Daniel Day-Lewis: interview

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The Irish double Oscar winner tells Dave Calhoun how director Rob Marshall got him to sing and dancefor this Christmas’s blockbuster musical 'Nine'

‘I remember! You called me a stick insect!’ Daniel Day-Lewis is laughing and playing hurt while our photographer takes his picture. He’s remembering an interview we did in Dublin in 2006 before the release of his wife Rebecca Miller’s film, ‘The Ballad of Jack and Rose’, and just a few months before he started filming ‘There Will Be Blood’, the movie that won him his second Oscar last year (he’d won one previously for ‘My Left Foot’ in 1990). Slightly embarrassed, I remind him that he was looking especially skinny at the time because he was wearing tight leathers after riding his motorbike into the Irish capital from his home in the countryside for the interview. ‘Stick insect! What will you call me this time?’ Happily, I can report that Day-Lewis, who looks younger than his 52 years, is this time looking slightly – just slightly – fuller of face. A stick insect after a good meal, perhaps.

The actor is in London for the premiere of ‘Nine’, a new musical from Rob Marshall, the director of ‘Chicago’, in which he plays Guido Contini, a fictional Italian film director in mid-1960s Rome. Contini’s lost his mojo and might be about to lose his marriage if he doesn’t cease the endless womanising with his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman) and even a journalist (Kate Hudson), and return instead to the arms of his long-suffering wife (Marion Cotillard). It’s an adaptation of a 1982 stage show that was itself a loose spin on Federico Fellini’s 1963 film ‘8 1/2’ and, yes, we do see Day-Lewis – master of the intense, dark performance – singing, dancing and buzzing about Rome in a powder-blue Fiat sports car.

You’re back in the fray pretty quickly with this film.
‘A friend of mine, when I told him I was doing this, said: “My God, you’re in danger of becoming prolific!” [Laughs] Yeah, I hadn’t intended to go back to work. I really hadn’t. It wasn’t a good moment, just from the family point of view. Rebecca, my wife, had just made a film in Connecticut and we decamped there for a few months and home-schooled the boys. We just thought we couldn’t do it again. It really wasn’t the right moment to go back to work.’

I’m impressed Rob Marshall would offer you a musical.
‘He probably knew that I’d come up with every excuse I could not to do it – including giving him a list of names of actors that I thought would be far better than me!’

How did he persuade you?
‘The truth is that Rob could charm the birds out of the trees. It was a lost cause trying to put up a struggle. He managed to convince all of us that over a period of time he could turn a squeak into a roar. I don’t know how he did that. I told him straight out I couldn’t sing. He said: “You can.” I said: “No I can’t.” At that point, we got someone in to play the piano and I tried to stagger through one of the songs. And I said: “See, I can’t sing.” And he said: “No, you can.” Because he knew we’d be working for eight weeks of rehearsal and he was convinced. I took it on trust, really.’

There’s a very moving scene when you dance with Italian acting legend Sophia Loren, who plays the ghost of your character’s mother.

‘Oh, I enjoyed that! My own mum passed away last year and I’m sorry she didn’t get to see this film, but she was so tickled at the idea of Sophia playing my mum. She was delighted. She wouldn’t have approved of all the people who have been my mum over the years! But that one scored a real hit.’

You’ve lacked romance in your films. So many of your characters have been loners.
‘It’s true, yeah. I dare say that’s not a coincidence. But I wouldn’t know why… The lives that have intrigued me over the past years haven’t been great successes with the ladies! [Roaring laugh] Putting it mildly!’

Nine’ is partly about filmmaking, which is something you haven’t explored before.
‘As an idea, it would put me off, actually. It seems too inward-looking. Yet, having seen “8 1/2”, we know it’s possible to do it. And Truffaut’s great film “Day For Night”. There have been a number of great exceptions. Generally the rule would be: don’t do work about the work.’

Did you worry that the format of the musical would limit your ability to act?
‘That was one of the questions I had for Rob, because I hadn’t been a follower of musicals, to say the least. I loved the Astaire musicals when I was younger. And “Mary Poppins”, I loved that as a kid. But then there was a huge gap. If somebody had put a musical in front of me, I’d have thought: Why are you singing? Don’t do that. Just get on with the story. Then I saw “Moulin Rouge”, which I loved. And then “Chicago”. It seemed there really was still work to be done. But one of my first questions to Rob was: “How do you marry those apparently incompatible worlds of spoken word and song?” Where is reality within that?’

The life of your character, Guido Contini, is a mess partly because the public and the private are chaotically intertwined. Do you fight to keep the two separate yourself?
‘There was a time when I knew that I had to. But once the work is put in, it’s a question of just maintaining the boundaries a little bit. It’s not always easy. And it gets hard for a period of time when the whole scrutiny of a film release invades one’s life. But for the most part, because of where we live, in Ireland, it’s made a lot easier. I’ve been very lucky. I just knew at an early time in my life how important privacy was. Not just for me and my family, but also to be able to do the work itself. To re-engage with the world and then come back to the work. It’s only of any use to you if you manage to exist properly day to day within an ordinary society. If you become a rarefied creature, and this whole silly machine is constantly forcing you little by little to become one of those gated creatures – God forbid! – then it would be so hard to have anything to offer. Never mind the loss to your own way of life.’

Your co-stars are impressive, especially Penélope Cruz, who gives it her all for one exceptionally raunchy number. Did they let you watch the rude stuff or did they make you leave the room?
‘Well, here’s the thing. I had an access-all-areas pass. That was the beauty of playing the director! Obviously with their permission. But I sat in on all the rehearsals. That’s how I spent a lot of my time all day, at the rehearsals with the girls, watching them develop through incredibly hard work, bit by bit, towards what you finally see.’

There’s definitely a bit of Daniel Day-Lewis in your character, Guido. He keeps worrying that talking about a film will kill it.
‘Yes, “talk will kill your film”. That really could have been me talking. I recognised that. That was something that drew me closer to Guido.’

You are often asked to explain your ‘method’. How did you prepare for this, away from formal rehearsals, on your own?
‘Ha ha – you will never know!’

Read our review of 'Nine'.

Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun



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