The Genius of Day-Lewis Brings Lincoln Alive

Daniel Day-Lewis as 16th President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

By Patricia Danaher, Contributor
February / March 2013

In the last decade, Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the greatest actors of our time, has made only five films. But when he chooses to play a part he commits to it fully, as his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s latest biopic exemplifies. Between roles? It’s all about his family, he tells Patricia Danaher.

Daniel Day-Lewis is in an extremely good mood. He’s in such high spirits when we meet at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills that, for a moment, I’m almost caught off guard. Dressed in a pair of baggy green combats and a navy bomber jacket, his salt and pepper hair combed upwards in a quiff, he looks like an off-duty detective.

He had been in New York for a few weeks, and although it’s a beautifully warm October day in Los Angeles, he’s missing Wicklow and the family as he goes out to do the business for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which Day-Lewis undertook the weighty task of portraying one of the most beloved, important and divisive presidents in American history.

Thus far, the praise has been resounding. Critics have hailed his slightly weary but determined stature and his high, reedily resonant voice, as have members of the cast and crew. Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, told the New York Times that Day-Lewis’s delivery of Lincoln’s 13th Amendment speech was “One of the greatest things I have ever seen. . . Everyone’s jaw was on the floor.” Day-Lewis received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor. Lincoln leads the pack at the Oscars this year, with 12 nominations in all, including Best Picture.

Liam Neeson had been slated to play the part for several years, but when his career as an action hero took off after Taken, he eventually told Spielberg to move on.

“When I was doing the first Taken, I was kind of preparing for Lincoln. But there comes a time when you’re past your sell-by date, and I felt like I was at that point seven years ago,” Neeson told me in New York in October.

“I was dropping weight when I thought we were getting close to shooting, then when we weren’t, I was putting weight on again. So one day, I called Steven up and said, ‘Steven, please call Daniel Day- Lewis if you haven’t already done so and give him the part.’ He made the right choice,” said Liam.

The multi-Oscar-winning director collaborated very closely with Day-Lewis, spending chunks of time in Ireland while the script was being developed.

“I was in Dublin and in Wicklow a few times working with Daniel and the screenwriter Tony Kushner on the script,” said Spielberg. “We were so thrilled when Daniel signed up to play the role and it was a joy working with him.”

Day-Lewis is no fan of interviews, hates being asked personal questions, which partly explains why he works so selectively as a film actor, making just five films in the last ten years. But it’s also much more because he hates being away from his wife, Rebecca Miller, and their two boys Cashel (10) and Ronan (14).

“With Lincoln and with the one I did before that, Nine, I wasn’t able to be with my family while I was working, and that is one of the reasons why I work less often than I might, because I don’t like to be away,” he tells me. “When they were younger, you could kind of pick them up and put them under your arm and just travel with them. But that’s no longer possible, and I miss them.”

Fatherhood is clearly an enduring source of joy for the actor, who also has a 17-year-old son, Gabriel Kane Adjani, whose mother is the French actress Isabelle Adjani. Day-Lewis and Rebecca Miller have been married since 1996, after meeting on the set of The Crucible. His intense admiration for her playwright father, Arthur Miller, has been well documented.

Annamoe, County Wicklow has been their home for a long time, and it’s clear what an oasis the village and their home are for him.

“In terms of having a confidant, Rebecca is somebody I would discuss everything with,” he readily admits. “We have worked together, on her movie Jack and Rose, which was an extremely rewarding experience, but we very often work in separate places. But there’s nothing we don’t share with each other. I’m always fascinated to know what she’s up to on that computer of hers,” he giggles almost coquettishly. “It’s like watching a scientist in a laboratory cooking up some chemical thing!”

He jokes that his sons aren’t quite sure what he does for a living, that they think he might be involved in making furniture.

“My 14-year-old boy was asked a couple of years ago what I did and he said, ‘I think he’s in construction.’ So that’s how much they know! I’m not building anything. A few years ago he heard someone on the radio say, ‘Daniel Day-Lewis makes chairs in his spare time.’ He thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard, that I was a chair maker.”

One of the reasons that Day-Lewis has done so few movies is because he wants to be “available” for his family. “It’s a selfish thing with the work, but I also think that they need me around as well, and I don’t like to be in the position of going from the set, back home to my house and then trying to deal with the bizarre transition. I like to take a lot of time to get ready for any piece of work, and when you go to these great lengths to create a life that’s believable to you, it seems so much stranger to me to jump in and out of it all day long.”

His relationship with his father, the  Irish-born English poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis was an intense and complex one, and no doubt this is in part what informs his own attitude to how he is as a father himself.

“I think I’m quite old-fashioned as a father. I’m surprised,” he admits. “I don’t know if all parents surprise themselves to discover the kind of parent they are, as opposed to the parent they imagine themselves to be,” he says, with a self-conscious laugh. “I think I’m very free in a certain kind of way. I was raised, not in a strict way, but my parents believed strongly in certain things and I tend to believe in those same things. I tend to wish that my children will observe the same things that I do, but there’s no guarantee they will.”

While talking about his family life makes him relax and open up in a surprising and very tender way, talking about work brings out that intensity for which he is so famous. But the near giddy mood he’s in this morning makes me think there’s been some shift in his psyche since we last met. Au contraire: according to Daniel’s view of himself, it’s the total opposite. He wants to assure me that he sees himself as playful and that he has never been someone who takes himself too seriously.

“It’s imperative to take the work seriously. I mean if anybody is going to spend the money that is spent even on low budget films, you have a responsibility to work seriously. But it’s important that you don’t take yourself seriously. I tend to give the impression that I take myself very seriously, but playfulness is what it’s all about. . . . If the work isn’t that, it’s nothing, even if you’re telling a great story about hard things with great loss and violence.”

Still, there’s no denying that he is renowned in the industry for the grueling Method-style preparation he undergoes for each role. While filming My Left Foot, in which he portrayed Christy Brown, the Irish poet and artist with cerebral palsy, he stayed in his wheelchair between scenes and was fed and cared for by crew members. To get into the mind of Bill the Butcher, his character in Gangs of New York, he took butchering lessons. For the duration of Lincoln, he maintained the president’s voice and accent on and off set, though he still discussed contemporary matters. All this has led to raised eyebrows from some detractors who say it’s just for show, but Day-Lewis, who in the past has been reluctant to discuss his process, is quick to clarify.

“You create for yourself the illusion that you can enter the life of the person. I know I am not Abraham Lincoln. I’m not that daft,” he says pointedly, “but I choose to believe for a period of time that I am, and I can shut out the voice in me that tells me I’m not. It’s like the simple game of make-believe we play as children and that some of us never stop playing.” There’s that playfulness again.

In addition to immersing himself in his characters’ psyches, Daniel is a thorough researcher. “My approach here was the same as it is for any other piece of work, which is to try to create an understanding for myself, in a very personal way, of a life,” he explained. “In the case of this very well documented life, it began with reading. I could be reading about Lincoln for the rest of my life and the next one, so much has been written about him, so I had to choose very carefully the books I read. I had a year to prepare, and at a certain moment, the books are put aside and the real work begins, which is always the same thing – the work of the imagination.”

For Daniel, it’s all about knowing when to work, which roles are worth the intense immersion and concentration. “I know myself well enough to know when it’s time, and I think I was blessed with a pretty strong sense of that from an early age, when I didn’t have the luxury of choosing when I was able to work and when I wasn’t. I’ve always felt in all creative fields that it’s much less to do with whatever gifts you might have for that work, and more whether you are compelled to do that work to the exclusion of everything else. I work when I feel the compulsion. The will has to come from you, because the energy has to come from you.”

Notwithstanding the two Oscars (for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood), the Golden Globes and the adulation of critics, Day-Lewis’s relationship with his wife and children is a key component in the work that he does, and when he chooses to do it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that what I’m able to contribute to the work has been enriched by everything else that’s going on in my life. The family life, once you have a family, it’s very important that they don’t get pushed aside for the sake of a piece of work. And I seem to be able to work with the same intensity and still remain available to my family to the extent I can be.”

We’ve been talking for nearly an hour and his boisterous energy seems to be flagging a little, although he’s still in high spirits. I bring up Jim Sheridan, with whom some of his greatest collaborations have taken place and through whom Daniel developed his long and enduring love of Ireland. Their work on My Left Foot, which won him his first Oscar, followed by In the Name of the Father and The Boxer remain some of the work of which he is proudest. So, what are the prospects of the pair reteaming in the future? Mention of Sheridan brings a huge smile.

“Of course I would do anything with Jim. We’ve made three great movies together that I’ll always be proud and grateful for. We keep talking about doing something else but there’s nothing definite. Sheriff Street [an up-coming movie based on Sheridan’s upbringing in Dublin] is his huge passion these days, so you’d never know.”

Annamoe, County Wicklow continues to be the place to which Daniel returns to restore himself (and not make furniture), and he is already looking forward to going home. He likes how people leave him alone and his celebrity is not an issue.

“Compared to most people that you meet in the course of your work, I find people [in Annamoe] on the whole to be very gracious and unassuming. Even if they do feel the need to say something to you or ask you for a little something, it really is not an intrusion on my life to the extent that it makes any difference whatsoever.”

Excited as he is to be returning to life with his family, there is also a part of him that is sad to say goodbye to Lincoln. “I grew to love that man so much that I never wanted to part company with him,” he reflects, “in a way that I never really felt you could have for someone you’ve never met, and it takes time to exorcise the spirit of that character. [I] was reluctant to let go, because after all, [I had] invested a substantial amount of my life in exploring [his], taken some trouble to try and create it and make it live, and it’s very strange to go from one day to the next when all that ceases. But the beautiful thing is, I can now go back to loving Lincoln from the other side of the line.”

Watch a trailer for Lincoln:

2 Responses to “The Genius of Day-Lewis Brings Lincoln Alive”

  1. Maire Flynn says:

    No sooner I fell in love with Daniel’s Lincoln than I discovered a family member took the name Abraham Lincoln as first and middle names, born 1865 . I continue to research family history, and knew a few historical facts that bothered me during the movie, but this character was very lovable! Thank you, Daniel.

  2. I learned about Lincoln in grammar school, and he was my hero ever since I was a kid. I loved him.I was deeply saddened by learning about his assassination, but I didn’t cry about it, because it was so far back in time. Then I saw DDL’s portrayal, and at the end I cried so hard. I felt the same way I did when JFK was murdered. This is because DDL brought Lincoln so alive that I loved him more than ever. Thank you, Mr. Day-Lewis. You are a genius.

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