Daniel Day-Lewis: How the Greatest Living Actor Became Lincoln

The shy, soft-spoken actor on the challenge of portraying a man whom everyone and no one knows at once

  • Share
  • Read Later
Daniel Day Lewis
Marco Grob for TIME

In the summer of 2011, the actress Sally Field began receiving text messages from Abraham Lincoln.

“I’d hear that twinkle-twinkle on my phone, and he would have sent me some ridiculous limerick,” says Field, who plays the 16th President’s wife Mary Todd in the new film Lincoln. “He’d sign it, ‘Yours, A.’ I would text back as Mary, criticizing him for the waste of his time when he might have been pursuing something more productive.”

In May of the same year, the director of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, received a Pearlcorder tape machine in the mail. “I turned it on, and it was Shakespeare and the Second Inaugural in this voice,” Spielberg says. The voice was Lincoln’s. Not the stentorian tone that generations of schoolchildren have inferred from Lincoln’s gloomy portraits, but the one described by contemporary observers: a gentle tenor, reedy and slightly cracked, the accent a frontier blend of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. “A beautiful voice. I wanted that voice to read me a book. It came with a letter that said, ‘After you listen to this, would you ring me up and we’ll have a natter?’ I immediately got on the telephone and said, ‘Who is this?’”

This is Daniel Day-Lewis, star of Lincoln (opening Nov. 9), who faced the paradoxical challenge of portraying a man whom everyone and no one knows at once. Lincoln is near enough that we can look at the light that fell upon him—he was the first U.S. President to be photographed extensively—but not so near that we can hear his voice or see his odd, flat-footed walk. He is ubiquitous but unknowable, frozen in marble or granite, flattened into currency. Try making him talk or move and you risk creating “an animatronic character at Epcot Center,” as Spielberg puts it. “That’s exactly what we didn’t want.”

(MORE: Secret Lincoln Screening Generates Big Buzz)

“It didn’t occur to me that it was possible to breathe life into Abraham Lincoln,” says Day-Lewis in an interview with Time at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City a few weeks before the film’s release. “I felt so shy around him.” Day-Lewis is a bit shy and soft-spoken in person too—-endearingly so—but warm and affable and exquisitely courteous. Shorn of his Lincoln beard, his hair chopped short into a silvery brush, the actor cuts a lean, youthful figure in his peacoat and khakis; at 55, he could easily be 10 years younger. The main quality he shares with his onscreen Lincoln is a thoughtful charisma.

Day-Lewis’ initial misgivings fell away once he began to research the part, finding his way toward Lincoln as a scholar would. “The minute you begin to approach him—and there are vast corridors that have been carved that lead you to an understanding of that man’s life, both through the great riches of his own writing and all the contemporary accounts and biographies—he feels immediately and surprisingly accessible. He draws you closer to him.”

And Day-Lewis draws us closer to Lincoln, investing him with an avuncular gentleness, a sly wit and an immovable will. The actor himself, as is his habit, disappears from sight—and slips out of earshot. Off duty, Day-Lewis speaks in a melodic, hybrid lilt: English in its shape and tone, Irish in its rhythms and occasionally its vowels. Unlike Lincoln’s, it’s a rich, sonorous voice, a custom-built delivery device for the soliloquies from Hamlet and Macbeth that the Great Emancipator so loved. Plenty of performers can change their accent, posture or waistline to suit the part. Day-Lewis alone seems capable of remolding his larynx and vocal cords.

He already looked the part, according to Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner, author of the Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America. Before Day-Lewis accepted the role, Spielberg and Kushner—who based his script in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals—visited the British-born actor at his home at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains outside Dublin, where he lives with his family. “On the first day, we went to a little pub,” Kushner recalls. “Daniel and I were talking by a window, and Steven, I think surreptitiously, snapped Daniel’s photo with his iPhone and e-mailed it to me. Steven said that his earliest memory of Lincoln was a cardboard cutout of his silhouette for Presidents’ Day. This silhouette of Daniel against the window—you would absolutely think you were looking at young Abe Lincoln.”

(MOREToday’s Movie Trailer: New Lincoln Teaser Debuts During Presidential Debate)

If lincoln seems given over to legend, so does Day-Lewis’ totalizing methodology of acting, honed over a quarter-century. It comes with its own boilerplate of mythos and anecdote: How he stayed in character throughout My Left Foot (1989), in which he portrayed the profoundly disabled Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, to the point that cast and crew members fed him at lunch breaks and carried him over equipment between setups. How he lived in the manner of an 18th century American Indian in preparation to play the noble warrior Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), surviving for days on a 3,000-acre (1,200 hectare) expanse of Alabama wilderness. (“If he didn’t shoot it,” Mohicans director Michael Mann says, “he didn’t eat it.”) How he stayed up for three nights straight before a nightmarish interrogation scene as a man wrongly accused of an IRA bombing for In the Name of the Father (1993). How he sharpened knives between takes as the terrifying proto-mobster Bill “The -Butcher” Cutting on the set of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002).

Given his modus operandi—which Day-Lewis mostly declines to discuss—is it intimidating for other actors to perform opposite Day-Lewis? Not on Lincoln, Spielberg says with a grin, “because he wasn’t Bill the Butcher.” Field calls the set “hushed and reverent,” with little chatter between takes. “There’s no small talk,” says Jared Harris, who plays Ulysses S. Grant in Lincoln. “You don’t say to him, ‘Hey, did you see the referees blow that call during the Packers game?’ But you can talk about your own life, personal things. We talked about our dads at one point, memories of our fathers.” (Like Day-Lewis, son of a poet laureate of Britain, Harris had a famous father, the late actor Richard Harris.) “He stays in character in terms of the accent. The English people on the film were asked not to use their English accents on the set because it might start to pull him off. But you’re not sitting there talking about the Vicksburg campaign.

“His attention to detail and commitment is truly impressive,” Harris continues, “but people refer to it as being an imposition or intimidating. It isn’t. Actors do that stuff all the time. He just likes to stay in it, and he asks that you respect that by not talking about bull—-.”

(MORE: Abraham Lincoln at 200)

Like Harris, Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis, born in Greenwich in 1957, comes from a rarefied British cultural milieu. His mother was the actress Jill Balcon; his maternal grandfather Sir Michael Balcon headed the great British filmmaking company Ealing Studios and produced Alfred Hitchcock’s first movies. Cecil Day-Lewis’ early books of verse were published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press; during weeks off from his role as editorial director at the venerable London publishing house Chatto & Windus, he worked at home. “His study was out of bounds. You had to tiptoe past that room,” says Day-Lewis, whose older sister Tamasin is a cookbook author. “I knew something was going on in there, and it involved writing. Ours was a literary house. It was a house of books more than anything else.”

His Irish-born father took the family to Connemara, in western Ireland, each summer. “It’s a powerful and poetical landscape, virtually treeless, rolling country hills and mountains. For my sister and me, it became a secret garden where anything seemed possible—time out of time. It’s all an illusion, but a beautiful one.”

His father died of pancreatic cancer at age 68 at the home of his close friend Kingsley Amis when Daniel was just 15. The younger Day-Lewis was enrolled at Bedales, a progressive English boarding school, where he discovered both the stage and the woodworking shop. “I became conflicted in my late teens,” he says. “I imagined an alternative life as a furniture maker. For about a year, I just didn’t know what to do. I did laboring jobs, working in the docks, doing psychic reading, construction sites. When I did make the decision to focus on acting, I think my mother was just relieved for me that I had finally started to focus. She probably feared for me much more than she ever let on, because all I ever got from her, no matter what I was doing, was encouragement—so much so that I think I became quite a harsh judge of myself to try to restore some kind of balance.”

His London stage breakthrough came in 1982 at age 25 in the West End production of the hit drama Another Country. But it was a pair of polar-opposite roles—an ex–National Front gay punk in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette and a priggish Edwardian suitor in the Merchant-Ivory production A Room with a View—that revealed Daniel Day-Lewis, Emerging Young Actor, to be Daniel Day-Lewis, Legend in the Making. The films opened on the same day in New York City in 1986, neatly encapsulating his range and resources. Within a few years he had won his first romantic lead, in the Milan Kundera adaptation The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and his first Oscar, for My Left Foot.

At the initial read-through for My Left Foot, Day-Lewis arrived in character as Christy Brown, with director Jim Sheridan pushing his wheelchair. The other actors “were shocked, like, ‘What is this, he shows up playing the part fully formed, and we’re sitting here in our everyday clothes?’” recalls Sheridan, who also worked with Day-Lewis on In the Name of the Father and The Boxer (1997). “The producers were freaking out because they couldn’t understand a word he was saying: ‘Can we make him more understandable?’” (The respective answers to these questions were yes and no.)

“Plenty of people will say it’s facetious to stay in character,” Sheridan says. “People will say it’s pretentious. But Daniel spent weeks with kids who really had cerebral palsy to research the part. How difficult would it have been to act like them for the camera, then jump back after each take like a jack-in-the-box, like nothing had happened? His decision was, I’m staying in character, and so he became the focus of all worries and discontent on the set, which was all for the good of the movie.”

He also became the focus of great concern one night in 1989 at London’s National Theatre, where he was playing Hamlet—an incident he brings up without prompting. “I had a scuffle with Hamlet when I was last in the theater. I left the production”—he laughs incredulously—“halfway through a performance of the play, and that followed me around for quite some time afterward.”

The story went that, like the tortured Dane, Day-Lewis had seen the ghost of his late father, then fled the stage. “I may have said a lot of things in the immediate aftermath,” he says. “And to some extent I probably saw my father’s ghost every night, because of course if you’re working in a play like Hamlet, you explore everything through your own experience. You think you’re traveling a vast distance to understand another life, but it may be that you’re bringing that life toward you at the same time. What allows that work to live is the common experience, the bond between the two of you. It’s utterly delusional to say you become some other person—you don’t. But you do get to know yourself in a different way, through the prism of that other life. That correspondence between father and son, or the son and the father who is no longer alive, played a huge part in that experience. So yes, of course, it was communication with my own dead father.” He laughs again. “But I don’t remember seeing any ghosts of my father on that dreadful night!”

He did not return to Hamlet and has never performed in a play since. Predictably, a storm of British media attention followed the Hamlet episode. “I work in a certain way, and I never really felt the need to explain it or apologize for it, but in England, they thought I was unhinged,” he says. “The press goes after you, and they don’t tend to let go.” A desire for privacy amid his intensifying fame contributed, he says, to his decision in the mid-1990s to move to Ireland, not long before he married Rebecca Miller, a writer and filmmaker who later directed him as a dying eco-warrior in 2005’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose. (Miller, who is the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller, and Day-Lewis have two sons, ages 14 and 10; Day-Lewis also has a 17-year-old son from a previous relationship with French actress Isabelle Adjani.)

Day-Lewis doesn’t necessarily explain his process to his fellow actors, either, and he does little if any rehearsal. The 28-year-old actor Paul Dano has played his antagonist twice: as a love interest for his character’s daughter in The Ballad of Jack and Rose and as the callow preacher Eli Sunday, who receives one of cinema’s most spectacular comeuppances from Day-Lewis’ ambition-crazed oilman Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007), for which Day-Lewis won his second Oscar. “I tried to show up and be all business because our characters didn’t get along,” Dano says of the Prince Edward Island set of Jack and Rose. “I’m sure that our instincts were not to get chummy. We kept our distance from each other.” And what of the filming of There Will Be Blood, wherein Plainview makes him eat mud, beats him with a bowling pin and—in a moment that launched a thousand Internet memes—drinks his milkshake? Dano calls the experience “a fever dream.”

Emily Watson, who co-starred with Day-Lewis in The Boxer, is more specific. “I found it very demanding because of the way that he works,” she says of making the film, set in Belfast at the end of the Irish Troubles. “Our characters had been estranged, hadn’t seen each other for 14 years. It was very tense between them. So Daniel and I didn’t really speak—we agreed not to. I found that difficult. I found it quite lonely and isolating and a bit scary. He has a sort of electric force about him, and it’s intimidating—but amazing to watch. It really was as it was in the story. It’s a spare, brutal world where people don’t express themselves.

“As I got older and more experienced,” Watson continues, “I could look back and appreciate being able to work with someone who has the most integrity you can possibly have in this job. He has integrity coming out of every pore. I remember asking at the very end, ‘Why do you work like that?’ And he said—it was very sweet—‘Well, I don’t think I’m a good enough actor to be able to not do it this way.’”

(MORE: Richard Corliss on Daniel Day-Lewis)

Though England is his birthplace and Ireland his adopted home, it’s America that is Day-Lewis’ manifest destiny as an actor. His résumé is dotted with frontiersmen and trailblazers, pilgrims and prospectors, who built America with their own hands—or in Lincoln’s case, held it together. (Lincoln adds intertextual frisson to the Civil War–set Gangs of New York, wherein Bill the Butcher throws a knife at a portrait of Lincoln and throws produce at an actor playing Lincoln in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)

“I probably do have a greater fascination for the history of this country than I do for my own,” Day-Lewis says. “I date that back to the moment that Michael Mann invited me to do The Last of the Mohicans. I hedged my bets for a long time because I thought, ‘Why?! Why would he want me to do that?’ Eventually I thought, ‘Well, if he’s willing to take that chance, who am I to say no?’”

Mann remembers why. “Hawkeye is pretty close to who Daniel is as a person,” he says. “Daniel is a deeply romantic man with a very strong value system. He’s kind of classic. He’s drawn to see great values in simple things. He’s somebody who eschews celebrity. He and Rebecca have a very strong family, a real literary sensibility.” Day-Lewis also eschews any semblance of workaholic brand management: he has made just six films in the past 15 years (including a rare misfire, 2009’s garish musical Nine). For part of the acting break he took between The Boxer and Gangs of New York, he apprenticed under a cobbler in Florence. “I like taking a long time over things, and I believe that it’s the time spent away from the work that allows me to do the work itself,” Day-Lewis says. “If you’re lurching from one film set or one theater to the other, I’m not sure what your resources would be as a human being.”

Does his grueling, singular process ever get lonely? “I felt tremendously alone for a good part of the last experience,” he says, referring to Lincoln. “But it was an aloneness that I needed, and was tremendously helpful to me.” Characteristically, he pivots away from himself. “I think a lot about what President Obama is going through at this moment. I look to the extent to which he has aged visibly. I feel I aged visibly just playing the President, so to actually have that responsibility is a burden that one can only explore in one’s imagination. Anyone who has that position of authority must necessarily find themselves very, very alone at certain times. I’m not in any way comparing his work to the work that I do as an actor, but it’s a common theme.”

An actor is not like a President, but can an actor be like a historian? Day-Lewis pores over primary sources and artifacts, metabolizing them in an original work that offers us a new way of understanding a familiar person, place and time. Pop-cultural images of history have a way of supplanting actual history; on the level of image, at least, the actor has been retro-actively elected President. The marble has been touched into life.

“Oh, my God!” Day-Lewis exclaims when he’s handed the movie tie-in edition of Team of Rivals, the cover of which shows not Lincoln but rather Day-Lewis as Lincoln. “Wow. I haven’t seen that. I always think there’s something not quite right about putting a film image on the cover of a history book, as if you’re rewriting history or something.” But Day-Lewis is, in a sense, writing history. And reading it to us. And texting it.