Actors usually envy each other. But Daniel Day-Lewis is a class apart
It’s the news I’ve been waiting for. Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most widely respected and sublimely gifted actors of his generation, is finally hanging up his codpiece and pig’s bladder and, in the words of his representative, “will no longer be working as an actor” (although this carefully worded statement presumably allows him some wriggle room if he ever wants to pursue an alternative career on the tills at Claire’s Accessories).
Thank God, is all I can say. About bloody time. That man has been the bane of my career. If it hadn’t been for him I’d have got that part in My Left Foot, and then who knows what might have happened? And as for the eponymous hero in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, I was a shoo-in for the role until he turned up in the audition room with his piercing eyes, chiselled cheekbones and Celtic mystique.
Perhaps not …
In this glittering cesspit we call the acting profession, there are plenty of rival thesps who, through sheer luck or happenstance, seem to have the career we ourselves could have had if only the cards had fallen differently. But Day-Lewis is, by common consent, even in the most sourly disposed green rooms – a class apart. We shall not look upon his like again, as Old Bill would have put it – at least for a bit. Performers of his mercurial intensity come along once in a generation.
Most of us would start any list of those few truly exceptional actors – the shape-shifters as they are sometimes called, individuals who can inhabit another character in its entirety without ever lapsing into impersonation – with Marlon Brando, then veer off into a truculent debate about whether Laurence Olivier was the greatest of them all or just an old ham with stale tricks. Robert De Niro would get a mention of course – Meryl Streep, no doubt. But almost everyone would finish with Day-Lewis.
Not that he was ever quite one of us. For a start, there was his approach to the job. Actors – certainly British actors – are by disposition supremely suspicious of anything that sounds too arty farty. We’ve all grown up in the bish-bash-bosh school of acting: turn up on time, say your lines and don’t bump in into the furniture. And while this approach to our craft is fast disappearing (and some would say, high time too), as a breed we’re still wary of any process that smacks of wankery.
Day-Lewis may be admirably understated in talking about his methodology, but his approach is well-known. “I don’t dismember a character into its component parts and then kind of bolt it all together, and off you go,” Day-Lewis said in 2012, discussing his Oscar-winning performance in Lincoln. “I tend to try and allow things to happen slowly, over a long period of time. As I feel I’m growing into a sense of that life, if I’m lucky, I begin to hear a voice.”
For most jobbing actors, allowing things to happen slowly, over a long period of time, and then hearing a voice, is called being unemployed. “GET A BLOODY JOB,” it screams as the final demands pile up on our doormat. And in any case, most of us – even the stars – don’t have the luxury of such indulgences. Time is money, even if you’re topping the bill (for instance, a recent part I was offered in a TV drama at 5pm on a Friday evening was due to begin filming at 7am the next day).
So most of us assemble a box of tricks – a series of our own components, if you like, off-the-peg rather than made-to-measure, which we are known for, and can roll out pretty much to order, and rely upon to get us through. We know we can do angry authority (policemen or villains), we can offer up a decent hapless (affable dads), we can conjure up cool or brooding on spec, or if the part requires something a tad quirky or bespoke, a facsimile of that bloke we see each day in the newsagents at the end of our road, which always seems to go down well.
Yet Day-Lewis has always been different. He did it his way, or not at all. And when he decided to leave the stage, never to return, midway through a performance of Hamlet at the National Theatre, he didn’t look back or let this momentary crisis affect him.
And perhaps that was the quality that gave Day-Lewis his true potency – the knowledge that he could turn his back on the profession and do something different (exemplified when he shuffled off to Florence for a period to become an apprentice shoemaker) rather than being held in its tawdry thrall. Now that really is liberating to the creative spirit.
So good on him. He may have struggled if he’d had to shoot Corrie for 20 years, and I’m sure performing Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp at the Stafford Assembly Rooms three times a day over Christmas would have reduced him to the rank of common mortals. But he was meant for higher things.
So, a final question. How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer – 50. One to change the bulb and 49 to say “I could have done that.”
Well, Daniel, not in your case. You were something else. And if you want to spend the rest of your life changing lightbulbs, I’m happy to pay top dollar to sit and watch you do it. And I’ll consider it money well spent.