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The Way He Lives Now 

As Daniel Day-Lewis' fourth film in a decade arrives in theaters, the movies' most enigmatic leading man reveals the method behind his onscreen madness

Wednesday, Dec 26 2007
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"Do you really want to know about that?" Day-Lewis protests when I ask how he manages to live on set in character. He looks down at his hands and laughs. He has just been profiled in a many-thousand-word New York Times Magazine story by Lynn Hirschberg, which had Day-Lewis on the cover, smiling, nearly life-size. He's reluctant to "gob off" even more about himself, not out of humility or standoffishness but out of a firm conviction that there should be other things to talk about, such as what's happening in Pakistan or Gaza. But, like it or not, Day-Lewis has come here to gob off, and Paramount Pictures is paying for the hotel suite, and so he complies.

But not without objections: "The odd thing about this particular period of time is that if you do what you have to do to try to encourage people to see a film you've worked very hard on, it appears, I suppose, as if you're engaged in an orgy of self-promotion. Which really wouldn't be my thing." I get that, I assure him, but still, I want to know: Did he really eat, smoke, and drink as Daniel Plainview even when the cameras weren't rolling?

I should mention here that the way Daniel Day-Lewis sounds on the page, uttering these clean, neat, clearly composed sentences right off the cuff, isn't really a fair representation of how he sounds in person. There are ums, ahs, and pauses so long that it's hard to resist finishing his sentences or interrupting him to get on to the next point. He comes off as neither overly learned nor haughty, only obdurately sincere, always checking himself to make sure that he means what he says. He interjects the name of the person he's talking to as he speaks, as if to remind himself to treat each new interrogator lumbering through an inevitably dreary day of publicity as an individual. He brightens up when the discussion veers off filmmaking to politics, world events or California State Highway 1. "It's hard driving that coast," says the motorbike enthusiast, who drove the route recently on his way from Los Angeles to a race in Monterey. "Every 200 yards, you have to stop and drink it in."

All this affability makes it hard to believe that, as Hirschberg suggested, Day-Lewis so intimidated an actor on the There Will Be Blood set that Anderson had to replace him with Paul Dano halfway into the 60-day shoot. Day-Lewis seems confused by the story. "When Lynn mentioned that to me, I was genuinely surprised," he says. "I didn't believe it. I'd be very, very sorry if that were true. It appalled me to think that it might be true. It would never be my intention. Apart from everything else, it would be self-defeating to intimidate a colleague I was working with. No matter what the rivalry is, even if it's murderous between those two characters, you're in a partnership, you're in a dance of some kind. And it's absolutely vital that you work together."

It is true that the actor originally cast in the role of the young evangelical preacher Eli Sunday was recast two months into shooting. But Day-Lewis rejects the idea that his process caused the trouble. "I suppose I always hope there's some sort of tacit understanding between myself and my colleagues that I work the way I do," he admits. "I don't expect them to work in the same way. I don't mind what way they work in to arrive at what they're trying to arrive at, as long as it doesn't interfere with me. And I really try not to interfere with them in any way, and only ever encourage them to do what they need to do to find that thing."

When I initially let the topic go, he brings the conversation back. "Just to return to that question," he says, the article "also kind of suggested that Leo [DiCaprio, on Gangs of New York] felt the same way about me, and I just don't think that's true. Leo is a very strong, independent, serious actor. He's wonderful. And he knows how it works. He may not have liked me during that time, I don't know. We get on very, very well. I'm very fond of him. I've never discussed it with him. He never suggested to me that I was making his life difficult in any way. And I don't think I was."

"Look," he concludes, "everyone has insecurities. Every single person on the set at one time goes through a moment of black despair about what it is they're trying to do. They're all subject to those weighty questions that seem to press us into the ground sometimes. And it's possible one might be insensitive to the needs of somebody who's spinning off course, because you're taken with a fever, just like all those oil prospectors were — all driving forwards.

"All that I ever hope for from any colleague is that when the collision takes place in front of the camera that there's a recognizable human being there, telling the truth. Speaking, listening, responding. I don't care how extreme that process is."

Dano had already been indoctrinated in the Day-Lewis experience when he played the teenage Thaddius in The Ballad of Jack and Rose ("a boy with a face like a blade," Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times. After There Will Be Blood, he suggests that working with Day-Lewis is far less frightening than inspiring. "I think there's a general feeling about Daniel that what he does is abnormal," Dano says by phone from New York, where he's appearing off-Broadway in The Things We Want. "But I have to say, when you're there with him, it could not make more perfect sense. He's doing what he has to do to give the best performance he can, and he has the nerve and passion and commitment to do it."

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Judith Lewis

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