Most people remember “There Will Be Blood” as Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning masterpiece, but Kel O’Neill probably isn’t one of them. The actor was originally cast as the pastor Eli Sunday but was fired from the film only a couple weeks into production. The rumor that O’Neill had to leave the film because he was intimidated by Day-Lewis has percolated for over a decade, but the actor has finally set the record straight in a new interview with Vulture.
According to O’Neill, he was asked by Anderson to arrive on the West Texas set two weeks early so that the cast could begin soaking up the isolation of the film’s period setting. But as soon as O’Neill arrived on set, he knew something just wasn’t working between Anderson and him.
“Filmmaking is so alchemical that sometimes certain factors don’t add up,” the actor told Vulture. “Some directors I’ve worked with just had a way of making me feel comfortable. For some reason, even though every other actor I know had a relationship with Paul that was super positive and where they did their best work, that just didn’t happen with me.”
O’Neill blames himself for failing to create a good working relationship with Anderson, telling Vulture, “An actor should, with every ounce of their humanity, be attempting to give the director what he or she wants. And I recall going in and out on whether I could really do that.”
The actor says he knew the writing was on the wall when his name was removed from the shooting schedule. Two or three weeks into production, O’Neill was called into a meeting with producer JoAnne Sellar and Anderson and was fired. He says his firing was entirely because of his rocky working relationship with Anderson and had nothing to do with the long-standing rumor that he felt intimidated by Day-Lewis.
“There’s something about that story that I understand is super compelling,” O’Neill admits about the rumor. “It gets at something that we collectively want to believe about Daniel, or anybody who is really good at what they do. That they’re somehow remote from us. They’re special and different, and in a way they deserve to be held to a different set of standards, because what they give to the world is so incredible.”
O’Neill says Day-Lewis was not a cold and removed Method actor on set and he remembers Day-Lewis shaking his hand after their first scene together and saying, “Welcome.”
“It wasn’t drinks every night with Daniel on set, but there’s a fundamental decency to the way he comports himself in those environments that gets lost in the shuffle of these rumors,” O’Neill said. “I would be cautious now, especially when he’s not going to do this anymore, about making him so mythical that there’s no acknowledgment of the human being there.”
After O’Neill was fired, Anderson had Paul Dano step into the role of Eli Sunday. Dano had already been cast as Paul Sunday. O’Neill says he still hasn’t watched “There Will Be Blood.”