At this stage of his career, Day-Lewis' total immersion into the characters he plays is legendary. But it was obvious nearly a quarter-century ago when he won his first statuette for playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot.
Brown (1932-1981) was the Dublin writer and artist who dealt his entire life with cerebral palsy and spasms that left him largely paralyzed. Nevertheless, he learned to hold a brush or pen with the one limb over which he had any control: his left foot.
Prior to portraying Brown, Day-Lewis (the son of English poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis) had worked in British theater and television and had small roles in films like Gandhi (1982) and The Bounty (1984). But he earned rave reviews for his first lead performance as an edgy gay man involved in an interracial affair in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985).
But the film that set the tone for his working process was The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987), the heavy-breathing, sexually-charged drama based on Milan Kundera's novel. It was the beginning of what some would call Day-Lewis' obsessive approach to his art.
For that film, set in Czechoslovakia, Day-Lewis insisted on becoming fluent in Czech (even though the dialogue was in English) and, for the first time, continued to play his character 24 hours a day.
Portraying Brown in My Left Foot would have been a challenge under any circumstances, since it requires an actor to painfully contort his body and become "fluent" in holding and using tools with his left foot.
But Day-Lewis virtually lived in a wheelchair throughout the filming. He insisted that crew members lift him and his chair over electrical cables on the floor of the set. He would not feed himself. He hoped this would let him understand the helplessness that Brown experienced.
It paid off. Day-Lewis took home the Academy Award for best actor. His co-star, Brenda Fricker, who played Christy Brown's supportive mother, was named best supporting actress.
By this time Day-Lewis was a bona fide movie star. But he has not given up his habit of living with his characters 24/7.
To play the frontiersman Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans (1992) he learned to live off the land through hunting and fishing. Reportedly he is one of only three men in the world who can load and fire a flintlock rifle while at a dead run.
For In the Name of the Father (1993), in which he played a man unjustly imprisoned for an IRA bombing, he lost nearly a quarter of his body weight, spent days in a prison cell, and encouraged his co-workers to douse him with cold water and yell insults at him. He got another Oscar nomination but didn't win.
To play an 1870s gentleman in The Age of Innocence (1993) he wore period clothing (top hat, cane, cape) wherever he went on and off the set for several months.
Occasionally Day-Lewis' devotion to authenticity has proven dangerous. While making Gangs of New York (2002) in Rome he not only became an apprentice meat cutter (his character was Bill the Butcher) but, when he developed pneumonia, refused to take antibiotics since such medicine did not exist in the 1860s. Wiser heads prevailed and he sought treatment. And he got another Academy Award nomination.
Reports from his sets suggest that in recent years the actor has become much less dedicated to the "purity" of living his characters around the clock.
In the case of the brutal oil man he portrayed in There Will be Blood (2007) this was probably a good thing. (Nonetheless, Day-Lewis earned his second Oscar for the performance.)
And for Lincoln his process seemed almost, well, normal. He spent a year reading about the martyred president. The most obsessive thing he did was to employ the character's high, reedy voice both on and off the set.
Asked by a reporter if he tends to absorb elements of his characters into his own personality, Day-Lewis answered: "In this case I certainly hope so."
Other films in the series “Luck of the Irish”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 2: My Left Foot (1989) Rated R
- March 9: Odd Man Out (1949) Not Rated
- March 16: Once (2006) Rated R
- March 23: Bloody Sunday (2002) Rated R
- March 30: The Commitments (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.