Posted in: Actors, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

The portraits of Daniel Day-Lewis

“I most enjoy the loss of self that can only be achieved through detailed understanding of another life — not by limping and growing a moustache.” — Daniel Day-Lewis.

Is there an actor who commits himself so completely to a role as Daniel Day-Lewis? A consummate method actor, he researches roles meticulously, learns the crafts of his characters (from boxer to butcher) in preparation for his performance and carries the role with him offscreen until production ends. For almost two decades, he has been the most commanding presence in his films.

That kind of dedication takes its toll. He takes long breaks between films to recharge with his family. His career has weathered rumors that he’d become a hermit (he is, in fact, quite private), that he’d quit acting to become a cobbler or a cabinet maker (he likes to work with his hands) and that he remains doggedly in character off the set. They are, at best, exaggerations of an approach that can appear obsessive. As he once explained: “I am intrigued by a life that seems very far removed from my own. And I have a sense of curiosity to discover that life and maybe change places with it for a while.”

Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’

Now he takes on one of the most revered American presidents for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. While he’ll surely be compared to the incarnations of Henry Fonda (in Young Mr. Lincoln) and Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), his Lincoln will also be stacked up against his own cast of memorable characters. Here are ten of his most committed performances, and the stories behind the incarnations.

‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (1985) — Johnny

What began as a British television movie was transformed into a big screen landmark: a grungy yet dynamic portrait of race and prejudice in the London of East Indian immigrants and neo-Nazi gangs, a frank (and for its day explicit) portrayal of a gay romance on the screen and the film that made the name of director Stephen Frears. And, oh yes, the breakthrough performance of a searing young actor named Daniel Day-Lewis. Portraying a rough-and-tumble, street-smart gay punk, he underplays next to the portraits in ambition and power offered by Saeed Jaffrey and Gordon Warnecke, letting his scruffy character and rough honesty quietly radiate from his simmering presence.

That same year, he played a prissy upper-class twit in the elegant literary drama “A Room With a View,” a one-two punch of supporting performances that announced his versatility and earned him the Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics.

Reflections on a Role: “Everyone thought because I come from a polite way of life I couldn’t do that kind of part. So I sent director Stephen Frears a letter full of dirty language and expletives, hoping to shock him. I told him I’d break his legs if he didn’t cast me.”

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