Anyone who has seen Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's storming "big oil epic" There Will Be Blood might wager that the best actor Oscar is already his.
As the chillingly mercurial Daniel Plainview, a pioneering oil prospector who strikes it rich after discovering a lake of oil underneath New Boston, California, the actor owns the film for its two hours and 40 minutes. For the first 20 – in which not a word is spoken – he sustains a level of intensity that is truly astonishing. Day-Lewis has already received a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, plus top awards from almost every US critics circle, for his performance as the hard-bitten, irreligious misanthropic mountain of a man.
But, as the actor bounds into the room to meet me, he could not be more different from the toweringly obnoxious character he has created. Smiling for Ireland, the absurdly youthful 50-year-old is dressed like a traveller with a penchant for country and western, in checked shirt, jeans and a Mexican silver buckled belt, sporting shoulder-length wavy hair and two rather large silver hoop earrings. An affable, funny and down-to-earth man, without pretension, his rather charming old-school manners are given voice in an accent with more than a hint of an Irish lilt, as far from the clipped growl of Plainview as one could imagine.
Much of what is said about Day-Lewis is not to his liking. Journalists have written about his time on a film, his time off, what he does, how he does it. They have examined his relationships, his habits, his way of life. And here I am, about to do it again. The reason for this level of interest is that Day-Lewis's work is big news. There Will Be Blood, loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! (itself loosely based on the scandalous life of the barnstorming oil tycoon Edward L Doheny), has received eight Oscar nominations and met with a fanfare of critical acclaim. Some have suggested that, judging by this rivetingly physical rendering, Day-Lewis is the world's greatest living screen actor.
"I was working on this part for three years, but not in isolation, as Paul and I were in very close touch the whole time," says Day-Lewis, who was in character throughout the shoot. "My preference is that, that day when someone sticks a tripod in front of you with a camera on the top, it is not day one. It begins way before, with the work before you start filming – and there is no limit to the amount of time that you take to discover a whole life; it could take six months, a year, or a lifetime."
The two roles established the actor on the international stage, but it was his Oscar-winning turn as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989) that won him a reputation as one of the world's foremost practitioners of the method school of acting. Throughout production, the actor remained in character as the writer with cerebral palsy, never leaving his wheelchair and being spoon-fed by the crew. "A few people did find that a bit odd," he admits, chuckling. "My agent Julian, who is sadly no longer with us, was quite unsettled when he came to visit me on set as I was 'in character' all the time and, apart from anything else, he couldn't understand a word I was saying.
This preparation, for which Day-Lewis is now notorious, has been the cause of much heated discussion – and some public concern. He crudely tattooed his hands and trained as a real fighter, twice a day, seven days a week, for nearly three years, for The Boxer (1997). His trainer – the former world champion Barry McGuigan, no less – remarked that he could have turned professional.
For In The Name of the Father (1993), he slept in an abandoned jail and ate only prison rations. For The Crucible (1996), he lived in the film set's replica village without electricity or running water and built his character's house with 17th-century tools.
But it was his method work as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002) that attracted most attention. He trained as a butcher, caught pneumonia while on set (having refused to change his threadbare coat for a warmer one because it hadn't existed in the 19th century), and wandered about Rome (where Gangs was filmed) in character, fighting strangers. "I had to do my preparation," he says with a grin. "And I will admit that I went mad, totally mad. I remembered the days of fighting on the Millwall terraces and they stood me in good stead for Bill the Butcher. He was a bit of a punk, a marvellous character and a joy to be – but not so good for my physical or mental health." Day-Lewis plays down most of the rumours about his working methods, and is clearly sick to death of hearing them. "I have always been intrigued by these lives I have never experienced. And I love the pure pleasure of doing the work, no matter if that work involves some kind of discomfort – even though I don't see it as that, one just deals with the day-to-day challenges of the character. I do it out of curiosity and I enjoy it. But the way people would have it, it is like a game of self-chastisement and it has never been that way for me – it's all just a big, funny game."
How do the wife and kids cope with having a father who, for long periods, is someone else? "For There Will Be Blood, my wife and kids were with me throughout," he replies. "And they did go a little bit crazy living with Plainview all the time, but the kids thought it was a laugh in the end to have this different bloke as their dad and both did a pretty decent impersonation of me. My wife is amazingly tolerant. I knew that from the word go. She just believes, like I do, that if you are attempting anything of a creative nature, no rules apply."
One of the hardest things for Day-Lewis is letting go of the characters he has so lovingly created. "Well, absurd as it might seem, when you've been someone else for that amount of time, it's even more absurd when it's all over." He laughs. "Then the joke is on all of us, because once a curiosity is unleashed you can't just tie it up again. It does take time to let go. There is no great part of you that wants to stop doing that work, and no matter how much you're begging for it to stop you need someone to put a restraining order on it."
it was pretty much a Bible, so you can read the whole thing at the source
dedicated to all my bitches over holymilkshakes