Bloody and unbowed
Daniel Day-Lewis looks set to win an Oscar for his performance in There Will Be Blood. The intensely private actor opens up to Michael Dwyer about the awards circuit, the oil business, and his nixer as a carpenter
DANIEL Day-Lewis has spent the past two months caught up in the whirlwind of the awards season, travelling from one ceremony to another and collecting prize after prize for his towering performance in There Will Be Blood.
The tour comes to an end on Sunday week at the Academy Awards ceremony, where Day-Lewis well deserves to collect his second Oscar as best actor, which he first received in 1990 for his extraordinary portrayal of Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot.
One of the finest films in years, There Will Be Blood is a riveting, intense drama directed with tremendous accumulating power by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). Spanning the period 1898-1927, it stars Day-Lewis as a cold, selfmade, hands-on businessman who makes his fortune from oil, regardless of all those he exploits in his acquisitive greed. In a performance of staggering depth and complexity, Day-Lewis portrays this misanthrope in all his sly charm, steely determination and volcanic ferocity.
When we meet, Day-Lewis is back on home ground in Co Wicklow, where he lives with his wife, writer-director Rebecca Miller, and their two sons, Ronan and Cashel. He is on the school run and he suggests that we meet in the bar of Ardmore Studios in Bray, where he has happy memories of filming My Left Foot and Sheridan’s The Boxer.
We have the bar to ourselves, and DayLewis is in engaging, expansive form as we talk for an hour and a half. He’s glad to be home.
On an abnormal life: “Trot down a few red carpets, and you cease to recognise yourself”
“It was with great relief when I touched down at Dublin airport,” he says. “As lovely as the last few weeks have been, when you’ve trotted up and down a few red carpets and disgorged a few incomprehensible soundbites, you can feel that you’ve ceased to recognise yourself to some extent.
“It was hard to get back to normal life. That’s where the real divide exists. It’s not between the world of the work and the world of one’s home life. It’s really in that aspect of what they call the industry, which can be quite startling if you’re not used to it. Jump back into that after a couple of years and you’ve forgotten what it’s like.”
That includes doing the international interview circuit, which he has undertaken because he is so supportive of There Will Be Blood, even though it entails the rehashing of myths about his process as an actor and how he immerses himself in the roles he chooses to accept.
On media: “In England they feel I should be chopped down to size every few years”
“The mistake you make is thinking that you can begin to set the record straight. The only response, really, is no response at all, and yet when you do not respond, rumour becomes confused with fact and the claims get wilder and wilder. Therefore, it appears that I invite that kind of stuff.
“You keep out of the way as much as you can, and that probably lends a specious aura of mystery to the whole thing. Then, when you engage in it, it seems like you’re on an orgy of self-promotion. There doesn’t seem to be any balance you can achieve that isn’t going to have them sharpening their knives.”
In his native England, the media are always keen to remind Day-Lewis that he has not made a film in the UK since A Room with a View in 1985. “I daresay over in England they feel every five years or so that I should be chopped back down to size.
“It was never my intention to avoid working in Britain. There’s still that fascination and repulsion for American cinema. The British attitude is conflicted, to say the least. They like to be included in the big party, but they can’t quite seem to get things on a sure footing for themselves. They’re between the devil and the deep blue sea, really.
“All the flag-waving puts so much pressure on any British production that comes along. It’s like the Falklands war when you make a film there. The people who make the films should be able to release them in the same way other films are released, without any added pressures. And they are making some very good British films. This Is England is a very fine film. London to Brighton was another one, so is Control.”
Then there was his recent New York Times interview, which claimed that after seeing Taxi Driver, Day-Lewis realised that he longed to be a great American actor.
“I had to excuse myself to so many people after that was published. Can you imagineme ever making a claim to be or to wish to be an American actor? It’s completely ludicrous. The article was all done with good will, so it’s hard to argue the point. But it’s something that never occurred to me.
“When I was coming up and watching films, Ken Loach would have been one of the formative influences in my life, as before him were Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, who were all part of the British social realist movement. I absolutely devoured all those films.
“There was a sense of discovering the exotic when I saw Martin Scorsese’s work and Robert De Niro’s work for the first time, having already seen the films of Clift and Brando. It never occurred to me that I
might ever be a part of that world. At that time, very few actors from our part of the world had a chance to work on American films, and it seemed like our future would be predominantly in the theatre. And we accepted that, even though there was a secret wish to be part of cinema.”
On Oscars: “You’re trying to charm people into thinking you’re terrific”
Now 50, Day-Lewis was 33 when he won his Oscar for My Left Foot. What would winning again this year mean to him?
“It certainly would make me very popular at Paramount Pictures! Of course, when you get something like that for the first time, it feels unique, an unrepeatable experience. There’s a particular kind of bewilderment that goes with an experience like that, especially when you’re young.”
I recall meeting him at a party on the night he won his previous Oscar and how he described hearing Jodie Foster announce him as the winner as “like being hit by a car”. He responds: “It is awonderful experience, but it’s quite shocking as well. Who knows what’s going to happen this year. There are so many good films and great performances. It’s impossible not to seem as if you are on a campaign trail for it. George Clooney is very open and charming about it, and talks about kissing babies and so on. He’s prepared to do his bit.
“But it does seem strange to me, having done a piece of work which you then invite people to look at and make up their minds about, that you then go on an almost entirely separate venture which involves trying to charm people into thinking that you’re terrific. I just don’t really understand that.”
On There Will Be Blood: “I was astonished by the sheer honesty of it”
Paul Thomas Anderson has said that he wrote There Will Be Blood for Day-Lewis and wouldn’t have made the film without him. “It’s probably easy for him to say that now,” Day-Lewis laughs. “My feeling is that he probably wrote it partly with me in mind, but I think he didn’t chain himself to the idea of one actor to the exclusion of any other. But he certainly didn’t need to sell it to me.
“I was astonished by the audacity of it, the depth of the writing, the beauty of the language, and the sheer honesty of it. I felt there was something truly unconscious about it, a freedom to the writing, which was nonetheless beautifully ordered and sculpted, because he is a great craftsman, too.
“I sensed that, as a writer, he had begun to explore that world that he was imagining through the experiences and the eyes of that character . . . I felt he understood that world from the inside. I felt a kinship with that and the work that I do.”
There Will Be Blood is set early in the last century, but its themes are just as relevant today, when greed for oil and religious zealotry are at the root of so much conflict in the world.
“Those echoes are apparent in the film, but for us, the work is a much more selfish endeavour than that. It’s focused very narrowly on a very specific period in time, a very specific culture, and very particular lives within that culture. I don’t think any of us was consciously working towards any kind of commentary on the world today.”
Does Day-Lewis believe, then, that movies tend to be over-analysed? “Sometimes I think that’s true. In the case of our film, most of the discussion about it has been quite vigorous, and I’m glad that the film has made people want to talk about stuff that is important. There’s nothing better than that, really.”
“Film has become such a central part of our culture now that I think sometimes too great a weight is placed upon it in terms of scrutiny and analysis. There’s a lot of rather specious professorial stuff that swirls around films, I think. At the same time, God bless people who do study films, because it keeps alive the possibility that you’re working on something important.”
On oil: “People imagine Los Angeles is founded on the film industry. It’s not”
Another central theme of There Will Be Blood is capitalism as personified by Plainview, and he has his equivalents in the modern world who, no matter how much wealth they have, are intent on accumulating even more.
“Power may be part of it,” Day-Lewis says, “but my feeling is that the fever becomes an end in itself. People always imagine that Los Angeles is founded on the film industry, but it’s not. It’s founded on muck, on oil. The early photographs of the city show a forest of oil derricks with tiny houses lined between them. All the thoroughfares would have been swamps, with crude oil and overspills running down the streets. The whole place was founded on pollution.
“When Plainview is camping in his mansion, it’s an echo of hisway of life in the silver mining days. Because of the nature of that work, most men would have been brutalised by it. Most would have been broken by the experience, and of those who survived, most would have done so without any reward whatsoever.
“Those few who actually were rewarded with great showers of gold, like Plainview, seemed like they were still rooted in the savagery of those days when they were groping in the dark at the bottom of mineshafts, living like animals and having abandoned their wives and children for months and years. The only thing that sustains them is the fever.”
“At a given moment, down in the dark they will see something glitter, and the pulse starts to beat faster and that may carry them to the next lease on a piece of scrap land and just enough money to dig another hole and maybe that’s going to be the big one. In the process of developing those leases, of course, they have had to betray many people and they themselves probably have been betrayed very often.
“So deceit and brutality, and physical hardship and spiritual anguish, are very much part of their experience. They are irretrievable by the time they build these great pyramids to themselves, like the Plainview mansion.”
On shooting: “It’s like you’re in an experiment that could go horribly wrong”
Having spent so much time deep inside Plainview’s skin, how did Day-Lewis feel when shooting ended and he had to leave the character behind?
“More than anything, I suppose, I felt a great sense of sadness. That isn’t exclusively sadness at putting aside a life that has engaged your curiosity for a long period of time, but the entire experience, largely thanks to Paul, had been such an invigorating one. It always seems like you’re in an experiment that could go horribly wrong.”
One of the most daring aspects of the film is the 12-minute opening sequence, which employs all the elements of pure cinema – the acting, the direction, the camera movement, the production and costume designs – to speak the language of film without using any dialogue.
“That was an intoxicating sequence. We shot that in the first few days and it tells you everything you need to know about that man at that time in his life, without saying a word.
“The sensation I felt as I read it was the same as the first time I read Jim’s script for My Left Foot. It described Christy’s foot in a lengthy opening sequence, reaching into his record collection, choosing a record, putting it back and picking another one, switching the turntable on, putting it on the turntable, and then delicately placing the needle on a particular place, and changing the needle. That whole sequence was without dialogue, and I remember the very powerful visual sense Jim was able to create.”
Next month Day-Lewis will be taking care of his sons while their mother directs a new film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which stars Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Monica Bellucci.
“It’s a wonderful cast,” Day-Lewis says. “It will be shot in Connecticut. I might get to swing a hammer because there are some sets to be built. That could be the perfect antidote to all this. I am in the craftsmen’s union. After I worked on building the house in The Crucible, the union invited me to become a member. I’m very proud of that.”
Daniel Day-Lewis will attend the Irish premiere There Will Be Blood at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in the Savoy tomorrow evening. The film opens commercially on February 29th
Daniel Day-Lewis photographed by Gilles Toucas (top); in There Will Be Blood