AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
DANIEL DAY LEWIS IN INTERVIEW
I BRING YOU FRANKINCENSE
by Harlan Kennedy
The highest flier of all among the new Brits is Daniel Day Lewis. Having already wowed us with his metamorphic talents in My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View, Lewis is about to bow again in two equally diverse starring roles: as a middle-aged Englishman abroad in Pat O'Connor's Stars and Bars and as a Czech neurosurgeon in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
In view of the comments we've passed thus far on the vagaries of pedigree in British acting, one should point out that Lewis' pedigree is probably the most frighteningly august of any actor in film history. His father, Cecil Day Lewis, was the English poet laureate, succeeding such noted versifiers as Tennyson and Masefield: this means he wrote poems for royal occasions and was paid an annual stipend of £40 and a butt of sack (!). And his mother, actress Jill Balcon, was the daughter of British film mogul Sir Michael Balcon, he who launched A. Hitchcock's career (assigning him his first film The Pleasure Garden in 1925) and then went on to found Gainsborough Pictures and later Ealing Studios. Goodness knows what else Sir M. did between breakfast and lunch on the other days in his 80-year life.
Hardly surprising, then, that when Daniel Day Lewis rode up on his motorbike to meet me in Wardour Street – throbbing heart of London's movieland – I first asked him how a man with such a background had failed to miss out on a career as an accountant.
(Scene: A room with a
But the acting bug seized him at an early age. What – I was going to insist on the complete Day Lewis dossier – was the first line he ever spoke onstage? Day Lewis, infectiously good-humored, gives a mock-puzzled frown and examines the ceiling, as if it contains his memory.
"'I bring you frankincense.' I think that was the first line."
I don't think I know it.
"It was – you fool, of course you don't know it, it was the infant-school nativity play," he explains. "I played one of the Three Wise Men." ("Ah. Oh.") "The second part I ever played was as a little black boy in Cry the Beloved Country. I had to sort of dance around, blacked up every night. I covered the sheets in my dormitory with black body paint, which thrilled me enormously [laughter]!
"When I was eleven or twelve," he continues, "I was of a mind to go into the theater, but I didn't start doing serious plays – written plays – until I was 13 or 14. Winter's Tale was my first proper play. I played Florizel, ironically, which my father had played in his youth.
"But really the only difference now between me and people who don't work in the theater is – I just didn't stop. Everyone does it until a certain age, and then they think, or they're encouraged by grownups to believe, that perhaps they should do something else. But no one ever said to me, `This is a bad idea.' So I just carried on."
His carrying-on took him to the
"One wasn't allowed near a stage for the first year or so. We were like over-trained greyhounds straining in the slips. We worked on scenes from The Cherry Orchard or Romeo and Juliet, but we never did whole plays. Then, in the second year, a group of eight people would `devise' plays, and work on improvisation. It was a time of great freedom. One could explore in depth areas that had been kept from one in the first year. I think probably my love of theater, as distinct from cinema, has very much to do with particular ways of working with people. Working on film, you do sometimes achieve a kind of fusion, but it's much rarer. With the theater you have no option but to trust the other actors around you. So for me it was a good time, especially as I'd never really liked groups; it was a kind of battle I had to fight within myself to get into working with them."
The spoils of victory for Day Lewis soon included:
§His First West End Theater Role: "I took over from Rupert [
§His First International Movie Role: "I flew out to
§His First Work for a Famous Theater Company: "When I
came back from
§His First Major Role to Get His Teeth Into: "I did Dracula at the Half Moon Theatre."
§And His First Television Work: "Nothing I'd want to talk about."
Oh, go on.
Oh, well no. But on the plus side there was Richard Eyre's The Insurance Man, written by Alan Bennett. I enjoyed that. But one has to be very careful about TV.
"Because the system doesn't let one work in the way
one wants to work. Even in
But there are advantages and creative freedoms too, aren't there, in lowbudget films: ones you could never get with a mega-buster?
There's no formula for making good films, and it's certainly true that overfinanced movies can run into problems. Everyone worries, everyone becomes suspicious, people become much more isolated. Try and fuse a group of 150 people together on a unit as opposed to a group of 30, and it's very clear why it happens. But again, it depends on the director. I try to work with directors who share my ideas. And in sharing those ideas I feel they can trust me to do the work I want to do.
"By the way," he leaps in, just as I'm consulting my next question, "it sounds now as if I choose directors. It's not like that, you know. But at the same time I always have the right to say no, and I've exercised that right from the day I first signed on the dole."
So what exactly constitutes this "sharing of ideas" he finds with the best directors? With Frears, for instance.
"Some people make you feel a part of the whole process. I actually sat in the cutting room for three weeks when we'd finished filming Laundrette, usually you just come on, do your bit, and then off you go: it's someone else's job to put the pieces together."
Is that how you worked with James Ivory?
No. No. He's not as cynical as that. But he does employ people because he assumes they know what to do. When you move onto a film set, the possibilities are limitless. Some directors have already decided what they want for a scene, and they'll say, `This is where I want the cameras to be, that's where I'd like the actors.' Some may pretend they haven't decided, but they'll manipulate the discussion so that you do what they want you to do anyway. Still others will come onto the set with no preconceptions at all. Now obviously, to me the most attractive of these three possibilities is the last. Because when things are going all right, I have an imagination, and if I can't use it I might as well not be there.
Also, the actor's job is often to confound the director's idea. It sets up a bit of combat, it creates a spark.
I know it sounds as if I'm banging on about control. But I'm seeing it from an actor's viewpoint. I've never yet worked with a director who's told me what to do, except when I've obviously needed help. Sometimes the imagination just takes a break, and you think `Christ': you see a table and you see chairs, you have a script in your hand, and you don't know what the fuck to do with it at all. It's just a mess, and you can't stitch it all together. How can a director have the imagination always to see how a scene is structured? Everyone – every actor – goes through periods when there's just blackness and that has to be colored in somehow. But all the directors I've worked with have not just allowed one's imagination to work but have also actively encouraged it.
James Ivory employs actors he believes have something to offer to those parts. If he felt one was stepping too far away from the character as he saw it, then of course he'd say something."
Acting – as the whiskery adage goes – has as much to do with reaction as action. And for many the most memorable moment in A Room with a View was the shock-horror comeuppance of Cecil Vyse: the look of horror, complete with tumbling pince-nez, with which Day Lewis' Cecil greets Lucy's breaking-off of their engagement.
"That's a film moment, but I have to say it's also [E.M.] Forster's. It's described in the book, and part of my love for the character was Forster's vision of the way he coped with that situation. That's very much about a person playing a part all his life and then being forced to look at himself. In a sense, it could apply to anyone: very rarely do we have a perception of ourselves that coincides with other people's perception. And if we're suddenly forced to see ourselves as others see us, it can be tremendously shocking. It can be very funny and very sad – both things.
But that was in Forster, as I say, as well as the script. Of course it's true that one has to fill in a lot more with most film scripts – but that's often the beauty of them. They don't tell you what to do. The best screenplays I've read have been the most laconic. It's like poetry: if someone knows how to use very few words, it's far more effective than someone who uses a great many more to say far less.
Talking of Cecil's moment of truth – and horror – when he sees himself through other's eyes, how did you feel about seeing yourself on the screen?
"It's not easy. The reason Laundrette was the least difficult film I've done was because of working all those weeks in the cutting room. By the time the first rough cut was ready, I was so bored with seeing myself onscreen that I forgot about it. It ceased to be painful. And in the end I learned a lot through watching the editing process. About how I might have helped – and didn't help [laughs] – in the shooting. That was something Stephen was wonderful about. It was virtually my first film, and it was frustrating for him to work with someone who obviously wasn't stupid but who couldn't understand why he was filming it from this or that angle, why he needed an actor to walk this way rather than that. I couldn't stand disappointing him, and I wanted to understand all the time. And I think when I sat in the cutting room, that was the moment when I thought, `That's why! That's why!' "
From being part of the jigsaw in Frears' and Ivory's films – and playing a don't-blink cameo in Conny Templeman's Nanou ("I didn't stay long, what quick eyes you have") – Day Lewis moves toward stardom with the aptly titled Stars and Bars.
"I went to do a screen test for Stars and Bars thinking that I wouldn't get the part: that I was too young, that there were other people who were much more appropriate. And that probably brought me a kind of freedom I wouldn't otherwise have had. A gay abandon! [Laughter.] The guy I play – an Englishman who's deeply strangulated by life and who goes to America thinking it will somehow liberate him – is an older character, in the gradual disintegration of later life. I don't know how the hell I ended up doing it. But Pat [O'Connor] must have seen something."
Day Lewis is now hitting the starry zone where films can be made or broken on his appeal and his performance. He's also someone who's shuttled extensively between plays and movies. So which is worse: waiting for the verdict to come in on a theater first night or on a movie first night?
"Well, the thing about a film first night is that it may be painful, but you can afford to be crippled by it. The thing about a theater first night is that the fear [nervous, self-mocking giggle] – the terror! [more nervous, self-mocking giggle] – that inhabits you is there before you walk onstage. It's going to live with you for the next two and a half hours, so you'd better use it if you're not going to be crippled by it. And it can cripple you. People have likened it to the effect of a major road accident, in terms of the adrenalin that hits you.
"You know pretty well in the theater by first night whether what you've done is ready to be seen. If it isn't ready in the cinema, well then you've blown it. It's never going to be different. Onstage the worst fear of all is the fear that comes from the knowledge that you haven't done the necessary work. For whatever reason."
What about long runs in the theater – like your eight-month stint on Another Country? Doesn't the adrenalin drop? How do you jack it up?
"Well, that looks after itself. Because you suddenly walk out onstage after four months and realize you don't have a line in your head. That gets you going like nothing. You live in fear for the next fortnight, craving some degree of certainty about anything. You know, one's acquaintance with a particular chair onstage – anything. And then it all goes back to normal.
"It's the same as six months on a film. Your moods change. People say, `Use it, use it.' But you can't always. Sometimes your mood, your metabolism is totally against it. In the theater there are nights when you just see no reasons to give that performance. And you go on feeling like a fucking hypocrite, because you're giving it anyway and you feel, well, it'd be more honest to stand and say to the audience, `I can't do it tonight.' Because you know you won't give them the performance you'd like to give."
Are some kinds of acting easier to do than others? Is comedy easier than drama?
"I don't think you can separate them, at least as far as the character is concerned. The audience can afford to make that distinction, the actor can't. Often within the humor of a character you find their tragedy, and vice versa. The two things go hand in hand. The performances I appreciate most onscreen are the ones that don't try and limit human experience to one way of being."
Cue for the interviewer to prod him into naming his favorite actors.
"Montgomery Clift ..., " Day Lewis began. "Everyone has been influenced by Brando; fewer people have been influenced by Clift. But for me he was an extraordinary actor. Not because he covered a big range, but because he was different. Different in the way Ralph Richardson was different from John Gielgud. There's no comparison between Richardson and Clift in style, but I do believe that each had his own way of seeing things. Clift contained within him, a vision of some kind, which I found absolutely riveting. It separates him from his contemporaries. While they were superb in their moods, their changes, their violence of sensuality, Clift had a spiritual quality of some kind."
Clift never played a middle-aged Czech neurosurgeon as in Phil Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What kind of character is this?
"Tomas? It's so difficult. When you describe a character, you tend
to restrict, constrict the life of that person. But if I were to give a
simple outline, I'd say: He's a neurosurgeon living in
"If the film has a central theme, it's about the problem of love. Tomas' life is thrown into total disarray when he involuntarily falls in love. But that's just one of the themes. The book is an immensely complicated philosophical novel. It's about love, and it's also about the Parmenides paradox: the philosophy of `lightness' versus `weight.' Which does one search for, the lightness of being, or the heaviness of being, represented by love, by the emotional commitments that root one to earth? And then there is the theory of eternal return. Human beings are constantly making decisions blindly, making the same mistakes from generation to generation, which then affect the rest of their lives and ensuing history."
How did a new British actor get the part?
"Well, Phil Kaufman was in
"Then I read the book before I saw a script, thought the book was quite extraordinary and quite unfilmable. Then I read the script, and it took me a long time to adjust in my mind to the possibility of the film as opposed to the novel. Because they're quite different pieces of work. I had to decide that it was something that could be done and that I could do it.
"Although we got on well, Phil [Kaufman] had to discover that I'm not always smiling. And I had to discover that during the course of six months, you live in a kind of accelerated time. You live a whole life in miniature: the film has a life of its own, and the story of that film is a life, shared by a group of people brought together specifically for that experience. In a film that lasts six to eight weeks, you can pace yourself – the end is always in sight. When you go back, you remember what life is like, you remember how the oven works. But six months is different, and I reached perhaps the lowest ebb I've ever reached.
"It seems to me that the process of making a film is a process that takes away from you all the time. At its best, the theater provides a kind of nourishment, and I haven't found that to be true with filmmaking. I've felt shrunken by the experience. What you give, constantly, is not returned in any form, not sufficiently anyway. And you have to find some time to yourself, to find some reason for carrying on.
"Obviously the lack of a live audience response has an enormous amount to do with it. But it also has to do with the isolation of filmmaking. You feel involuntarily more isolated working at the center of a film where you're in if not every scene, then the vast majority of them. You know you are carrying the burden of that film. It may be good despite you, but it still needs you at its center, and you have to fight the awareness of that all the time. If you're conscious of it during the working day, it can just pull you to pieces. By contrast, in the theater, if you're at the center of a play, you are nourished by working with those other people. It's a trust. And it's a very precarious thing: it can be snapped at any moment. But if it survives, it's a wonderful thing. Wonderful."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 1988 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.