It is November in New York City, two weeks after Barack Obama’s re-election, and a severe, unmissable photo of the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis as another American president, Abraham Lincoln, is buzzing about Manhattan on the top of yellow cabs. There he is, all over town, promoting Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln. Day-Lewis floats around the city like a political ghost: eyes down, hair greying, the famous presidential chin-strap beard tipped as if to tickle the scalp of the taxi driver below.
Lincoln is a historical icon – the stern, bearded man on every five-dollar bill – but Day-Lewis plays him as a curious, persuasive mix: canny politician, rural lawyer in the city, loving husband, bereaved father, entrancing storyteller, flat-footed and awkward. ‘He looked like a bag of hammers to most people,’ is how Day-Lewis describes him, laughing, when we meet in a hotel near Central Park. ‘He considered himself to be hideous and made many jokes about himself.’
Today, Day-Lewis has left the hammers indoors: He’s clean cut, stately, respectable even: he has a short stack of greying hair, is youthful and lean for 55 and has dumped an elegant blue overcoat and silk scarf on a windowsill. He has homes in Ireland and New York, but it’s in the US where he spends more time these days after a number of years living just outside Dublin. He’s thoughtful and jolly in conversation, if a little guarded at first.
The actor is known for the months of preparation he puts into roles: with every film come tales of extreme behaviour, many of them framed as accounts of thespian self-indulgence. He’s cautious of pushing that reputation further. ‘I’ve been reluctant to talk about how I work because I don’t feel one should talk about it,’ he reasons. ‘But the problem is a lot of other people then talk about it and by a process of Chinese whispers it sounds like some strange Satanic ritual is taking place, with the whole thing about immersion and the method and the weight of those terms.’
His Lincoln is hugely compelling and, above all, convincing in that he looks like flesh and blood, not a hard-to-reach figure from history. He approached him with trepidation. ‘It was like grandmother’s footsteps,’ he says. ‘Because of the monuments, the hard part is to discover the man. That’s why I resisted.’ For almost a decade, he said no to Spielberg. ‘I thought: Perhaps it’s not possible or right to bring this man back to life.’ But today, two weeks into the movie’s US release, critics are saying Lincoln is Spielberg’s best film in years and pundits are reckoning that Day-Lewis will win a third Best Actor Oscar – an award to sit with his wins for 1989’s My Left Foot and 2007’s There Will Be Blood. No man has done this before.
The film is talky, enthralling and steeped in high-stakes political manoeuvrings around the abolition of slavery and the end of the American Civil War. It takes place over the final months of Lincoln’s life, in 1864 and 1865, and also stars Sally Field as his wife, Mary, alongside an ensemble of name actors hiding their renown beneath beards and hairpieces. The film’s enthusiasm for politics is infectious. When I watch it in a Times Square cinema on a Friday night, there are whoops from the audience at talk of racial and sexual equality and applause when the credits roll. I tell Day-Lewis this. He’s pleased, but nervously so, as if next I’m going to tell him about someone booing the movie.
Day-Lewis occupies a deeply unusual space in cinema. He has starred in Gangs of New York, The Last of the Mohicans, The Age of Innocence, In the Name of the Father and others – and yet if you put him in a room with other middle-aged British actors – Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Clive Owen, Colin Firth – he’d be able to slip away quietly. That’s partly to do with the roles he picks: those flights into other eras and personalities. He barely ever plays contemporary characters, let alone people that bear the slightest similarity to himself: he prefers to explore the extremes of human experience, men like the terrifying Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York or the psychopathic Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. American characters that tap into the founding of the nation especially draw him in. Does he thrive on exploring lives far removed from his own? ‘I think, honestly, yes,’ he says. ‘That is invariably the thing that appeals to me. The less I know about someone and the less connected I feel to them on a personal level, the more intrigued I am in the process of discovery. Which isn’t to say that one isn’t always looking for points of communion. They’re vital.’
His lack of celebrity keeps him anonymous too: he might star in renowned films, pick up awards, but he tends to disappear from view between films. ‘I suppose during times like this, when your face ends up on top of a taxi you occasionally become a public figure, whether you like it or not,’ is his own brief spin on his fame.
There’s the other thing that keeps Day-Lewis at a remove from other actors: the aura of the ‘method’ he carries around with him. It started with stories of him living in a wheelchair for months to play Christy Brown in ‘My Left Foot’ and continues right through to accounts of him insisting he was called ‘Mr President’ on the set of ‘Lincoln’ (as proof of how these things are distorted, it later emerged that it was Spielberg, not him, who suggested that way of working).
How does he feel about the man-of-mystery tag? ‘I didn’t go looking for that,’ he says. ‘It was not my intention to create a specious air of mystery about what I do. But what’s misrepresented is the fact that I take a long time [preparing each character] because I enjoy the work and it pleases me to take time over it. It’s pure joy. There’s huge pleasure in discovery. It’s a game, and I’ve never thought to obscure that fact. But that image persists of some sort of lonely, strange figure going about an unholy business.’
So what business, holy or not, did he go about for ‘Lincoln’? ‘I asked for a year,’ he starts. It began with reading: ‘I could still be reading now and for 15 years and not make a dent in the literature about that man.’ And beyond books? He finds it easier to explain what he doesn’t do than what he does.
‘The one thing I absolutely don’t do is dismember the life into its component parts, like a mechanic, and then try and bolt it all together and hope that it functions,’ he says. ‘I try to approach it all more or less at the same time.’ There’s been a lot of talk about the voice he gives Lincoln, a soft, slightly high, conversational lilt that draws people in rather than declaims to them. How did he find it? ‘The voice is such a deep personal reflection of character that I wouldn’t even attempt to find it for a considerable period of time. If I’m lucky, I begin to hear a voice. That has always been part of my experience – listening for that sound of the voice in my inner ear. If that pleases me, and I live with that for a while and the internal monologue feels right, then I go about the work of reproducing it. Lincoln always spoke aloud when he read, so that was a lovely clue. I read a lot, I talked to myself a lot.’
Where does all this solo work leave his collaborators? Surely his Lincoln is only part of the deal? What about Spielberg’s Lincoln? The writer Tony Kushner’s Lincoln? ‘It’s a fair question. We had a wonderful triangular communication during that year. Not that they ever asked me where I was going. I did send a tape of the voice to Steven. I drew a skull and crossbones on the envelope saying that no one else should open it!’
When a film premieres, does he read what’s written? ‘I don’t go looking for reviews, but they tend to find you, good and bad,’ he says. ‘People encourage you to look at both. I’m a sucker when people say nice things, and it’s unpleasant when people write unpleasant things. I’m still sensitive towards that.’
He shows some sensitivity when I comment on his make-up in Lincoln: you can spy a growing hint of the president’s weariness in his face. ‘Don’t say that!’ He hates the idea that awareness of his make-up undermines his performance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it up. ‘No, it’s important to mention it.’ He admits I’ve hit a sore spot. ‘Ageing make-up is dangerous,’ he argues. ‘One often sees it on film and thinks: Wow! That looks amazing.’ He sighs. ‘And, of course, then you’ve already lost the battle.’
It’s impossible not to warm to Day-Lewis: he speaks lucidly, his voice rolling on soft waves of stresses and beats. He chuckles a lot too, which tempers his introspection. Just as his voice in Lincoln demands attention, so his own voice is a charming curiosity, a blend of British, American and Irish influences. I wonder why people so often decide that he’s an oddball? That he’s precious? He comes across as smart and engaged, obsessively driven to work hard on a character and unusually willing in conversation to try and make sense of it. He’s a thinker and a grafter.
Can he explain the paradox? Why do people prefer to see him as a lone, strange presence in cinema rather than someone who puts an extraordinary amount of work and thought into what he does? ‘Maybe people just prefer to believe the other thing,’ he reasons. ‘I honestly don’t know. I can’t account for that. It’s an odd thing, though. It feels odd, yeah, to be so consistently misrepresented in that way and have to bear responsibility for the rumours that other people create about you. But anyway, there you go.’