What makes Daniel Day-Lewis a great actor?

Daniel Day-Lewis has officially retired from acting. The 60 year old, three-time Oscar winner has suddenly thrown in the towel and the acting world is wondering why? The answer remains a mystery; perfectly befitting for an actor who shrouds himself in the very thing. This article is not an attempt to figure out why Day-Lewis has retired or if it's permanent; I am not nearly a good enough detective for such a task. Today, TMA takes a crack at solving the mystery of what makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary actor by piecing together clues from previous interviews and debunking industry rumors. 

Rumor Has It...

Day-Lewis is one of the most celebrated actors of the last 25 years and arguably the best actor of our generation. Although, much of his success can be attributed to outstanding work in a number of performances such as My Left Foot and Lincoln, Daniel's off-screen enigma adds it's own "juice" when Oscar-season comes around. 

 
 

No other actor has been more encrusted with myth than Daniel Day-Lewis, making him the perfect candidate to play the 16th president, a man made taller by the myths he stands upon! 

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One rumor that raises brows is that he never breaks character on set. Now any actor who has worked on a set for more than a week can agree that that is physically impossible! At some point, an actor must break from character as much as they might not want to. When speaking to a director, when learning choreography for stunts, grabbing a snack at craft services, et cetera. 

I mean take a look at this clip of him clearly breaking character on the set of There Will Be Blood.

Did you see it?? I mean he did break character...technically. 😳

Here's what DDL admitted to a reporter in 2003, during an interview for Rolling Stones Magazine:

 
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The fact that he remains in character on set may give him the ability to believe in the world of the story better. There is no question that it certainly makes his characters three-dimensional and cinematically captivating. I don't think it matters if Daniel drops out of character for a moment, it's his deliberate attempt to not do so, that makes him admirable. We as actors should strive to such commitment and respect for the craft. 

I follow my curiosity and it takes me into all kinds of strange places.
— Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel understands the power of rumors and uses them to his advantage. Instead of getting in front of them and agreeing with them one way or another, he allows people to talk and build his legend even more. 

Actionable Advice: Practice being a little more mysterious. You don't have to give away all your secrets. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses. 

He Keeps The Character Brewing  

Having just starred in five films in the last 20 years, Daniel Day-Lewis is unlike many thespians today. He doesn't jump onto projects for financial gain and notoriously turns down roles that most of us would give our left foot to do. [Pun Intended] However, when he finally acquiesces, he dives into his work deeper than most are willing to go.  

Reportedly, he prepared for five years for the film Gangs of New York, three years for There Will Be Blood and ten years for Lincoln. The latter two films he won the Oscar for Best Actor. 

So how does a man take years to work on one role; with no work in between, and win an Oscar? 

He lets the character bubble inside him at all times.

Day-Lewis completely rejects the idea of ‘acting’ an emotion or moment. Instead, he needs to fully embody a character.
— Jim Sheridan, Director of My Left Foot

For The Boxer, Day-Lewis "crudely tattooed his hands and trained as a real fighter, twice a day, seven days a week, for nearly three years," in order to prepare for the role of Danny Flynn. He truly became a proficient brawler, and every callous he endured crystallized into the skin of a boxer. The three years it took to grasp the every day life of a prizefighter, guaranteed that his five senses were synched with his character. So that when the director called "action!", Daniel Day-Lewis did not have to act, he could just be. 

Actionable Advice: 99% of actors don't have a set-up like Daniel's but you can achieve the sense of bubbling in your work and highest level of research. By spending 30 minutes everyday in your character's shoes you will start to speak your words with more clarity and bring a life to them that the average actor wouldn't. You can also spend 30 minutes in the physicality of the character. Research as much as you can then throw it away. Incorporate dramatic devices into your actions— your power will be enhanced and your character will seem larger than life. 

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His Loved Ones Understand

Living with an actor like Day-Lewis can't be easy. He intensely immerses himself into his work and spends years working rigorously on the same role. 

In his Oscar acceptance speech for Lincoln, he famously praised his wife Rebecca Miller [daughter of playwright, Arthur Miller] for being the versatile one in the marriage, having lived with so many strange men over their sixteen years of marriage. Day-Lewis would not break character on set, and it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't speak to his wife in Lincoln's folksy frontier accent. Although many of us have spouses and significant others that say they are understanding of the actors lifestyle in all that it encompasses, only a few of us have people in our lives that truly encourage and nourish the environment that it takes to achieve greatness in our work.

Actionable Advice: Surround yourself with people who will nourish your art, not force you to choose one or the other or encourage you to stray away from your work. If a person in your life, is not bringing you value during this time, you can kindly avoid that distraction for the meantime. The world is dangerous and enemies are everywhere—everyone has to protect themselves.

Calling it Quits

It is definitely a shock to the acting world that one of the greatest to ever do it is stepping down, although this isn't the first time he's left the limelight. I'd like to imagine he's just playing a secluded retired actor in his next film, but one can not know for certain.

What we do know for sure is that Daniel Day-Lewis symbolizes truth in acting. This isn't about Hollywood, this isn't about awards, it's about the art. 

During your next project—I encourage you to approach the work like Day-Lewis and in moments of doubt— think WWDDLD?  ;)

Actionable Advice: You must learn when to leave. Create value through scarcity. 

 

 

Daniel Day-Lewis will be in “Phantom Thread,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which is set for release at the end of the year.

 

Resources:

  • The 48 Laws Of Power by Robert Greene

 

What do you think of Daniel Day-Lewis's acting? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!