The madness of Daniel Day-Lewis – a unique Method that has led to a deserved third Oscar

Geoffrey Macnab on a star earning unprecedented honours

To call Daniel Day-Lewis a “method actor” is to understate the case. Day-Lewis, who has just won his third Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln, uses very mystical language to describe his craft. He has talked of “the gravitational pull of another life that fires one’s curiosity” and the “mystery” of performance, at least as practised by him in front of the cameras. He believes so fervently that he is the character he is playing that audiences are swept along with him.

Stars tend to be defined by their immutability. John Wayne was always John Wayne. Cary Grant described the secret of star acting as becoming “as familiar in people’s lives as their favourite brand of tea or coffee”. Day-Lewis, though, makes hardly any films and rarely repeats himself. When he does appear on screen, it’s always bound to be in a radical new guise.

The one previous British actor who could match Day-Lewis’s protean quality was Alec Guinness (who did his finest work for Day-Lewis’s grandfather Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and was also friendly with his father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis). Guinness practised his own British version of Method acting. When he was playing a dishevelled artist in Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth, he decided to stop washing for the duration of the shoot.

Day-Lewis goes far further. When he was playing the womanising brain surgeon in the Milan Kundera adaptation, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, he taught himself Czech (even though the film was in English). As part of his preparation for playing the frontiersman in The Last Of The Mohicans, he learned how to build canoes. Most famously, in his first Oscar-winning role, as the Irish artist Christy Brown who had cerebral palsy in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, he spent almost the entire shoot in a wheelchair. “He’d call you by your film name, and you’d call him Christy. It was madness. You’d be feeding him, wheeling him around. During the entire film, I only saw him walking once,” Sheridan’s daughter, Kirsten Sheridan, later recalled.

The paradox about Day-Lewis is that, like Guinness, he is a character actor who invariably plays leading parts. He is better looking and more athletic but shares Guinness’s neurotic and aloof quality and his ability to disappear into roles. He is very different from the great American method actors like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who remain recognisably themselves however extreme the characters they are portraying.

Day-Lewis is famous for his love of woodwork. No profile of him fails to mention that he brings the same painstaking craftsmanship to his performances that the best carpenters devote to their jobs. All this makes him sound absurdly earnest and self-important. He would be unbearable to watch if he didn’t add at least a little playfulness to his roles.

He seemed to be enjoying himself as the arch-seducer in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and as the gay Jack the lad in My Beautiful Laundrette. Occasionally, he is guilty of some pantomime villain-style mugging – witness his luridly over-the-top performance as the top hat wearing thug Bill The Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York.

It’s instructive to compare his very dark performance as the ruthless oilman in There Will Be Blood (for which he won his second Oscar) with his much lighter turn as Lincoln, in which he conveys brilliantly the President’s slyness but also his wisdom and idealism. The two characters are polar opposites, even if both are quintessential Americans.

In the old days of the US studios, when actors were obliged to take the roles the bosses gave them, a career like his would have been unthinkable. In recent award speeches, Day-Lewis has deftly sent up his image as the obsessive who allows himself to be taken over by the characters he plays. That, though, is what makes him special – it is also why he has three Oscars to his name in spite of making fewer than a dozen movies since My Left Foot in 1989.

His performance as Abe Lincoln is astounding. His trick was to study Alexander Gardner’s American Civil War era photos of Lincoln in the minutest detail. As he told the New York Times: “I looked at them the way you sometimes look at your own reflection in a mirror and wonder who that person is looking back at you.”

By some feat of imagination and empathy, he then made Lincoln seem real. This wasn’t just mimicry. It was as much to do with expressing the feelings and thought processes of the President at a pivotal moment in his life as it was with appearance or voice. 

This isn’t screen acting that can be taught. You can’t think of anyone else who would have had the recklessness to play the role in such a way or the conviction to pull it off. Day-Lewis is one of the greatest screen actors of his generation precisely because he is ready to take such risks.

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game