Daniel Day-Lewis: the reality of illusion

At a time when the lives of movie stars are broken into pieces by the voracious global media, an extraordinary actor opts to stay away from the public eye, immersing himself in his passions – woodwork and demanding cinema roles. In his new movie, Daniel Day-Lewis turns into an idealist father living an isolated existence along with his teenage daughter in the mid-1980s, when an incurable disease forces him to open the door to the outside world. «The Ballad of Jack & Rose» was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Day-Lewis’s wife and daughter of the late Arthur Miller. A honored guest of the Opening Nights Athens International Film Festival, the actor attended the film’s avant-premiere in Athens recently. Proceeds from the rapidly sold-out evening went to Cerebral Palsy Greece, an association with which Day-Lewis enjoys a long-lasting friendship and strong ties. There is a certain amount of fascination surrounding the way you prepare for your roles. Did your life in County Wicklow help you this time around? It is fairly isolated. It’s true I hadn’t really thought of it like that. In a specific way it probably did help me. But I would say that, in general, most of my preparation is done in Ireland, for some years now. And that’s really the atmosphere I need for any kind of work. It doesn’t matter if it relates directly to that kind of environment, but of course at some point I need to spend time in the place which relates specifically to the work I’m doing. An atmosphere of tranquility is one of the great prerequisites for me at work. I can’t begin to work unless I have the right surroundings. How long did you spend preparing for this film? This is where I get into trouble. I could probably say about a year, six months maybe, but, in saying that, it’s not like I’m working from nine to five every day. It’s not that the work that I do is exhausting, but rather, I like it to be slow. Everybody can read books, we all read books, we gather as much information on the subject as we possibly can. That’s the beginning. But whilst you’re reading you remain objective. And whilst you’re learning about specifics with regards to that way of life, that period, that human being, you remain objective. At a certain moment and preferably early on in the process, you need to throw objectivity away and to allow things to just percolate, to simmer very, very gently on a low heat at a subliminal level. Most of this work takes place in an intuitive and fairly unconscious way; it happens slowly over a long period of time. If you try to force-feed yourself in a hurry, you’re left with a sense of being bloated, without really having digested whatever this thing is. You don’t even know what this thing is that you’re doing. You should never try to define it, just allow it to reveal itself in its own time. Sounds like one is over-mystifying the process but there is a mystery attached to it, if you’re lucky. And you have to trust time, let time do its work. True luxury It’s a luxury in this business. And you have chosen to live this kind of luxury. It’s a luxury, and it’s one which I’ve afforded myself from a time many years ago. Long before I could literally afford to take that amount of time, I knew that if I was going to really stay with this work that that’s where the pleasure would lie for me, in this long, peaceful working towards something and then the explosive collision of energies which takes place on the film set. But you’re right, it is a great luxury. Each individual has to find their own way, that just happens to be my bag. A lot of other actors like to work very quickly and snap in and out; they like to do their scene and then jump out of character and jump back in again. I take my hat off to anyone who can do that. I just found my own way and that’s the best you can ever hope for. Along with staying in character throughout… Even if it’s some kind of crazy logic to other people, it’s logical to me that having unleashed one’s curiosity – which is the primary source of energy and one that you can never truly satisfy – once you’ve unleashed that, to me there seems no sense in putting it back on a leash the whole time. I can’t switch off my curiosity. My curiosity leads me into this adventure in the first place and so for a period of time I prefer to remain within this world we’re all trying to create. It’s an illusion. Did «The Ballad of Jack & Rose» feel like a family film on location? As brutal as it is to say this, some separation has to take place. But there are ways of achieving this. I’ve had the experience over a few years now. When I was young and entirely self-motivated without having to worry about a family at all, I could do the work I needed to do in any way I chose without hurting anybody’s feelings and of course it changes. And I would rather my family were with me, even if Rebecca hadn’t been directing the film, they would have been there. I’m not going to go off for six months and then come home like some old kind of sea faring man. But within that, I had my own place where I stayed during the week and I would see the kids every evening when I finished work. Put them to bed and then go back to my own little hut, so there was a kind of symbolic separation. It’s already complicated the fact that I was working with my wife, but, as it turned out, that complication was seamlessly overcome by the fact that, as working colleagues, we just happen to work well together. We took the risk. We didn’t know this would happen the way it did. Didn’t you try to influence each other more than you would have if you were working with another director? No, I don’t believe so. No, well, do you mean did I bully her? Or did she bully you, perhaps? No. We are both very strong-minded people, but I have huge respect for her work and for the way in which she works. She created a wonderfully fertile working environment, which I think is the greatest gift a director can ever give to an actor, basically a ground upon which they feel that they can take risks and not be held accountable for it. (She gave) a sense of security, which is ironic, because there is no security there, but there is a sense of being amongst people that you can trust and Rebecca created that, effortlessly. Everyone, in every department, felt happy to be around during the shoot. So it didn’t really occur to me that we were married during that time in anything other than in our relationship between two colleagues. Does the film bring you back to the present somehow? A lot of your previous work had been more historical. It’s relatively more modern, but it’s still in a period of time that’s quite particular and not altogether like this time we’re in now. It still has to be investigated as a period because it’s so different. It’s nice to creep up on modernity a little bit because it’s true I get stuck in the 19th century sometimes. Do you feel that cinema should reflect the world we live in? Well, it can do that in any number of different ways. You can reflect the world we live in through a film about 15th century martyrs, if you choose to, because you’re telling stories about human beings and human experience and you’re still encountering the same difficulties and problems and confusions that people have always had to live with and make sense of. So, in some sense, I don’t think it’s so important. There are certain people who are able to strike a moment in history and catch it. And tell you a story and reflect right back at you the time that you’re living in. Not everyone can do that, and I have great admiration for those who are able to do that. Filmmaking mentor To me, I suppose my greatest filmmaking mentor, though he’s not somebody I’ve ever worked with, is Ken Loach. Certainly to me he’s the greatest filmmaker to come out of England yet. I admire him more than I can possibly say. He’s still telling stories. Politically, very powerful stories, but more importantly, humanistic stories about life in England today. And he has created over a lifetime of work and commitment a body of work that represents British sociological history in such a way that nobody will ever achieve that same thing. It’s a great gift to a nation and to filmgoers. Does this mean we might see you working together? I almost have too much respect for him to put the question to him. My feeling is that if he felt that he had some use for me he probably would have gotten in touch with me. He tends to use actors with not so much experience, though that’s not always true. He’s very clever, Ken, because his films have a great simplicity to them, but there’s a great complexity underlined, and for the purpose of telling those stories which are about mostly working-class people living in usually very tough situations. I think he probably prefers to work with actors that don’t come with too much baggage. That’s my sense of him. I don’t know if that’s true. To answer your question straight on, I would love to work with him. Do you ever think about the stage? I do think about it from time to time. I’m encouraged by those that I suppose saw me in the theater or worked with me in the theater years ago. I have no abstract desire to work in the theater, though… I have great affection for it, but I would certainly consider something specific. I read plays from time to time with a mind to maybe doing something, but it hasn’t happened and I think that my ‘method’ of working, though I’m loathe to use that word, is more suited to working in the cinema now. The repetition of the theater is something that I find difficult. Even though Stanislavsky’s teaching was precisely aimed at theater students who were going to, in theory, be able to give the same performance a thousand times as if for the first time each time, which is an impossible ideal, but that’s what you’re striving toward with Stanislavsky. And, of course, you do 20 takes in the movies, it’s the same thing. In theory it should be as if for the first time. But, the ideal lets you down. If you’re doing the same play eight times a week for six months, believe me, that ideal lets you down. I don’t think it’s our job to do that. To keep doing the same thing over and over again, no matter how hard we work to keep it fresh, I think it’s better to put your energy into something other than just trying to keep a tired horse trotting along.