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The Way He Lives Now 

As Daniel Day-Lewis' fourth film in a decade arrives in theaters, the movies' most enigmatic leading man reveals the method behind his onscreen madness

Wednesday, Dec 26 2007
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It sounds like very serious work, this thing Day-Lewis does, but only when somebody writes about it. "I think I've been my own worst enemy in the past," the actor admits, "judging by the stuff that's been said about me. It sounds as if I'm being kind of dragged in a straitjacket to the set, kicking and screaming, struggling with a sort of reluctance." What almost never comes through is the obvious delight Day-Lewis takes in pretending so thoroughly to be somebody else.

"For my sense of continuity, I suppose I work in a certain way," he says. "But it goes beyond that. It's really about the sense of joy you have in having worked hard to imagine and discover and — one hopes — to create a world, an illusion of a world that other people might believe in because you believe in it yourself, a form of self-delusion. After achieving that, it seems far crazier to jump in and out of that world that you've gone to such pains to create. And it wouldn't be my wish to do that, because I enjoy being in there.

"It all sounds so grandiose, because of course you're surrounded by reminders of the modern world everywhere you go. Part of the work you have to do is narrowing your focus, continually shutting out, closing off the peripheral vision that would take in the cables and the catering and the anoraks and so on and so forth. But I don't find that hard to do — the power of self-delusion, I suppose — and it's the joy that I find in that work, in inhabiting a world that you've taken such pains to imagine.

"Just like in other kinds of creative work, you get to enjoy that extraordinary sensation of timelessness, that time ceases to have any relevance or importance while you're working. And within that, you experience the loss of the self. It's a temporary thing, but it's a very invigorating thing, the loss of the self. Do you know what I mean?"

I would be lucky if I did, I think — and probably a much better actor.

"It's like you're constantly trying to head off the conscious mind, which will, whether you like it or not, attempt to stay one step ahead of you," he elaborates. "The imagination is on the frontline of the unconscious. And you do whatever you can do to engage that animal part of yourself, that instinctive part of yourself."

These are not tricks he learned in theater school. "The learning of skills and the disciplines and so on and so forth — those just provide a framework to stop you from spilling over into chaos," he says. "But it's very important to live close to the possibility of chaos. Very, very important."

To the question, "How did you know Daniel Day-Lewis was right for the role of Daniel Plainview?" Paul Thomas Anderson answers, "That's like asking, 'How did you fall in love with your wife?' I could say, 'Well, she's got a great sense of humor,' but that doesn't describe her. I guess you just have to assume because of Daniel's previous work that he's capable of doing anything."

It also helped that Day-Lewis is not, in the traditional sense, a movie star. "It is very helpful to a filmmaker to work with an actor who doesn't have a personality that is easily accessible in the way that some film stars do," Anderson says. "You are that much more at an advantage when creating another world entirely, when creating the illusion of somebody else. It's quite hard to get past someone's personality if it's bigger than their performances."

People will have various opinions about There Will Be Blood. They already do: Though there's a strong Oscar buzz about the film (Day-Lewis will likely be nominated for Best Actor) and some reviewers are ecstatic, others have squirmed in their seats at the film's length (two hours and 40 minutes) and its unapologetic brutality — not violence, though there's some of that, but Anderson's defiant independence, and the film's absolute refusal to throw anyone any sort of feel-better bone. But — and this may be hard to believe — the film gets better the more you watch it. I know this because, after meeting Day-Lewis, I borrowed a friend's "for your consideration" DVD and watched it again, and again, and then replayed scenes over and over just to try to find the actor in the work. I couldn't. Not only that — I would find the world falling away as I watched, forgetting that I was watching an actor. Forgetting why I was watching at all, if not to relive the story.

This isn't only because of Day-Lewis' performance; it's also because of a script that serves him (and Dano) with a character who, for all his darkness, still claws at rising above his cruel beginnings in a way we all recognize. "It appeared to me to come from a very much unconscious self," Day-Lewis says of Anderson's script. "I didn't know Paul at all. I didn't know him as a man. But I knew when I read it that he had already inhabited this world. I think the very best writers do that, in very much the same way that we do it when we're working, or try to. I felt like he understood each and every one of those people that he was describing, and understood the world that they came from. He had taken the seed of an idea and progressed it moment by moment to such an audacious conclusion."

Plainview, were he real, would be among the men of history celebrated on dignified brass plaques and in statues all over the world. "But when you take off their tall hats and long-tailed coats," Day-Lewis observes, "they're just covered in the stuff." Oil, that is.

As are we all. When Plainview strokes the head of his injured boy, or sobs over the found journal of a lost family member, he reminds us that he still belongs to us, not only as a fellow human but as an iconic American. In our cars and planes and heated homes, we all benefit from the oil prospector's largess and pay for his sins every day.

About The Author

Judith Lewis

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