Daniel Day-Lewis may not appear to be a marquee movie star. But audiences are starting to get the idea that when he does a movie–and he picks them carefully, willing to wait years between roles–they should check it out.
At a time when many actors risk overexposure, grabbing all the roles they can while interest is hot, Day-Lewis steps back and keeps himself grounded in his family and waits for the muse to hit him.
He's a marquee movie star because when he steps up, when the match is perfect between director and role, when it feels right, he gives his all, he embraces a role so totally that it consumes and overtakes him. He loses himself in the part throughout production. It's fair to say that Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln and that people went to see Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" because the actor, while reluctant to take it on at first, gave a must-see performance that will likely win the Academy Award. (He has won the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe Drama and Screen Actors Guild awards.)
An Oscar win would mark Day-Lewis's third, more Best Actor Oscars than any actor in history. Several lead actors, including Fredric March and Jack Nicholson, have two; Nicholson also won a supporting statuette for "Terms of Endearment" as astronaut Garrett Breedlove. Katharine Hepburn holds the leading actress record: four.
As part of the campaign for the Oscar, DreamWorks schlepped Day-Lewis to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last weekend to accept its Montecito Award. Day-Lewis submitted to an hour and a half of grilling by THR's Scott Feinberg, who diligently shared his homework on his entire career with the audience while managing to ellicit lengthy, candid and often funny responses from the star. After the tribute Day-Lewis attended the SBIFF after-party but huddled upstairs over dinner with "Last of the Mohicans" director Michael Mann, and mingled only briefly on his way out.
During the tribute I was reminded, via Day-Lewis's clips and stories, that from the start the actor showed a penchant for muscular, angry and violent roles, from Stephen Frears' "My Beauitful Laundrette" and Jim Sheridan's "My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father," and "The Boxer," to Michael Mann's "Last of the Mohicans," Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."
By his own admission, growing up, "I spent most of my time on the front line of London street life," he said, playing soccer, fighting on the school playground and rebelling against authority and the British class system. His Socialist father, the poet laureate of England Cecil Day-Lewis, died when his son was 15: "He had more than enough chances to see me screw up," Day-Lewis said. At the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School he embraced the Stanislavski method, and learned via three films with Sheridan that steeping himself over time in a role, with familiarity, worked best for him: "If I was going to carry on doing this, I could only work in this way."
Day-Lewis admitted that he can't do the work without the "reclusive need to withdraw from that, these two things are mutually dependent upon each other. I cannot do the work I love to do unless I take time away from it. It's the time taken away from it when god forbid I reengage with life, that allows me to do the work in the hope that I would bring something of my experience to it, not lurching from one film set to another.
But the life that we bring to our work has to come from elsewhere, it has to," he continued. "So as much as I love the work, so I love to stay away from it, and that time away, I am always engaged in some kind of skulduggery, that allows me to come back to it. I don't know what allowed this little kernel of self knowledge at such an early age, but without it I would have given up this work a long time ago, because I would have exhausted my capacity or desire to do it. It's not an endlessly regenerating compulsion, it has to be recognized and honored when it comes. If it's not there you should be occupied doing something else… Without that personal need, that curiosity that is unleashed out of some compulsive need to explore some field of human experience, there are no arts, that's all there is."
More on Day-Lewis and SBIFF here.