Digging Daniel Day-Lewis

The enigmatic leading man reveals the method behind his onscreen madness

People will have various opinions about There Will Be Blood. They already do: Though there's a strong Oscar buzz about the film (Day-Lewis will likely be nominated for Best Actor) and some reviewers are ecstatic, others have squirmed in their seats at the film's length (two hours and 40 minutes) and its unapologetic brutality — not violence, though there's some of that, but Anderson's defiant independence, and the film's absolute refusal to throw anyone any sort of feel-better bone. But — and this may be hard to believe — the film gets better the more you watch it. I know this because, after meeting Day-Lewis, I borrowed a friend's "for your consideration" DVD and watched it again, and again, and then replayed scenes over and over just to try to find the actor in the work. I couldn't. Not only that — I would find the world falling away as I watched, forgetting that I was watching an actor. Forgetting why I was watching at all, if not to relive the story.

This isn't only because of Day-Lewis' performance; it's also because of a script that serves him (and Dano) with a character who, for all his darkness, still claws at rising above his cruel beginnings in a way we all recognize. "It appeared to me to come from a very much unconscious self," Day-Lewis says of Anderson's script. "I didn't know Paul at all. I didn't know him as a man. But I knew when I read it that he had already inhabited this world. I think the very best writers do that, in very much the same way that we do it when we're working, or try to. I felt like he understood each and every one of those people that he was describing, and understood the world that they came from. He had taken the seed of an idea and progressed it moment by moment to such an audacious conclusion."

Plainview, were he real, would be among the men of history celebrated on dignified brass plaques and in statues all over the world. "But when you take off their tall hats and long-tailed coats," Day-Lewis observes, "they're just covered in the stuff." Oil, that is.

Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't act, but rather transforms himself.
Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't act, but rather transforms himself.

As are we all. When Plainview strokes the head of his injured boy, or sobs over the found journal of a lost family member, he reminds us that he still belongs to us, not only as a fellow human but as an iconic American. In our cars and planes and heated homes, we all benefit from the oil prospector's largess and pay for his sins every day.

Like many other films this season, There Will Be Blood announces in the credits that it's a "carbon-neutral production," which means that for every unit of carbon emitted during the making of the film, an offset was purchased, probably in the form of a tree. And Anderson, who got the idea for the film when he read Sinclair's book while traveling in London, clearly had a point to make about human greed laid bare in the petroleum industry.

But both director and star insist that There Will Be Blood is neither a political film nor a metaphor for anything. "Parallels are a menace," says Day-Lewis. "For the sake of doing the work itself, we had to set aside, put under lock and key, all our personal feelings about [oil]. Otherwise, we'd have been in the business of trying to teach, which is death to any kind of storytelling."

Still, he laments the proliferation of SUVs in Ireland. In Ireland? With those tiny streets?

"I go to school in the morning with my lad, and I park the car in a lot that's jammed full of SUVs they absolutely have no need of whatsoever," he attests. "Everyone is buying cars. They can't afford houses, so I guess they're buying cars instead. They're everywhere. Perched up in those bloody things, looking down on you, lording it over the rest of us.

"The roads in Ireland are only that wide. They're buying these things you can just jam between the hedgerows. It's madness."

A few years ago, Day-Lewis said in an interview that after decades of self-doubt — decades of asking himself whether, even after an Oscar and all that, he could be useful in the profession — he had finally realized that "Is there any reason to be doing this?" is a healthy question to be asking oneself, enthusiastically and repeatedly.

"It came to me in the form of a revelation," he explains. "When I was a young utopian and still had that conflict, I found it terribly unsettling, because it made me question my commitment to the thing I was apparently giving my life over to. And I worked a lot more in those days than I do now. So it really came as a great relief [to discover] that it was vital to have that conflict, to continually reassess the reason for doing this work, which may well have changed over the years.

"My ambition for many years was to be involved in work that was utterly compelling to me, regardless of the consequences. But I worried a lot as a young man about where such and such a thing might take me; you're encouraged to think that way. You're supposed to build a career for yourself. But there's no part of me that was able to do that. And thank God I was able to recognize it before I sort of went gray with anxiety."

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