The Observer's Interview With Oscar-Winner Daniel Day-Lewis

In December, The Observer interviewed last night’s Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis about his performance. Here is Sara Vilkomerson’s account

In December, The Observer interviewed last night’s Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis about his performance. Here is Sara Vilkomerson’s account of her afternoon with the real-life Daniel Plainview.

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“For the most part I try to hear the voice, which is one of the most deep and personal ways we present our very selves. It’s like a fingerprint of the soul,” said Daniel Day-Lewis. Last week, the 50-year-old actor was discussing his character, Daniel Plainview, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, There Will Be Blood, based upon Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-century novel Oil! “Little by little a voice started to talk in my head, and then the problem becomes how to make those sounds—to get it out of your head.”

Plainview is a complicated, shadowy character: darkly misanthropic with fleeting flashes of kindness, and singularly obsessive in his quest for oil, driven by demons never fully revealed to the audience. Plainview’s speech is elegant and formal, words both clipped and rounded, and when the fury that’s never too far below the surface rises, it grows quieter, becoming more menacing. Mr. Day-Lewis’s natural speaking voice—rich, refined and deep in timbre—is a bit of a surprise to hear after decades of the actor and his voice disappearing into characters. But then again, there’s a lot that’s surprising about meeting Daniel Day-Lewis in person. The famously elusive and revered actor chooses to make fewer movies than his contemporaries (only four in the past decade), and when he’s not working drops out of the public eye. Hence the mystique that’s cropped up around him, particularly about his awesomely intense Methody prowess. (He never breaks character! He learned how to make a canoe during The Last of the Mohicans!) But Daniel Day-Lewis the man—at least on this cold December day—was relaxed, charming and quick to laugh, with long graying hair and sharp green eyes that, combined with his beakish nose, gave him the look of some exotically handsome bird of prey.

“Paul thought we were making a blockbuster,” he said of his director. “I thought we were making a film that would have us sort of drummed out of town with bell, book and candle. … So I feel we’re going to achieve some kind of middle ground.” A blockbuster? The 158-minute film is slow, detailed to the extreme and has almost no dialogue for the first 20 minutes. Mr. Day-Lewis laughed heartily and shook his head. “It’s just so great Paul thought that. I just love it: There’s no woman, no romance, no nothing—just fucking filthy guys digging holes in the ground.”

He was familiar with, and a fan of, the director’s past work, particularly Punch Drunk Love and Adam Sandler’s performance in it. “[Anderson]’s a writer. He’s a writer, simple as that. What interested me so much was the understanding that he had already entered into that world. He wasn’t observing it—he’d entered into it—and indeed he’d populated it with characters who I felt had a life of their own. Almost as if he was a secretary taking it down and putting it on paper. That is always where the best creative work is done—as if you have absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever. That’s the way you have a chance of revealing something meaningful about yourself. Through losing yourself.”

There Will Be Blood is one of those movies that will likely draw wildly different reactions among audiences (much in the way of the eternally debated raining-frog scenes from Magnolia). Some have compared it in majesty and scope to Citizen Kane (TWBB has already been chosen as the best film of 2007 by L.A. critics), while others are confounded by the film’s final 30 minutes and shocking last scene. “To me, the symmetry was absolutely right. It may be outrageous, that last scene, but to me it seemed absolutely right. I love that there’s an exuberance to it,” Mr. Day-Lewis said of the ending. He chooses not to watch his own work: “It reminds me of how daft the whole experience is. And the older you get, the more you have to protect yourself from that awareness. I dare say the reason one ends up taking things too seriously is some feeble attempt to obliterate the sense of absurdity.” At the film’s premiere party a few days earlier, he had been besieged by reporters, an experience that made him cover his face as he remembered it. “That was an awkward time to be doing interviews. That was their assignment, God help them. When it’s feeding time at the zoo … It’s a chimpanzee’s tea party. I should not be the person wishing to be the one hiding behind the potted plant, but that’s who I am.”

Mr. Day-Lewis, married to writer-director Rebecca Miller, with whom he has two sons, spends the majority of his time in Ireland. But he still has some press responsibilities—junkets, award season red-carpet trotting—ahead of him. “There’s tomorrow, then there’s January, February and so forth. It’s relentless, never ending it seems.” He laughed good-naturedly. “And then there’s Europe to conquer.”

The Observer's Interview With Oscar-Winner Daniel Day-Lewis