The craziest ways Daniel Day-Lewis prepared for roles

There’s method in the madness - or madness in the method?

Daniel Day Lewis made Hollywood history at Sunday's 85th Academy Awards – becoming the first man ever to bag the Best Actor gong three times.

To many, that qualifies him for the tenuous title of Greatest Actor in History. But he could also be the maddest.

[Related story: Day-Lewis rewrites Oscars history]
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Daniel’s winning performance, in nomination-magnet ‘Lincoln’, was surrounded by chatter about how the infamously meticulous actor prepared for the gig as America’s most iconic president.

The eccentric British-Irish star put in some Oscar worthy research to play Honest Abe, focusing particularly on the 16th president’s unusual high-pitched voice - reportedly resulting in a ban on English cast members talking to him in their own accents. But that’s just the tip of the acting iceberg. 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 recently told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth. “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…

Learned an entirely new language for ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Being’ (1988)

The seeds of Daniel Day-Lewis’s legend were sewn whilst playing the sex-obsessed Czech surgeon of Milan Kundera’s existentialist novel. We’re assuming Daniel didn’t go on a rampage of womanising for the role, but he did learn Czech – apparently refusing at first to break character for almost the entire eight month shoot.

Broke his own ribs for ‘My Left Foot’ (1989)
The blue-print for method acting, ‘My Left Foot’ has become the stuff of movie 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. Admirably though, 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 flint-lock rifle - the same flint-lock 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. You can bet they enjoyed it, secretly.

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’. Kind of her. So how did he repay her? Reports say he 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 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.