries. No matter what profession you can imagine him excelling right to the top with his natural instincts and ability to totally absorb himself in his duty. Luckily however he has returned to acting and we shall no doubt be blessed with many more fine performances and surreal stories for many years to come.
Meanwhile I’m just hoping that he is never drawn to the role of a serial killer because it might not be long before we hear about him behind bars.
Thanks for reading today’s article. This is actually the last in the series for the other side of madness so I hope that you have enjoyed its run. The links to the other articles within this feature are all highlighted below for you to take another look at some of the maddest films, directors, actors and stories to have surfaced within the world of film. Thanks for all the kind words and encouragement during the series progression.
This article was first posted on April 4, 2010