The Way He Lives Now

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

But he did come back to the movies, in 1992, with heartthrob turns as Hawkeye in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (for which he learned to skin animals, fished, and lived off the land) and as the tortured, empathetic Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, the first of two films with Martin Scorsese. The next year, he did another film with My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan, In the Name of the Father. Once again, Day-Lewis delivered a performance to drop the most cynical jaw: His portrayal of the young, working-class Irishman caught up in the British anti-terrorist legal system of the 1970s is piercingly genuine and specific, right down to the last little self-conscious toss of the head, a familiar gesture among young men of the era clearing long hair from their eyes without using their hands.

Almost never is it feasible, in advance of meeting an actor with a few decades of work behind him, to watch a whole career's worth of films. With Day-Lewis, however, it's possible, because in the 22 years he's been famous, he has appeared in only 14 films; in the past decade, only four. Journalists, particularly in England, have often interpreted this as proof of Day-Lewis' elitism or extremism, but it really only proves that, at 50, the actor leads a relatively normal life beyond movies, with hobbies and a wife and kids. He's married to Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur, whom he met on the set of The Crucible in 1996; together they have two sons, Cashel, 5, and Ronan, 9. He also has another son with Isabelle Adjani, Gabriel-Kane, 12, who lives with his mother. "There are more and more things to preoccupy me outside of the world of films," he admits. At the same time, he doesn't completely shut out movies between roles.

"Something that has been suggested on my behalf is that I live an almost bipolar existence, with the public life of filmmaking on one side and a sort of reclusive, almost misanthropic life on the other." (This has been suggested most often in the British press, which has "grossly misrepresented my life," he says.) "But it never appears to me that there's any chasm, any rift, between those two worlds. My life to me contains both the professional and the personal very easily. But because you tend to be written about when you're for whatever reason in the public eye, then they depict you as having left and returned.

"But it's not a return to me. I never went away. I never left myself. I simply need the time I spend not working in films, the time away, to do the work that I love to do in the way that I love to do it."

The work Day-Lewis does begins with meticulous advance preparation, during which he lives as much as he can like the character he's playing. For Gerry Conlon, he tried for three days to sleep in a prison cell; in 1988, while starring as the restless doctor Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he learned to speak Czech; to play Jack Slavin in The Ballad of Jack and Rose two years ago, a movie written and directed by his wife, he and Miller lived apart so he could more deeply connect with the isolation of a dying man perplexed about his family.

Preparing for There Will Be Blood was trickier. Though the film was eventually shot in Marfa, Texas, most of its action is set in Southern California from the turn of the century until the 1920s. Day-Lewis was living in Ireland for the two years it took to get the movie financed — "an environment that was of no help to me whatsoever" — and despite the London Guardian's speculation that the actor, given his penchant for physical research, was "out drilling for oil in his Wicklow back garden," this time Day-Lewis did most of his preparation in his head.

He read letters written home by the "men who were living in holes in the ground," florid letters, "full of sentimentality, full of love and loss." He pored over photographs of the period, "of these lads scooping up oil from the ground in buckets and saucepans and whatever they could take with them before drilling was developed," and of the landscape of oil-rich Southern California pockmarked with oil fields.

"From Bakersfield to Signal Hill to Los Angeles, it was a forest of oil derricks," he says. "Squeezed between these derricks intermittently were these tiny little houses in which people were living their lives, stepping out of their front doors into a quagmire of crude oil just running down the streets. That was the foundation of this city!" He also read up on oil tycoon Edward Doheny (a name he pronounces Do-HAY-ny), who, like Plainview, was born in Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin, and made his way west to a millionaire future in Los Angeles, although the book on which There Will Be Blood is loosely based, Upton Sinclair's Oil!, is itself only loosely based on Doheny.

"In the end," Day-Lewis says, "no matter what stimulus you can find that belonged to that world, that world that you're trying to imagine, finally imagination is the only thing that's going to take you there. And more than anything else, I had time. I had time, and a quiet place, and neutral surroundings. I've got a room at home where I can really daydream without being disturbed, and I suppose it's there where things ferment." Things like Daniel Plainview's voice, which the actor says came to him in pieces and parts, and recordings from the Dust Bowl and the '20s-era Fond-du-Lac proved less helpful than his own ear.

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