The Actor’s Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor of his generation, the only man to win three Best Actor Oscars. Whether it is playing an artist with cerebral palsy or the President of the USA his performances and creative flexibility have been staggering. James Orrick finds out more about the ultimate actor’s actor.

Despite formal training and years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Bristol Old Vic, Sir Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis is a ‘method actor’. The three-time Oscar winner’s preparation for roles is legendary.

In 1987 he starred in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as a Czech surgeon. In preparation, he learned Czech and refused to break character on or off the set for the entire shooting schedule, a habit that would stay with him for much of his career.

He won his first Oscar in 1989 for My Left Foot playing the Irish writer and painter Christie Brown who was born with cerebral palsy. Day-Lewis insisted on being moved around the set in his wheelchair and reluctant crewmembers were required to lift him over camera and lighting wires and spoon-feed him his food every day.

In 1992, three years after his Oscar win, The Last of the Mohicans was released. Day-Lewis reportedly underwent rigorous weight training and learned to live off the land and forest where his character lived, camping, hunting and fishing. He learned how to skin animals, make canoes and he carried a long rifle at all times to remain in character.

Stories of Day-Lewis’s immersion in roles are legendary because he is a method actor. Some have described this as a form of acting where the performer mystically ‘becomes’ the character or tries to live the character in life.

Lee Strasberg, the greatest modern teacher of this art, defined it as: ‘…what all actors have always done whenever they’ve acted well.’

This idea was first called the ‘System’ by Konstantin Stanislavsky, and developed by Strasberg at the Actors Studio, where actors were trained to “use their imagination, senses and emotions to conceive characters with unique and original behaviour, creating performances grounded in the human truth of the moment”.

Playing Gerry Conlon in The Name of the Father, Day-Lewis lived on prison rations to lose 30 pounds, spent extended periods in the jail cell on set, went without sleep for two days, was interrogated for three days by real policemen, and asked that the crew hurl abuse and cold water at him. He kept his Northern Irish accent on and off the set for the entire shooting schedule.

To prepare for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence he wore 1870s period aristocratic clothing around New York City for two months, including top hat, cane and cape.

After a five-year absence from filming, Day-Lewis returned to act in Gangs of New York (2002). He played the villainous gang leader William ‘Bill the Butcher’ and began his lengthy, self-disciplined process by hiring a butcher from Peckham to instruct him in carving up carcasses. He also hired circus performers to teach him to throw knives. Again he was never out of character between takes keeping his character’s New York accent. His performance earned him his third Academy Award nomination and won him his second BAFTA.

In 2007, Day-Lewis starred in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! titled There Will Be Blood. In winning the Best Actor Oscar, Day-Lewis joined Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson as the only Best Actor winners awarded an Oscar in two non-consecutive decades.

For many people, his greatest role was that of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln from 2012. Day-Lewis spent a year in preparation for the role, reading over 100 books on Lincoln, and worked many months with the makeup artist to achieve an amazing physical likeness.

Following his historic third Oscar win, there was much debate about Day-Lewis’s standing among the greatest actors in the history of cinema. Joe Queenan in The Guardian stated, “Arguing whether Daniel Day-Lewis is a greater actor than Laurence Olivier, or Richard Burton, or Marlon Brando, is like arguing whether Messi is more talented than Pelé, whether Napoleon Bonaparte edges out Alexander the Great as a military genius.”

In June 2017 Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting.

None of us at PEA have ever won an Academy Award, lived on prison rations or learned to throw knives. But we do understand that sometimes you must make sacrifices to achieve perfection. We know that you have to make investments in planning and preparation and be ready for whatever life throws at you.

At PEA we are all experts in strategic adaptability. This is the ability to react effectively when business and environmental factors change unexpectedly. Many companies do a good job planning how to operate when things work out as expected. Companies that survive in the long run and continue to offer real value to their clients plan for flexibility in response to the unexpected.

So, to paraphrase Konstantin Stanislavsky, here at PEA we may not have learned to skin animals or carve out canoes but we “use our imagination, senses and emotions to create solutions to future problems grounded in the human truth of the moment.” Furthermore, we have absolutely no plans to retire!


James OrrickJames Orrick holds a Masters in Corporate Governance from Bournemouth University, a BSc (Hons) in Accounting and Finance from the University of Essex, is a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators.

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