The craziest ways Sir Daniel Day-Lewis prepared for acting roles

Day-Lewis is an acting pioneer.
Day-Lewis is an acting pioneer.

Daniel Day-Lewis, the British genius who has won THREE Best Actor Oscars, and was awarded a knighthood in 2014 is retiring from acting. Phantom Thread (in cinemas Friday, 2 January) will be his final screen role, and it’s a fitting swan song for the actor many believe to be the greatest of all time.

But you don’t get that many Oscars by accident. DDL is infamous for his legendary preparation for roles. There’s just no such thing as ‘too far’ for Daniel Day-Lewis.

“Part of my job is to be drained,” the 55-year-old told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth in 2013. “It’s logical to me to remain within that world. But beyond it being logical it’s my pleasure because that’s where the work is.”

“You’re not discovering anything when you’re having a cup of tea and a laugh with the grips.”

So just how far will one man go to get into character? Very, very far, if these Daniel Day-Lewis method acting tales are to be believed…

Broke his own ribs for My Left Foot (1989)

The blue-print for method acting, My Left Foot has become the stuff of film folklore. Day-Lewis went all out to play paralysed poet Christy Brown. Reluctant crew had to lift him around the set and over obstacles as the actor refused to move from his wheelchair – even insisting his meals be spoon-fed to him.

Day-Lewis formed friendships with disabled people at the Sanymount School Clinic where he learnt about their real-life experiences. Eventually, weeks of slouching in a wheelchair earned Day-Lewis three things: an Oscar for Best Actor, and two broken ribs.

Killed all his own food for Last Of The Mohicans (1992)

For his next film, Daniel Day-Lewis went all Ray Mears to play Nathaniel Hawkeye – learning to live as a survivalist for ‘Last Of The Mohicans’. The wannabe-frontiersman spent days at a time alone in the Alabama wilderness, learning how to track, hunt and skin animals for food.

By the end of his experience the actor could accurately throw a tomahawk, build a canoe and hit just about anything with his trusty flintlock rifle – the same flintlock rifle that never left his side, even at Christmas dinner. As director Michael Mann told Time: “If he didn’t shoot it, he didn’t eat it.”

Lived as an 1870s gentleman for The Age of Innocence (1993)

The closest Daniel Day-Lewis could get to becoming an affluent 19th century New Yorker was to become an affluent 20th century New Yorker.

According to legend, he checked himself into the Plaza Hotel as N. Archer, after his character Newland, and spent two months strutting around the city streets wearing period clothing: top hat, cane and all.

Went to prison for In The Name Of The Father (1993)

For his second collaboration with My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan, Day-Lewis played a wrongly convicted prisoner – so no prizes for guessing where his method took him.

Daniel spent nights at a time locked in solitary confinement in the abandoned prison where they were filming – keeping himself awake for three whole days in preparation for an interrogation scene.

Day-Lewis apparently even had crew members randomly throw water and abuse at him for the authentic IRA prisoner experience.

Didn’t wash for The Crucible (1996)

Day-Lewis met wife-to-be Rebecca Miller (daughter of original playwright Arthur) on the set of The Crucible.

Surprising, given that the actor reportedly didn’t wash for the entire shoot – just to get the feeling of what it was like to live with 17th century hygiene standards.

Daniel also helped build the set, living for a while in one of the replica period houses without electricity or running water. No chance of a shower there then.

Became a professional-standard boxer for The Boxer (1997)

For Daniel’s second IRA-themed outing, he didn’t just play a boxer, he became a boxer. Day-Lewis spent 18 months training with former world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan, and, as the story goes, even tattooed his own hands.

He underwent rigorous weight training and reportedly worked out twice a day, every day, to beef up to boxer standards. Come the end of filming, McGuigan said Daniel could easily turn pro.

Caught pneumonia for Gangs Of New York (2002)

In preparation for playing intimidating gang leader Bill the Butcher, Daniel once again took his character description as gospel – taking up lessons as an apprentice butcher. He stayed in character on-set, talking to crew in a New York accent and apparently sharpening his knives between takes.

The actor got a little too into things though when he was diagnosed with pneumonia after refusing to wear a toasty modern coat because it wasn’t in keeping with the period.

So what happened when he was then offered equally modern medicine? He apparently turned that down too.

Left his wife for The Ballad Of Jack And Rose (2005)

Daniel’s wife Rebecca offered him the lead role as a terminally ill man in her own film The Ballad Of Jack And Rose.

Reports say he then moved out and arranged to live separately from her in order to experience the isolation of his character’s life in an island commune.

Scared off his co-star for There Will Be Blood (2007)

According to The New York Times, two weeks into the There Will Be Blood shoot, supporting actor Kel O’Neill was replaced (by Paul Dano) because Day-Lewis’ character Plainview was just too intense for him to work alongside day after day. The director kind of denied it, but it wouldn’t be a shock, would it?

Dano didn’t get it easy either. In the scene where Plainview throws bowling balls at him, they were apparently real bowling balls. Day-Lewis also learnt how to use traditional turn of the century oil mining gear for the role.

Spoke fluent Italian for Nine (2009)

Day-Lewis didn’t just go method for the great movies, he applied the same level of intense preparation to the average ones too. For musical Nine, in which he played an eccentric Italian director Guido Contini, Day-Lewis studied Italian and frequently spoke the language in and out of character.

“One day during shooting at London’s Shepperton Studios, Rob and I got called into Daniel’s dressing room, which was designed as a 1960s film director’s office,” music supervisor Matt Sullivan recalled later.

“He’s smoking a cigarette, in full outfit and in character, and he’s telling us how he would like to see this number that he’s performing. And he’s talking to us as Guido Contini. It was a really surreal experience.”

Elevated himself to the Presidency for Lincoln (2012)

Not even Steven Spielberg was safe from Daniel Day-Lewis’ method antics. The actor insisted the iconic director referred to him as ‘Mr President,’ communicating only in the high-pitched voice he adopted for the role, and refusing to use modern technology, including mobile phones.

It was worth the effort though – the role bagged Day-Lewis yet another Oscar.

“I never once looked the gift horse in the mouth. I never asked Daniel about his process. I didn’t want to know,” Spielberg said later.

Learned to sew for Phantom Thread (2017)

Oscar nominees Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville (Photo: Focus Features /Courtesy Everett Collection)
Oscar nominees Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville (Photo: Focus Features /Courtesy Everett Collection)

According to Paul Thomas Anderson, Day-Lewis spent two years learning to sew so he could properly play the role of caustic dress designer Reynolds Woodcock.

“He has a particular skill with his hands that is pretty impressive, so he took to it pretty quickly,” Anderson told Empire magazine. “He’ll be very humble about it and kind of shy, and I won’t be, because it really was astonishing how good he was at it.”

As it turns out, Anderson preferred working with Reynolds Woodcock to working with Daniel Plainview. “I never felt the danger that Reynolds Woodcock would murder me in my sleep,” the director said.

Yeah, maybe it’s for the best that Daniel’s retiring…

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