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
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?