Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who usually portrays his characters with bombastic furor, finds a softer voice as Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s new period film, now in theaters. Yes, it’s ironic that the character he played in Gangs of New York hated President Lincoln but it is far more interesting to take a deeper look at how the Oscar winner prepares for such epic roles, through his mind, body and now, most notably, his voice.
10 years ago, Martin Scorsese’s period drama brought us the violent Bill the Butcher, played by Day-Lewis. Bill led the Know Nothing party, which opposed immigration to America and despised President Lincoln for his efforts to unite the people. President Lincoln loathed the Know Nothing movement and shared his thoughts in a letter dated August 24, 1855.
While Day-Lewis doesn’t like to reveal too much about his work, he does admit in this interview with The Independent, the role of Bill was very tough on him.
He trained as a butcher, caught pneumonia while on set (having refused to change his coat for a warmer one because it hadn’t existed in the 19th century), and wandered about Rome (where Gangs was filmed) in character, fighting strangers.
“I had to do my preparation and I will admit that I went mad, totally mad. I remembered the days of fighting on the Millwall terraces and they stood me in good stead for Bill the Butcher. He was a bit of a punk, a marvelous character and a joy to be – but not so good for my physical or mental health.”
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis portrays Daniel Plainview, a man that pursues the wealth of the California oil boom in the early twentieth century. Plainview is loosely based on the American oil tycoon, Edward Lawrence Doheny. He won an Oscar for his performance in which he explained to the Daily Mail in 2008, he stayed in the role, refusing to speak to his co-stars off the set and insisted on living in a tent on a deserted Texas oilfield.
“You go to these great lengths to imagine another world and time and imagine a man, like Plainview, living in those times – and having spent your imagination on that, it seems more fun to live there all the time than jumping in and out. That is the playground you’ve created, so why not stay there and play? It gets rid of that notion of playing between times, which often people talk about – waiting for the next shot. I don’t buy that. Whatever you can do to give yourself a sense of continuity can only add to the work.”
He continues to explain how he could play such a villainous man, as Plainview.
“Well, we all have murderous thoughts throughout the day, if not the week. We all live under some repression; we have to, it’s part of the deal. And what is more invigorating than to unleash some of that stuff? But I cannot account for where any of this comes from. It comes from the unconscious and I cannot account for what ferments in my unconscious. That part of the work doesn’t take part in the conscious; one just hopes there is a cave somewhere in your mind that you can ransack.”
Now, with Lincoln in theaters and Oscar talk inevitable for Day-Lewis’s performance as the President, there will be many more interviews with the actor, trying to get to the underbelly of his preparation for such an iconic man. In a recent interview with the LA Times, Day-Lewis reports, he was hesitant to take the part because thought it would be difficult to unveil who Lincoln was. Fortunately, there was enough valuable material available that led him to know the man better. He requested a year to prepare himself before filming began.
“The legacy of his writing was hugely important. You get such a sense of him through not just his speeches but also stories that he told….to get a sense of his thought and the movement through his thought towards a conclusion, that’s a unique treasure…to have that available.”
“On any given day, I learned quite a number of pieces of Lincoln’s writing, so that I could live with those every day and speak them every day,” “The voice is a very deep, personal reflection of character in one way or another.”
So while the press continues to focus on how he transforms himself, he told the New York Times that he really prefers not to talk about his method.
“There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyze everything and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise. It sounds pretentious, I know. I recognize all the practical work that needs to be done, the dirty work, which I love: the work in the soil, the rooting around in the hope that you might find a gem. But I need to believe that there is a cohesive mystery that ties all these things together, and I try not to separate them.”