Why Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest.

Updated: Feb 6


Daniel Day-Lewis is a retired actor born in 1957 in London. He started his acting career in theatre and television industry. His background on the theatre stage enabled him to understand acting and preparation for the role in a different way, which contributed to many considering him one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. The English actor is widely recognised by his unique acting style as a method actor. His preparations for his roles and the way he shapeshifts into the character he is portraying is a common topic among many critics and film directors. He began his personal journey with method acting in 1989 with his performance as Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot. (Jackson, 2013). The performance foreshadowed his method acting style, brought him his first Oscar, and deserved acknowledgement in the film industry. The actor proved his skills again in 2007 film There Will Be Blood directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, where he played a miner blinded by wealth and power of money. Day-Lewis’ last received Academy Award was for a film in, which he played Abraham Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg in 2012. The actor’s skills are exceptional, the repertoire of different personalities he can portray is limitless, which has been already stated by many directors and actors who had a pleasure to work with him. He finished his acting career in 2017 owning three Oscars for the Best Actor, making him the only male actor to have so many wins in the category. Daniel Day-Lewis still remained a very humble person, not blinded by his success, with extraordinary knowledge and acting skills. The article will thoroughly examine scenes from the films mentioned above in order to understand the actor’s performance style, his approach to method acting, the way he prepares for his roles, and how others perceive him in his compartment. Later, this article will focus on the way method acting shapes his career and how it affects his image as a star.

Method Acting

Method acting derived from the teachings of a Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski, who primarily, in 1909, named the mentioned acting style as the system. He described the approach as ‘an act of experience’ for an actor. Later, the theatre theorist named his rehearsal process as Method of Physical Action, which has been studied and approached by many actors and practicians around the world. (Milling and Ley (2001, 6))

David Krasner (2000) defines method acting as a “means of training actors as well as a technique for the use of actors in their work on parts.” (4) According to the writer, ‘the Method is an acting technique that stresses truthful behavior in imaginary circumstances. It trains the actor to make demands on the body through the use of stimuli and imagination so that the body responds creatively.’ (5) The method actor supposed to study their character’s life described in the script or a book and experience or learn it on their own. Merge with the portrayed person in order to understand their lifestyle, emotions, attitude and relationships with other characters. Krasner explains that this style of acting only will succeed when the actor embodies the character. Portrayed emotions have to be real, not pretended or combined with the actor’s self-expression or feelings. Such a process enables the performer to fully ‘disappear into the character’ (9). Krasner’s take on describing method acting as a technique was contradicted by Easty (1981) who states that method acting is not a technique that can be taught only, but self-discovered and understood by an actor - ‘Method is only a path, a means of discovering truth and honesty’ a skill to expand and encourage the person horizons of realistic acting. (5) Easty states a crucial perspective on the style, reminding the readers that it’s nothing but a technique, which various actors can use for their own character study and approach. According to the writer, Method has brought the freshness and truthiness to the theatre form allowing the aspiring stars to merge with their craft. (5) Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting style is a crucial representation of the Method. The British actor validates the approach and theory behind method acting in many performances.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance style

Daniel Day-Lewis started his acting career in theatre, where he has been introduced to the Stanislavsky’s Method. The various and unique characters he has been embodying during his career enabled him to explore and develop his method acting style. While working on My Left Foot with the director Jim Sheridan, Day-Lewis decided not to abandon Christy Brown’s disabled character even between the shot scenes. He started his preparations for the role by visiting restaurants and public places on a wheelchair. During the production, he had to be lifted across the lighting cables and carried to the bathroom. (Jackson, 2018). The whole film captures Day-Lewis’ realistic method approach to his acting. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance style can be described by Krasner’s statement – ‘Method leads the actor to create an organic and imaginative performance by experiencing or living through the role.’ (5) The film presents the actor using his left foot to play the vinyl, write, and even paint. All of the paintings showed in the movie has been created by Day-Lewis himself. The limited physique of Christy has been portrayed very realistically and naturally by the British actor. Jim Sheridan who has worked with Daniel Day-Lewis during the production of three of his films (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer) after hearing about actor’s retirement said that ‘I would work with him every time if I could. There's magic with Daniel, no matter what he does. He just has that x-factor. There's never been anyone like him, and there probably never will be’. Daniel Day-Lewis always chooses his roles very carefully, the characters that are unique for him or difficult to understand are the ones he is the most eager to embody. He stated that “playing the part of Christy Brown left me with a sense of setting myself on a course, of trying to achieve something that was utterly out of reach.” (Hirschberg, 2007) Day-Lewis described the role preparation process and acting as something that could not be done, which he admitted to being intrigued by.

Another performance awarded by the Academy Award required Day-Lewis to study a character who is losing his humanity on his path to wealth. There Will Be Blood (2007) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson tells a story of a silver-miner seeking money in the oil drilling business and becoming uncontrollably driven by his increasing power. When asked about his preparation for the role, Day-Lewis answered: ‘I was working on this part for three years, but not in isolation, as Paul and I were in very close touch the whole time. My preference is that that day when someone sticks a tripod in front of you with a camera on the top, it is not day one. It begins way before, with the work before you start filming – and there is no limit to the amount of time that you take to discover a whole life; it could take six months, a year, or a lifetime.’ (Sullivan, 2008) The actor stayed for years on a ranch, stating that it allowed him to have an illusion of isolation, which allowed him to understand his character’s only focus – drilling for oil in search of money and power. According to Wexman (2004), ‘Method-trained actors (…) whose perceived status as social outsiders only enhanced their performances’ immersive approach to physical and psychological realism.’ (64) The actor, when asked about his inspirations for the character, admitted that he did not have any role models. He understood his character’s feelings, mindset, and attitude by trying to understand his world, isolating himself from people and only focusing on power and wealth. Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting style proven to have an effect on his co-workers. In the final scene of the film, the main character Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) expresses all of his guilt and no-longer-existing sense of humanity on his rival Paul Sunday (Paul Dano). Daniel shouts, screams, physically abuses his counterpart, presenting the madness, mania, and paranoia hidden within his mind. The film ends with Plainview killing Sunday with a bowling pin. Paul Dano, while asked about the scene, answered that ‘I didn’t know how big something that was going to come out of him was going to be because he’s so powerful. And I don’t really want to say specific instances. I think you can probably imagine hearing some of the lines from that ending scene on the page but then, you know, the real deal is just a whole [other] level.’ (Wood, 2018) Moreover, the mother of the actor that portrayed Daniel Plainview’s son (HW) after watching Day-Lewis’ performance in Gangs of New York (2002) denied to let her child be near such a monstrous being. (Wood, 2018). Paul Thomas Anderson stated in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel that “you don’t go to work with Daniel Day-Lewis, you go to work with whoever his character is. That’s who you see when you get to work in the morning, and that’s who leaves at night.” He later added that it is very helpful for the director because it is like having ‘your own three-dimensional character living there for you so you just kind of follow him and film him.’ (Jimmy Kimmel Live, 2018) Anderson’s answer ideally describes the director’s perspective on working with a Method actor, who can emerge himself into the person that the director had written on paper before the production stage. Day-Lewis’ way of preparing and understanding the character can be described by Krasner’s statement: “This technique combines work on the role, with an emphasis on researching and experiencing the character’s life, and work on the self, which stresses the actor’s personal investment and commitment to memory, experience, and worldview.” (4)

The last film that this article will examine is Lincoln (2012) Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed American president Abraham Lincoln. It has been widely spoken about Day-Lewis’ preparation for the role. In the Oprah Winfrey interview (2012) with the actor, it was mentioned that he ‘fully emerged himself into the world of Abraham Lincoln. He read over one hundred books, spent countless hours poring over photos and read Lincoln’s word out loud until he was able to capture the president’s distinctive voice.’ Daniel Day-Lewis when asked about the process of discovering the right voice for the president he answered: ‘I begin to hear a voice, not in a supernatural sense, but just like we have an inner eye we have an inner ear as well, and I begin to hear a voice and then if that voice pleases me I then have problem with trying to reproduce it, which is a whole other thing.’ Day-Lewis’ process of embodying the character needs to be exact even when it comes to changing his accent or tone of the voice, which the actor ‘discovers’ on his own, by understanding and studying the role. The actor explains his approach of learning about Abraham Lincoln: “The minute you begin to approach him—and there are vast corridors that have been carved that lead you to an understanding of that man’s life, both through the great riches of his own writing and all the contemporary accounts and biographies—he feels immediately and surprisingly accessible. He draws you closer to him.” (Winter, 2012) The above quote proves how fascinated the actor is by the character’s life he was about to portray. Day-Lewis’ approach to method acting is combining both, the technique, and actor’s own path of understanding the person he is portraying, which was explained as crucial for becoming a Method actor by Easty (1981). The director Steven Spielberg stated that he ‘wouldn’t have made the film’ without Day-Lewis’ contribution. Moreover, he said that working with Day-Lewis was a life-changing experience for him as a director. (Hale, 2013) Spielberg gets to know the real, British accent of the actor after the production, which proves that Daniel Day-Lewis has stayed in character for the whole process of shooting. (Schichter, 2016)

Method Acting Influencing Career and Image

According to Krasner (2000), “Method acting has been the most popular yet controversial form of actor training” (6) He later explains that “Method tends to make actors subservient: you become a character by seeming to disappear inside in an act of personal sacrifice; you don't stand outside the character, as it were, in order to explore yourself and your attitudes” (9) When it comes to Daniel Day-Lewis he completely submerges himself into the character’s he is playing. He pays attention to the clothes his character would wear, the way he would express himself, think about the surrounding world, interact with other characters, or how would he talk. His process of preparation for his roles explains why so many directors like working with him. Many have stated that it is making their work simpler, in addition, they are fascinated by the way Day-Lewis transforms into the characters they created or were inspired by. The actor’s co-workers, such as Emily Watson (The Boxer, 1997) said she ‘found it very demanding because of the way that he works. Our characters had been estranged, hadn’t seen each other for 14 years. It was very tense between them. So Daniel and I didn’t really speak—we agreed not to. He has a sort of electric force about him, and it’s intimidating—but amazing to watch. It really was as it was in the story.’ (Winter, 2012) Actress’ perspective proves how serious Day-Lewis’ method acting style is. Camilla Belle, Day-Lewis’ co-worker at the set of The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) explained her experience of working with the actor: ‘It was more inspiring than anything. By watching him and his preparation, I kind of got into that world as well, trying to be the character instead of just acting like her. Daniel even knew how the character would roll a cigarette. He knew how the character sat down, walked, and everything.’ (Sabo, 2017) Every person that used to work with him states that he does not act, he becomes, and he is the character from the film. The controversy of the Method style can lead an actor to lose their personality. Becoming so immersed by the character’s life, in the process forgetting about their own. Which explains why Daniel Day-Lewis used to take long breaks from acting, in order to get back to his personal life, rest and finally be himself. Very little is known about the actor’s private life, he tends to keep it away from the press. Although, he said to his wife (Rebecca Miller) during his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards Ceremony for his role in Lincoln (2012), that ‘his wife Rebecca has lived with some very strange men’ and that ‘she’s been a perfect companion to all of them’. (Oscars, 2013) Many directors and actors have been stating how Day-Lewis emerges himself into the characters he is playing. Actor’s speech at the Oscars ceremony provides an insight into his wife’s perspective of her husband’s work.


Day-Lewis’ Method style clearly affects his private life in the way that we will not understand or hear about. Daniel Day-Lewis’ star image as one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema along with an incredibly successful career has proven that his approach to the Method has been very rewarding for the actor. Although, as stated above, Day-Lewis insisted on having long breaks in between his acting career, which finally lead to him openly retiring as an actor. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the best actors in the history of cinema. His approach to method acting has been widely spoken and studied in the film industry. Actor’s understanding of the Method style allowed him to fully become the characters he has been playing for many years of his career. His decision to retire from acting can be understood as him having accomplished a successful career and continuing a different goal to pursue his private life. The characters he has been portraying has been diverse and unique in every sense. His approach and preparation have always been precise, thoroughly studied and thought through. Day-Lewis’ acting career can be an example of how the Method can reward and allow the actor to explore and study the character, but at the same time taking away their private life, and sometimes even their own personality and life.

Further reading:

Nick Bramhill, ‘I'd work with Daniel Day-Lewis every time if I could - director Jim Sheridan hopes retired star returns to acting’ in Independent.ie, 23rd August 2018. Available at: https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/movies/movie-news/id-work-with-daniel-day-lewis-every-time-if-i-could-director-jim-sheridan-hopes-retired-star-returns-to-acting-37244432.html (Accessed: 23.05.2020).

Leo Braudy, ‘“No Body’s Perfect”: Method Acting and 50s Culture’, Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXV, Issue no. 1 (Winter 1996), pp. 191-215.

Professor Richard Brown (2014) Daniel Day-Lewis with Prof. Richard Brown. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3YaUiV5LcE (Accessed: 20/03/2020).

Edward Dwight Easty, ‘Why a Method’ in On Method Acting. The Classic Actor's Guide to the Stanislavsky Technique as Practiced at the Actors Studio (New York: Ballantine Books, Random House, 1981), pp. 5-12.

FilMagicians (2017) Gangs of New York - Interview with Martin Scorsese & Daniel Day-Lewis (2002). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AL-LXkJaa1A (Accessed: 19/03/2020).

FilMagicians (2017) There Will Be Blood - Interview with Daniel Day-Lewis & Paul Thomas Anderson (2007). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SFvaootAL8 (Accessed: 19/03/2020).

Edward Hale, ‘Directing Daniel Day-Lewis was a life-changing experience, Spielberg’, in Irish Examiner, 25th January 2013, Available at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/humaninterest/directing-daniel-day-lewis-was-a-life-changing-experience-spielberg-220639.html (Accessed: 23.05.2020).

Lynn Hirschberg, ‘The New Frontier’s Man’ in The New York Times Magazine, 11th November 2007. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/magazine/11daylewis-t2.html (Accessed: 23.05.2020).

Dan Jackson, ‘The Wildest Things Daniel Day-Lewis Has Done to Prepare for Roles’ in Thrillist, 19th January 2018. Available at: https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/daniel-day-lewis-method-acting-stories (Accessed: 23.05.2020).

Laura Jackson, ‘Growing Pains’ in Daniel Day-Lewis: The Biography (London: John Blake Publishing Ltd, 2013).

Jimmy Kimmel Live (2018) ‘Paul Thomas Anderson on Working with Daniel Day-Lewis.’ Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9Cu7Otn9Io (Accessed: 20/03/20).

David Krasner, ‘I hate Strasberg. Method Bashing in the Academy’ in Method Acting Reconsidered. Theory. Practice. Future (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), pp. 3-42.

Oscars (2013), ‘Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor for Lincoln’. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKh_XFJ9TWc (Accessed: 23.05.2020).

OWN (2012) ‘How Daniel Day-Lewis Found Abraham Lincoln's Voice’ | Oprah's Next Chapter | Oprah Winfrey Network. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g9v8y5FvSo (Accessed: 21/03/2020).

Virginia Wright Wexman, ‘Masculinity in Crisis: Method Acting in Hollywood’ in Movie Acting: The Film Reader, ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 127-145.

Jessica Winter, ‘Daniel Day-Lewis: How the Greatest Living Actor Became Lincoln’ in The Time Magazine, Vol. 180, No. 19, November 2012. Available at: https://entertainment.time.com/2012/10/25/daniel-day-lewis-in-lincoln-hail-to-the-chief/ (Accessed: 23.05.2020).

Jennifer M. Wood, ‘15 Surprising Facts About There Will Be Blood’ in Mental Floss, 25th January 2018, Available at: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/526144/15-surprising-facts-about-there-will-be-blood(Accessed: 23.05.2020).

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