The Unbearable Lightness of Being Daniel Day-Lewis

Whether we take Daniel Day-Lewis’ retirement seriously or not, Phantom Thread is just the latest in a body of work which is almost unique in its consistent brilliance and weight

Feature by John Bleasdale | 01 Feb 2018
  • Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread

Last June Daniel Day-Lewis announced via a spokesperson his decision to quit acting, making his performance as master tailor Reynolds (Jeremiah) Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie Phantom Thread his final role. “All my life I’ve mouthed off about how I should stop acting, and I don’t know why it was different this time, but the impulse to quit took root in me, and that became a compulsion,” the actor told W Magazine in November 2017. “It was something I had to do.”

The announcement was met with dismay and a little disbelief. That perhaps the most celebrated actor of our time – thrice winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor – could, at the relatively young age of 60, hang up his method beggared belief. Immediately following the announcement, I had an opportunity to talk to James Ivory, who had directed Day-Lewis in Room with a View, and he expressed skepticism: “I wonder how long that will last. Something wonderful will come along and he’ll take it up. I can imagine when he’s in his mid-60s he’s going to want to play some great old man. And why not?”

And yet the actor’s career has been marked by a series of long absences, one hasty exit and a plethora of eccentric obsessions. Most famously, in 1989 he stormed off the stage during a performance of Hamlet. Stories abounded that he saw his father’s ghost, although he later denied this was the case – except perhaps metaphorically. What is incontrovertible is that he never worked in theatre again.

At this point, Daniel Day-Lewis was already an established screen actor. From trying to push Mahatma Gandhi off a South African pavement in Gandhi to his first Oscar for My Left Foot, which was released the same year that he quit Richard Eyre’s Hamlet production, he was pinpointed as a rising talent to be watched. The '90s were (by his standards) relatively jam-packed, with The Age of Innocence and Last of the Mohicans among the roles cementing his reputation, but after his third Jim Sheridan film The Boxer in 1997, Day-Lewis announced his semi-retirement and went to live in Florence, Italy, where he studied to become a cobbler under the tutelage of master craftsman Stefano Bemer.

It was five years until Martin Scorsese tempted him back in front of the camera with the scene-stealing role of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. There were other gaps between The Ballad of Jack and Rose and There Will Be Blood, but puzzlingly he decided to appear in Nine rather than take another gap year – Rob Marshall’s musical sequel to Fellini’s 8 ½ was a rare misstep for Day-Lewis. Each of these gaps saw Day-Lewis return to his farm in Ireland, where he enjoys stone masonry and carpentry.

Like Harrison Ford (and there the comparisons end), Day-Lewis was drawn to woodwork and often his famed intensive preparation for roles involved acquiring some hands-on skills. For Last of the Mohicans, he carved his own canoe; for Gangs of New York, he learned to butcher animals and for Phantom Thread, he designed and tailored a haute couture dress entirely from scratch.

And herein perhaps lies the key to the puzzle of his early retirement. Maybe we’ve all got it the wrong way around when considering Day-Lewis’s dedication to totally inhabiting a character. Perhaps it’s not that he doesn’t need all that homework to get the performance, but he doesn’t need the excuse of the performance to do all that homework. As an OAP, he can go and make dresses, or shoes, or box (he still boxes), without the faff of having to then turn up and shoot a movie two years later.

There’s also the question of mental health. Aside from the Hamlet incident and tales of sobbing in the wings, some of the preparations for his roles have gone from the craz-ee to actually crazy. While shooting Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis would stalk around Rome picking fights with strangers. And his state of mind post-film shows the extent of the emotional and psychological cost demanded.

Speaking with Lynn Hirschberg, he talks about the sadness which gripped him during the making of Phantom Thread. “I haven’t figured it out. But it’s settled on me, and it’s just there. Not wanting to see the film is connected to the decision I’ve made to stop working as an actor. But it’s not why the sadness came to stay. That happened during the telling of the story, and I don’t really know why.”

We curse the unknowable roles Day-Lewis will now never play, but there has to also be some sympathy for the man. Maybe the price of greatness is too high? Like an athlete who has given his body for the pursuit of excellence, time will crush you.

We should also be glad for the kind of dross he’s never stooped to. His Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans was as close as the actor has come to a Marvel superhero and he hasn’t appeared in any franchise. Sir Anthony Hopkins not only grumps around Asgard but even put a coat of gloss on the turd that is the latest Transformers atrocity. There’s much to be said for the refreshing sight of an actor maintaining the integrity of their reputation: just ask Robert de Niro.

There have been much-hyped retirements before, usually followed by suitably-trumpeted comebacks. The likes of Elton John tour for years saying their farewells, and Steven Soderbergh retires from film directing to spend more time directing film. But Daniel Day-Lewis is a unique character as well as a unique character actor. Personally, we would love to see him return to the theatre – perhaps play King Lear, or Hamlet’s father's ghost to close the circle.

Maybe if that other dawdler in perfectionism Stanley Kubrick came back from the grave he could direct Day-Lewis in a script by JD Salinger. Otherwise, we have a feeling Phantom Thread might well be the tailor-made ending and most fitting summation for a peerless career.

Phantom Thread is released 2 Feb by Universal