There Will Be Blood - Daniel Day-Lewis interview
Daniel Day-Lewis talks to Roberto Carnevale about his high-achieving family, his Oscar-nominated performance in There Will Be Blood, and his legendary Method approach to acting
Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t make many films but when he does there’s almost always a seat reserved for him near the podium at awards ceremonies. The London-born, Ireland-based actor has already won an Oscar for My Left Foot and has amassed a further 40 wins and 16 nominations in a career encompassing In the Name of the Father, The Last of the Mohicans and Gangs of New York.
And yet he remains tireless in his quest to stretch himself still further. As Daniel Plainview, the turn of the century prospector at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood, he’s a volatile force of nature that’s every bit as incendiary as the oil he seeks to make his fortune.
In a near-wordless 20-minute opening sequence, for example, he completely embodies Plainview, demonstrating with bone-crunching authenticity the painful lengths to which his character will go in search of the American Dream. It’s a bravura piece of filmmaking and one that immediately ignited the actor’s fertile imagination.
‘It was delightful, actually,’ he recalls with a wry grin as he sits before me at a top London hotel dressed in a denim jacket and sporting a trilby hat. ‘I have a paradoxical relationship with language anyhow, having come from a household where language was so important,’ he says, a reference to his father, the poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis.
‘But I turned page after page and thought, “how long can he keep this going for?” There was something almost cheeky about it, but delightful and true. First and foremost it seemed true that the life of this man in this situation could be revealed in such a way that you knew everything that you needed to know about him at that stage in his life without ever saying a word. I just thought there was something quite remarkable about that.’
Much less remarkable to him, however, are the stories that surround his preparation for roles, particularly those that seem designed to uncover any madness behind his method. He seems almost embarrassed when confronting the subject once again, but is keen to point out that the character didn’t just come from material gleaned from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! or the exploits of real-life oil man Edward Doheny, who nevertheless provided a lot of the inspiration for Plainview.
‘Considering the way that I work very often, I do feel I’ve been soundly misrepresented so many times that there’s almost no point in even talking about it. But people tend to focus on the details of the preparation – the practical details in this clinic or that prison and so on and so forth.’
When he was working on Gangs of New York, for instance, reports suggest that he rarely came out of character and would regularly sharpen his knives during lunch breaks. While making The Ballad of Jack & Rose, in which he was directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur), he apparently lived alone in a hut on the beach during filming.
He continues: ‘For me, as much as that work is a vital part of it and always fuel to one’s fascination, one’s curiosity, the principal work is always in the imagination. That’s where it’s going to happen if it’s going to happen anywhere at all: the imagination, in very close working partnership with the subconscious, I think, because when the work is happening the way it should be you can’t be entirely in control of it.’
It’s the type of comment that’s guaranteed to add even more intrigue to the ongoing mystery of what makes him one of the most important actors of his generation, a film star whose enviable track record has garnered more awards than most of his heroes (Robert De Niro included).
But ever since committing his own form of mutiny by scene stealing from Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in The Bounty and then putting critics and audiences into a spin with his performance as a gay punk in Stephen Frears’ Brit hit My Beautiful Laundrette, Day-Lewis has shown that he is clearly possessed of something special.
Indeed, his reputation is such that he continues to work with only the very best directors, emerging from self-imposed exile every couple of years to work with the likes of Philip Kaufman, James Ivory, Jim Sheridan, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann. It was probably only a matter of time before Magnolia’s Paul Thomas Anderson attracted his attention.
‘I certainly knew his films and already admired him a great deal, most particularly for his recent film Punch Drunk Love, so even the very idea of working with him when the word came was something I was intrigued by,’ he recalls.
‘Nonetheless, had I read that script and not felt drawn into the world that he’d created, out of respect for him I’d have said: “Get somebody else because I can’t help you here.” But I was very drawn to the idea of working with him.’
It’s a collaboration which is already paying rich dividends: There Will Be Blood has won 12 awards so far, including a Golden Globe for best actor, and has been nominated for eight Oscars, including nods for Day-Lewis and Anderson.
Day-Lewis, however, would probably tell you that such accolades play second fiddle to the work itself. It’s the craft that drives this son of a Poet Laureate and the grandson of Ealing Studios founder, Sir Michael Balcon. Hence, while media scrutiny continues to make him uncomfortable, he’s unfazed by a really challenging shoot – and Anderson appears to have provided him with just that.
‘He’s a mischief maker and a great man for working close to the borderline of chaos. But I think that’s really the most fertile area that you can work in.’ He cites a pivotal scene, the burning of a rig after the discovery of oil, by way of example. ‘I don’t know how many times the burning of that bloody rig was put on the schedule – we all thought we should do something else first because there was only one derrick and that was the centrepiece of our world.
‘But there was no going back [once we’d started] and if we’d got the burning of the derrick wrong we’d have been absolutely shagged. Fortunately, we had a good guy called Steve Cremin, who was strangely an ex-tennis pro, and he really just did everything right.’
Ironically, the scene in question marks a crossroads in Plainview’s life, empowering him to create the empire he has long been seeking, but also costing his adopted son his hearing and thereby contributing to the difficult relationship that follows between them.
Once more, Day-Lewis is drawn into more personal territory but he replies candidly when asked whether the on-screen dynamic had made him dwell on his own relationship with his own father.
‘My relationship with my own father was much less complex than you might have been led to believe. He was just a man I never really got to know; there’s nothing really complex about that. In later years, reassessing what might have been a relationship with my father, that’s where the complexity is, I suppose, because we all to some extent measure ourselves, if we’re men, against our fathers.
‘[That said] I would hope that none of my experiences as a father would have fed the relationship Plainview has with HW [his son in the film].’
There Will Be Blood is out on Fri 15 Feb.