As difficult as those characters were to play, though, they weren’t the ones to send the three-time Oscar winner fleeing from his profession. That would be his latest (and apparently last) role as the exacting fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.”
“Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting,” he said during a lengthy interview with W Magazine. “I do know that Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise: We didn’t realize what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”
Over the summer, Day-Lewis’s publicist released a statement to Variety that was light on specifics but revealed that “Phantom Thread” would be his final film.
“This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject,” the statement read.
But now Day-Lewis is giving us a few more (admittedly vague) details about why he’s leaving. According to the interview, he flirted with the idea of quitting for a long time. That’s partly why he took so many lengthy breaks between making movies. But ultimately another director or project would reel him back in for another round of method acting brilliance.
Day-Lewis is famously private so releasing a statement felt like an unusual move, but he had his motivations. Like a Whole 30 dieter posting progress on Facebook, he just wanted to hold himself accountable.
“I did want to draw a line,” he said. “I didn’t want to get sucked back into another project. 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. It was something I had to do.”
There’s an embargo on reviewing “Phantom Thread” until next week, but suffice it to say that the drama is a strange, engrossing film; it’s also not as disturbing as some of the actor’s others. The protagonist is a persnickety eternal bachelor who creates gorgeous gowns for British high society just after World War II. Part of his process is finding — and eventually discarding — various muses. But when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), their relationship seems different somehow. “I feel as if I’ve been looking for you for a very long time,” he says.
In the interview, Day-Lewis said he has no intention of watching the movie, though he’s seen many of his others.
“Not wanting to see the film is connected to the decision I’ve made to stop working as an actor,” he said. “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.”
Other A-listers have similarly announced imminent retirements only to change course. Steven Soderbergh famously claimed he was done directing movies in 2013, though his latest film “Logan Lucky” came out earlier this year. In 2009, Alec Baldwin told Men’s Journal that “movies are part of my past” even though they were still a large part of his future.
And yet, Day-Lewis doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would waffle. He has plenty of other interests, including woodworking and painting. According to W, he also dabbled in writing scripts with his writer-director wife Rebecca Miller.
He’s doing publicity for “Phantom Thread,” which comes out on Christmas, though he doesn’t seem to be quite over the difficult experience of making the movie nor the decision to walk away from the only career he’s known.
“I have great sadness,” he said. “And that’s the right way to feel. How strange would it be if this was just a gleeful step into a brand-new life. I’ve been interested in acting since I was 12 years old, and back then, everything other than the theater—that box of light—was cast in shadow. When I began, it was a question of salvation. Now, I want to explore the world in a different way.”