Daniel Day-Lewis: interview
Daniel Day-Lewis has a reputation for being the most focused – some would say obsessive – actor of his generation. Ahead of the release of his latest film, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s ’There Will Be Blood‘, he talks to Dave Calhoun about his portrayal of a ruthless oil tycoon.
Two cast-iron certainties emerge from watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie ‘There Will Be Blood’. The first is that this rich, literate film is both an intense character study and a fable on the foundation of modern America. The second is the sheer inevitability that Daniel Day-Lewis will spend the next two months striding on and off stages to collect awards for his entrancing performance as Daniel Plainview, a stick-thin, hobbling, silver-tongued oil prospector. Plainview transforms himself from rags to riches between 1898 and 1927, but never loses the dirt under his fingernails or his drive for self-preservation – even once he is living a life of immense wealth and madness in a sprawling Californian mansion.
‘I can’t for the life of me tell you why I felt an irresistible need to do this film,’ Day-Lewis muses on a trip to London from his home in Ireland. Gone are the dark suits, the deep-rimmed hat, the broad, bushy moustache and the sunburned nose that define his character in ‘There Will Be Blood’. His hair is longer, his checked shirt is a bright blue and two gold hoop earrings hang from his lobes. ‘But apart from the sheer joy of reading the work of a true writer, I felt that this was a life examined in a very honest way, that to take the very seed of an idea and to pursue it along the path of this outrageous conclusion – well, there is real pleasure in that.’
Anderson’s film opens in 1898, although the director of ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia’ gives us a late nineteenth century that strongly resembles the beginning of the world. There’s a brief establishing shot of a barren desert hillside, with a high-pitched, electronic buzz by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood playing behind it. From here, Anderson takes us down a primeval, dirty, hand-dug hole where Plainview, a lone-gun silver miner, is hauling himself up and down on ropes in search of wealth. He falls, badly, resulting in a permanent limp. Undaunted, he hobbles from silver to oil and immense success.
Plainview’s lopsided gait is as distinctive as the voice that Day-Lewis gives him: a deep, mellifluous rhythm that perfectly suits a man who speaks rarely and always with care.
‘A few people have asked me if I modelled the voice on [actor-director] John Huston,’ Day-Lewis says, pre-empting my question. ‘I didn’t. But I did listen to some tapes of Huston’s voice, among others. And there was something about the vigour of Huston’s language that appealed to me.’ It’s a comparison that’s fuelled further by similarities between ‘There Will Be Blood’ and Huston’s own ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’.
There are hints, too, of other American films about powerful men lording over business and resources, of ‘Chinatown’ (in which Huston acts as ruthless millionaire Noah Cross) and even of ‘Citizen Kane’. It’s a voice that’s charming enough to persuade farmers to give up their land – a voice that is as hard to forget as Anderson’s unfussy, striking wide-shots of workers operating derricks, their fresh wood strangely light-coloured until the oil spews upwards, covering them in grime and splashing even the lens of the camera with the desert’s blood.
Nobody could accuse Day-Lewis of overexposure. This decade he’s made three films so far to add to the five he’d completed over the previous ten years. Which helps to explain why he’s greeted each time with such fervour, the reasons and methods behind his performances picked over as if there were something quasi-religious about his work.
‘The reason I try to resist talking about it much is because I can never find a way of describing it that seems to make any sense,’ he says of his craft. ‘On the one hand, it seems to be mystifying the whole thing, which wouldn’t be my wish, yet from my point of view I need to feel that there’s a mystery there.’ For this role, his preparation involved reading letters sent by oil and silver miners to their families and spending hours alone at home trying to find the correct voice. But, he says, ‘I choose to avoid thinking about [acting] an awful lot.’
Day-Lewis is simply an actor who works less than most of those of his stature. But when he does accept a part, he commits himself with unusual vigour and more often than not delivers compelling performances – whether the final film is remarkable or not.
‘There Will Be Blood’ is certainly remarkable. It’s primarily a powerful character study of a man who has no ties beyond his desire to succeed. He has a young son, HW, but we know that the boy is adopted and we question Plainview’s motives for taking a fresh-faced child along to business meetings. He’s without roots or any obvious sexual desire. All his hunger is reserved for drilling oil: his need to set up a pipeline to the Californian coast in defiance of emerging power Standard Oil is insatiable. His self-serving pact with Eli Sunday, a money-grubbing young local pastor (played by an exceptional Paul Dano) is fascinating. At one stage, Plainview willingly makes a public display of loyalty to God in order to retain the pastor’s support, which in turn helps him acquire the land that’s central to his plans.
‘Whatever it takes, whatever you want me to say, I’ll do that thing, just give me your fucking land,’ explains Day-Lewis in imitation of his character’s way of operating. ‘The moment I clap eyes on Eli, Eli starts making himself heard. I recognise a fellow shyster right from that moment. It’s irksome because I know I’m going to have to deal with it, but there’s a satisfaction in being able to see the pure hypocrisy – anything to reinforce my own view of the universe.’
Beyond the immediacy of this story, which Anderson took loosely from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel ‘Oil!’ (which in turn was loosely based on the life of oil tycoon Edward Doheny), there’s the obvious question: should we read the film as a comment on the roles, so often intertwined, of business and the church in modern America? Is this a foundation tale relating to modern American capitalism? Moreover, can we read it as a parable about the current violent scramble for resources?
‘Paul [Thomas Anderson] is a bright lad and he’s not unaware of what’s going on,’ says Day-Lewis. ‘And nor am I. But it’s not a parable. You can’t afford to be making one when you’re making a film. It’s got to be something more specific than that. There may have been some sense of mischief in telling a story that has obvious parallels, but the important thing is to focus on that particular story and those people at that time. If, as a result of that, there’s a wider significance, then so be it.’ Otherwise, he feels, the filmmaker casts himself in the role of teacher, ‘which is death to any form of creativity, I think’.
I mention to Day-Lewis that it’s many years since he last made a film in Britain, and even then ‘In the Name of the Father’, which he shot in 1993, was only partly a British story and one shot, like ‘The Boxer’ after it, mostly in Ireland (both were directed by Jim Sheridan, who is Irish). The rest have been American stories, even if he did play a Brit in his last, ‘The Ballad of Jack and Rose’, which was written and directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller. It’s not a parochial point; it’s more an observation that Day-Lewis has never been entirely suited to the often small-scale concerns of British cinema and perhaps never will be, unless British cinema makes an effort to accommodate his talents.
Two of his past three performances have been as grotesque founding fathers of America: first Bill the Butcher in ‘Gangs of New York’ and now Plainview in ‘There Will Be Blood’. Both are fictional, but heavily based on real characters: the first on one of New York’s original mob leaders, the second on the oil millionaire Doheny and others like him – men who discovered a fortune in the earth and founded an industrialised, oil-reliant nation along the way.
Despite the time he’s spent in America, Day-Lewis can’t resist a grumble at a recent New York Times interview that suggested he somehow set out to become an American actor, a Brando or a De Niro, making great American movies. ‘It would have been a ludicrous ambition anyhow, but it certainly wasn’t my ambition,’ he makes clear. ‘It never occurred to me. I did feel it was misleading.’
Far from rejecting his literary and theatrical heritage, Day-Lewis says he would be very keen to work in Britain again. ‘I love American cinema and was very influenced by it, especially by the early films of Scorsese and seeing “From Here to Eternity”, “A Place in the Sun”, “On the Waterfront” for the first time,’ he acknowledges. ‘But I was also very influenced by Ken Loach’s work from the moment I saw “Kes” when I was a kid. It still remains for me one of the most powerful pieces of work ever. Before that, there was “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “This Sporting Life” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, which all supposedly expressed a new British social realism. Undoubtedly, they opened up the possibility of examining British life in a new way. That was probably the most important film experience I had.’
Do British filmmakers ever approach him with ideas? ‘Nah,’ he says, his Irish accent at its most pronounced. ‘Maybe they think I’m beyond the pale now. I don’t know. I can’t remember when the last one was.’ He pauses to think, sounding slightly forlorn. ‘I can’t remember, no.
‘I would be very interested to do films that were closer to home, particularly having spent that time working in Ireland. It would be nice to go back and do some stories that come from my own place. But it’s also true that because of having come from a middle-class literary household [his father, Cecil Day-Lewis, was Poet Laureate; his mother is the actress Jill Balcon], I’d be less interested in examining that aspect of English life than another. But that would be the most obvious kind of work to come my way, probably.’
It’s more than a decade since Day-Lewis, who turned 50 last year, left London to live in Ireland’s County Wicklow, about an hour’s drive from Dublin, with his wife and their two sons, Ronan (nine) and Cashel (five). His father had left Ireland for London at a very young age, although he always considered himself Irish. After 14 years of living there, does Daniel Day-Lewis consider Ireland to be home?
‘Yes, it’s my home,’ he says, his accent again betraying that fact. ‘That’s where the family is and the boys are in school there, but I have no illusion about the fact that I’m an Englishman living in Ireland. Even though I do straddle both worlds and I’m very proud to be able to carry both passports. But I do know where I come from. I particularly miss south-east London – the frontlines of Deptford and Lewisham and New Cross and Charlton – because that’s my patch. But maybe I have a rather sentimental relationship to it. The sort that exiles tend to have.’
‘There Will Be Blood’ opens February 8.
Author: Rob Greig
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