What Can We Learn From Daniel Day-Lewis Acting Style?
Daniel Day-Lewis is a phenomenal actor. Now retired! But his performances will live for ever. There are hundreds of myths about his style of acting. I myself like to call it Daniel Day-Lewis Acting Style.
Whatever is known about his acting is through his co-actors, directors, and others who worked with him. These sometimes unreliable sources have constantly fed the myths.
Daniel never talks about his acting method in interviews. Well, the number of interviews he does are too very few.
I am a big fan and have always followed his work closely. But I was never able to draw out a blueprint of his method of acting.
Through this post, it’s my humble attempt to understand and find a method out of this Daniel Day-Lewis acting style.
What can we learn from the type of scripts he chooses?
When we look at his filmography, every character he has ever played is unique and engulfs you with its realism. In addition, the character themselves have more to offer or meaty.
However, I have to say Daniel Day-Lewis is adamant chooser when it comes to choosing a script. Because of this reason often, there are years of gap between his films.
“I have quite a strong feeling about when I should work and when I shouldn’t. There were, of course, offers of work. He was touted for roles in Philadelphia, The Lord of the Rings and Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Solaris. But Day-Lewis wasn’t looking for suitable scripts. He says that he would have waited another 10 years to find the right acting vehicle.”—The Guardian
Yes, when you are starting out you don’t have options for choosing scripts. And yes the financial struggle of actors, never allow passing any jobs because you don’t like the roles you are offered.
The that has to be learned is that you need an interesting character that attracts you!
What do you do when you don’t like them?
The answer to that is simple, make them interesting for yourself. Add something, quirks or beliefs to the character that would make you see the character in an interesting way.
You will have to make the character interesting for yourself until you are in a position to choose scripts.
How does he prep for a role?
At beginning of your career, you might not have the option to choose scripts. But once you win a gig, how do prep like Daniel Day-Lewis?
This is what intrigued me the most about Daniel Day-Lewis acting style.
When you hear or read the stories, how he goes to great lengths to get into the character, and then wins Oscars for those characters, makes you wonder as an actor, what if I could use his method?
Now let’s see what we can learn from Daniel Day-Lewis acting style:
#1 Learning the job of the character
Everyone knows his love for woodwork. He brings the same work ethics to his characters. He learns the jobs of his character to the point where he is proficient.
For the role of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (2002), he learned how to butcher animals.
For the role of Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989), he learned how to use left foot for his daily routine.
For the role of Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), he learned to make a canoe.
For the role of Danny Flynn in The Boxer (1997), he learned boxing.
The list goes on and on.
If you see the kinds of skills he learned for his roles, those are not normal skills. These skills take months and years to master.
The big reason behind learning these skills was getting to know the psyche of the character.
I am no expert in psychology but from what I have known and experienced, what kind of job people do shows in their psyche. The only way to know that psyche is by being in their shows.
This method of Daniel Day-Lewis reminds me of one of the characters that I played on stage.
The character was a bookseller. And director advised me to find a real books seller in my locality and spend some time with him.
So, spend 4 hours for 15 days with a bookseller asking him weird questions about his life and his business. Initially, he was awkward. But after a few days, he got used to me.
I never told him I was an actor. I bought books regularly form him. I told him I wish to open a bookstore like him and very much like to know the business.
To cut the story short, the more I knew the kind of work the bookseller did, more I knew the psyche him.
Added the same psyche and work ethic to the character on the stage, and received positive reviews.
I would advise making an extra effort to learn more about the job of your character in order to get more closer to the character.
#2 Physically creating the character
Another thing that impresses me about Daniel Day-Lewis acting style is the physicality of the character.
Every character he played had different physicality.
Physicality includes, how the character walks, how the character stands, and the gestures he or she uses.
The best example of physicality is the character of Abraham Lincoln he played in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
You will observe the kind of walk he has as Lincoln, and then way stands or seats. Most unusual for me was the head position. It always stayed at the same angle.
All this type of physicality only comes when you practice it for a long time.
In the case of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis did spend a lot of time studying the biography of Abraham Lincoln and studied various photos of the great man, to get the physicality right.
“I looked at them the way you sometimes look at your own reflection in a mirror and wonder who that person is looking back at you,” he said. –New York Times.
This method of Daniel Day-Lewis reminds of something that Stanislavski used to teach.
According to Stanislavski, the character is like a baby, that needs to be taught how to walk, talk and behave.
So, the big lesson for us to learn here is that we need to find the right physicality of the character. Teach yourself a new walk, new way to stand and seat. Learn new gestures that suit your character.
Spend a good amount of time, refining it. So, when you look into a mirror, you should see a someone else and not you.
#3 Finding the voice of the character
Recently, I have realized that the voice of a character is really important. Giving right voice to the character is important as wearing a right costume.
As we discussed above, how your character should move or behave, the same goes for the voice.
Daniel Day-Lewis is a master when it comes to giving voices to his character. Just look at his character of Christy Brown from My Left Foot.
The character was short of challenged when it came to talking. So the way he was supposed to deliver the dialogues was unconventional. It seemed he didn’t care if the words were not clear. Because that’s how his character was supposed to be.
Another great example of giving a unique voice to the character was Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. For this character, the voice was soft and words came very slowly.
This really suited the character of Abraham Lincoln. Because Abraham Lincoln was a politician and leader.
A politician is supposed to have good command over the language. So that they can convey their ideas more clearly to their audience.
Watch this video on how Daniel Day-Lewis found the voice of Abraham Lincoln.
This video is like the gold dust of acting tip. He practiced Abraham Lincoln’s voice by speaking his speeches out loud.
Do the same thing with your character. Try different voices for your character. Speak the dialogues from the scripts. And see which suits your character.
Make sure you record it with a good camera so that you can review it.
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#4 Living the character
Now you have the skills, physicality, and voice of your character. Its to live the character.
For me, this is the hardest part. You could live the character only if you have complete faith and belief.
Let me explain faith and belief for a second. The story of the character is imaginative. All the elements that make the character like costume, voice, body language and the relationship with other characters, are too imaginative. In order to be that character, you need to have 100% faith and belief in these elements.
If beliefs are shaky on those elements, living the part would become difficult.
I think that’s way Daniel Day-Lewis’ process of creating a character is long and require total submission. He spends months and years to develop this faith and belief.
Once he takes a character, he tries to live the character for most of the day. Even on the sets, he is the character.
Directors of his films, address him by the name of his character. On the sets of Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg and his crew used to address him, Mr. President.
I think its simple, once you understand the psyche of the character and build the right physicality and the voice, all you have to do is try to live it.
On the first day, you be able to live it for 1-2 minutes, next day 5 minutes, after that 10 minutes and so on.
As you spend days and months living the character, you will become the character. Thoughts and behavior will of your characters.
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What does he do on shoot day?
Once all the homework and prep is done. Next question comes to me is that how does he conduct himself on the shooting day.
As we know he tries to be the character even between the shots. How the director or crew interact with him?
On actual movie sets, there is a lot of that an actor has to understand and follow beyond acting. An actor has to remember his marks, he has to be aware of the camera, lighting, and sound.
You might think any director would find it hard to communicate with an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. But it was another way around!
Directors who worked with him admitted that it was easy to communicate with character rather than real Daniel Day-Lewis.
The biggest plus of being a character like Daniel does is that directors can see the character living and breathing in front of them.
Yes being aware of what goes around in the set is also important but as you mature as a professional actor, those things become natural to an actor.
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