I’VE only met Daniel Day-Lewis once, during a press junket for Gangs of New York. I sat next to him at a round-table interview during which my colleagues peppered him with questions about his crafty portrayal of Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s portrait of mid-19th century Manhattan. As the Q-and-A ended, I whispered that the last time I’d seen him was 15 years earlier, when he played the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in the play Futurists at the Royal National Theatre on London’s south bank.
“You saw that?” Day-Lewis asked, astonished.
Saw it? I was permanently transformed by it, socked from my solar plexus right down to my molecular makeup. Although Day-Lewis had already exemplified impressive range with breakout performances in My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room With a View, he wasn’t yet a household name outside the art house.
In the intimate Cottesloe Theatre, where the audience sat inches away from the stage, Day-Lewis dominated the play — about the artists who helped shape the Russian Revolution — with a towering, all-consuming performance, his shaved head making his 6-foot 2-inch frame even more imposing, his shock-and-awe delivery of Mayakovsky’s poetry an explosive torrent of politics, passion and commitment. He even seemed capable of making the vein on the side of his forehead pulse at will.
I swear I felt some of Day-Lewis’s spit on my forehead that night, a fact I shared with him at the Gangs junket, which made his hooded eyes give way to a huge, face-cracking smile. By the time Day-Lewis played Bill the Butcher, the same overwhelming stage presence I had experienced in the National’s tiny black-box space had been on display in movie after movie, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being to The Last of the Mohicans and In the Name of the Father. By then, he’d won one Oscar, for My Left Foot; he’s since added two more, for There Will Be Blood and Lincoln.
And now, to quote his character in There Will Be Blood, he’s finished. Earlier this week, Day-Lewis issued a statement that he has decided to stop acting, providing no details about what led to his decision or what he might be pursuing in the future.
The response has run the gamut between rank speculation and elegiac mourning. But not, necessarily, surprise. Now 60, Day-Lewis has been notorious for his approach-avoidance relationship with the craft he so thoroughly mastered, taking long stretches of time between movies to enjoy his adopted home in Ireland or learning to cobble shoes in Italy. During a theatrical production of Hamlet, he reportedly saw the ghost of his late father and swore off the stage for good; he’s known for adamantly refusing to break character on movie sets, demanding that co-workers address him by his fictional names, his method blurring into its own form of brilliant madness.
Those eccentricities have been dismissed as showy and self-indulgent, but few would argue that they haven’t resulted in some of the most indelible characterisations of the past 30 years, with Day-Lewis exemplifying screen performance at its most fully inhabited and uncompromising. The actress Beulah Bondi said that an actor must create his or her character “from the feet up”. Day-Lewis was feet-up 24/7, bringing the same fire-hose ferocity I saw at the National to roles that could sometimes feel mannered or scenery-chewing but never in service to mere vanity or self-regard.
How could audiences be immersed in the emotional life he was conjuring on screen if he didn’t dare take the plunge himself, without reservation or self-protection? For some, talent is a renewable resource; for others, it’s subject to depletion: Stripping oneself down to build up another persona has to be physically and psychically exhausting, exacting a price that eventually can’t be recouped by retreating into what Montaigne called the “back shop” of solitude and self-renewal.
Those long retreats from the profession point out how anachronistic Day-Lewis’s career seems a generation later than he began it: At a time when the prevailing business model for actors is to latch on to a comic-book movie to finance one’s passion projects, when a star such as George Clooney can make a cool billion selling his tequila business, Day-Lewis has resisted the paradigm of superheroes and side hustles. There’s something revealing in the fact that two Sirs — Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Stewart — can be seen this summer in the new Transformers sequel and The Emoji Movie, respectively. Meanwhile, Day-Lewis has been almost perversely choosy, racking up a modest 20 movies over the course of a 35-year career, with nary a robot car or poop icon among them.
If Day-Lewis’ retirement is indeed permanent, his final movie will be a more edifying affair: Phantom Thread, a 1950s-era drama set in the fashion world, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, of There Will Be Blood. Then, presumably, the finest film actor of his generation will embark on the longest retreat of all, during which any number of passions may emerge — or re-emerge.
Those mourning Day-Lewis’ imminent disappearance from the movies do well to remember James Cagney’s quieter but no less resolute decision to quit acting in 1961, after a dismal experience filming the satire One, Two, Three. Twenty years later, before Cagney would make one of the most brilliant comebacks in Hollywood legend and lore, Milos Forman approached him with his adaptation of Ragtime, hoping to coax him back to the screen.
“No. I’m retired,” Cagney is said to have replied. Then, after a few moments went by, came the instinctive question that defines all actors at their core: “What’s the part?”
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2017