Daniel Day-Lewis wasn't a professional actor the first time he threw himself into a role so totally that it freaked people out. He was a runaway. At the age of 12, he and two friends at a gloomy-sounding boarding school called Sevenoaks decided to bolt their campus, and after packing their bags they boarded a train, then caught a bus, then hitchhiked the last leg of a 50-mile journey.
A driver obligingly dropped them at their destination: a school called Bedales, where Day-Lewis's sister was happily enrolled. But within minutes of their arrival, the three were nabbed by Bedales administrators, and within hours the headmaster at Sevenoaks had been summoned to retrieve the escapees. Returning was a letdown to Day-Lewis, but classmates learned about the trip and soon they started treating him a little differently.
Daniel Day-Lewis's work in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
(Mario Tursi -- Miramax Films Via AP)
"The bullying stopped," he says, chuckling. "They left me alone after that. They figured, quite rightly, that if I was capable of that" -- a jailbreak, basically -- "there were no lengths I wouldn't go to. They were awestruck."
They were the first, it turns out, of many. Throughout his career as an actor, Day-Lewis has been nothing if not committed, to a degree that is invariably mesmerizing and often alarming. He plunges into characters so deeply that it isn't clear he's coming back. When he played the Irish nationalist Gerry Conlon in "In the Name of the Father," he spoke with the guy's brogue six months after filming ended. During the production of "My Left Foot," in which he played a man with cerebral palsy, he insisted on going to restaurants in a wheelchair and was carried by crew members around the set. He takes the idea of inhabiting a role about as far as it can go without spinning into madness.
It's an exhausting and emotional draining approach and it tends to leave Day-Lewis with a case of what he has called "interior malnutrition," a sense of emptiness and melancholy. Which is one reason why he doesn't work very often. For an art-house leading man with an Academy Award to his name (Best Actor for "My Left Foot"), Day-Lewis is pretty low profile. He has starred in just over a dozen movies in the last 20 years.
For a long stretch before his last film, the 2002 Martin Scorsese epic "Gangs of New York," his whereabouts were unknown, and it's widely believed that he spent much of his time in Italy, working as a cobbler. (He has declined to comment on the subject.) It takes something special to lure him in front of a camera these days. For his latest film, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," which opens tomorrow, that something was his wife.
Rebecca Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and Day-Lewis's spouse of more than eight years, wrote and directed "Ballad." It's about a dying man who lives in an abandoned seaside commune with his daughter, willfully cut off from the rest of the world. Their idyll is transformed when Jack, played by a convincingly gaunt Day-Lewis, invites his sometime girlfriend and her two teenage sons to live with them. Given Day-Lewis's tendency to take on the personalities and, as much as possible, the physical ailments of his characters, you'd think Miller might have worried about asking her husband to portray a guy who is about to expire.
"That never occurred to me," she says on the phone Monday. "Maybe it says something awful about me, but I feel like he knows his own limitations."
Sitting in the living room of a suite in the Regency Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Day-Lewis was doing the public relations rounds here last week. He still looks as matchstick thin as he does in the movie, though what he lacks these days in girth he is apparently trying to make up for in facial hair.
He's sporting a thick black and gray beard, which, atop the skin-hugging track suit he is wearing, makes him look like a middle-aged beatnik at an ironman race. (He's 47.) Or maybe he's just a guy who prefers not to be recognized. Or has he taken on the pirate spirit of one of his musical heroes, Keith Richards?
"Nah," Day-Lewis says. "I've just gone to seed."
Because Day-Lewis has a reputation as a brooder with a reclusive streak, you expect a shy, walled-off man, or someone who doesn't seem to be having much fun. Day-Lewis is neither. He's funny and expansive, thoughtful and easily animated. Especially when you talk about rock-and-roll, which turns out to be one of the unheralded influences on his career. It was through musicians such as Bob Dylan that he developed a love for words, which is one reason he became an actor.
"Dylan was like a member of my family," he says. "It was the language, the use of impenetrable metaphors that were compelling. When Dylan explores his own work, there's the vitality of a real quest there."
Day-Lewis was introduced to Dylan by his father, Cecil Day-Lewis, a famous literary figure in England, a writer of detective stories and for a time the country's poet laureate. His mother, Jill Balcon, came from an arts background, too; her father was the longtime head of Ealing Studios, which produced many of England's greatest films, including "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Ladykillers." But Day-Lewis's relationship with his father -- or his lack of a relationship, really -- has in many ways defined him. Already 53 when his son was born, Cecil Day-Lewis was a remote dad who seemed to take little interest in his children and died when Daniel was still a teenager.
"My household was a mystery to me," he recalls. "I know I grew to love literature and grew to love language through that connection to my father, but he was an absolute mystery to me in almost every sense."
The mystery has only deepened now that Day-Lewis and Miller have two children, both boys, ages 7 and 2. (Day-Lewis has another son, age 9, with actress Isabelle Adjani.) The couple split their time between New York City and Ireland, which Day-Lewis seems to have adopted as his home country, even though he was raised in southeast London. It was there, as a boy, that he landed his first acting gig, playing a street vandal in the 1971 John Schlesinger film "Sunday Bloody Sunday." He was on-screen for about three seconds.
"I was recruited along with the other hooligans in my neighborhood," he says. "We were to come out of this church, which is the church where I happened to be a choirboy at the time, and walk down this line of extremely expensive cars -- Jaguars, Bentleys -- which belonged to the cast and crew, and rake the paint off these things with broken milk bottles. It was heaven."
Three pounds to vandalize cars? Day-Lewis figured he'd found his calling. At the age of 13, he somehow came across a Harold Pinter play called "The Dumbwaiter," and for reasons that he can't explain he decided to "learn" the play, as he puts it. That meant getting to know the characters -- there are just two of them -- in some intimate way. It was like a kids' game, really, a form of pretending. But he recalls it as the first time he took on someone else's personality.
"I didn't understand what the play was about; it was way too sophisticated for me," he says.
This was not long after his ill-fated odyssey to Bedales. When the school's headmaster learned that a lad had actually tried to sneak onto his campus, he was so tickled that he wrote to Day-Lewis's parents and suggested that the boy enroll. They agreed.
"It was paradise," he says. Bedales was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and when Day-Lewis wasn't learning the standard reading and writing curriculum he was in a woodworking class building dining room tables, or he was rehearsing in the school's theater. The only performance that Cecil Day-Lewis ever saw by his son was "The Winter's Tale" at Bedales.
Day-Lewis later studied acting for three years at the Bristol Old Vic and began turning up in British television movies in 1981. He beat out such actors as Gary Oldman and Tim Roth for the part of a gay punk in "My Beautiful Laundrette," released here in 1986, and the same year was seen in "A Room With a View," playing an uptight aristocrat. It was hard to believe it was the same actor.
And two years later he was Tomas, the oversexed doctor whose life is changed by the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." By then, Day-Lewis had his choice of roles, and he chose to take a few years off after completing "My Left Foot" in 1989. Audiences next saw him in "The Last of the Mohicans" in 1992, and since then he has dialed back his output to a movie every few years.
He met Rebecca Miller in 1996, on the set of "The Crucible," which, as every high school student knows, was written by her father. The two were married that year. When Miller was trying to cast "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," she told her husband that he was her first choice for the lead, but it took him several months to agree to take the part. Miller might not have sweated over handing him a character racked with anguish and doomed to die, but apparently Day-Lewis did.
Jack, as it happens, seemed familiar to Day-Lewis. There were a lot of people like him at Bedales, which was basically a commune, and it was filled with true believers in the till-it-yourself approach to life.
"It was a very Woodstockian kind of school," Day-Lewis says. "It was self-sufficient for many years; the students survived on the food that they grew."
The difference is that Jack's commune in "Ballad" has withered to nearly nothing, and life with his daughter (played by the radiant Camilla Belle) is ultimately about isolation. In keeping with his penchant for crawling inside his characters' heads, Day-Lewis insisted that he live apart from his wife and children during the making of the movie. He wound up spending more than a month in a cottage about two miles from the rest of the cast and crew where "Ballad" was filmed, on Prince Edward Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia.
"More than anything it was a symbolic gesture," he says of the temporary living arrangement. "Part of my job was to create a sense of isolation but do so in the presence of the woman I share my life with outside of that story. I think that symbolic distance helped us. It certainly helped me to live through the night with nothing but the sound of the sea."
Miller apparently didn't take it personally.
"Every actor does what he feels he needs to do to keep that reality intact, and that was his way of doing it," she says. "It's a kind of focus. Which he has about everything. When he's tying his shoes, he's tying his shoes, and nothing can distract him from that."
The sense of depletion and disappointment that typically shadows Day-Lewis when he finishes a film has something to do with that singular focus, Miller says. When he's done playing a character, a void is left that isn't filled right away.
As bad, what winds up on the screen is just a fraction of the experience that Day-Lewis is forever hoping to project, so there's this immense chasm to him between what it felt like during filming -- a multidimensional experience -- and what it looks like on the screen. Dealing with that chasm is a form of agony for someone who lives with such crushingly high expectations for himself. Imagine a master painter who is in pain every time he puts down his brush, and you have an idea of Day-Lewis's predicament.
"The impulse to do the work, it's something that I've never found a way of describing it that satisfies me," he says. "It's a tremendously private thing and you are obliged to share it in a public arena."
Maybe the solution is to make movies for yourself and the people involved?
"I've said that in jest before," he says. "Why don't we make this film and then never release it?"
His withdrawal symptoms this time seem less acute. It's one advantage of making a movie with your wife. You get a little control over the product once your job is over.
"Often the brutality of this whole experience is the movie being taken away, it's this handing over of a thing that is dear to you," he says. "Rebecca has allowed me to be close to it in a way that, at this stage, I'm not normally allowed to be. It's possible to live a little longer with this work."