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At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday, a theater full of people got to know a little bit more about the man behind such amazing film characters as There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, My Left Foot‘s Christy Brown, Gangs of New York‘s Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Lincoln‘s Abraham Lincoln.
In a nearly two-hour Q&A session with The Hollywood Reporter’s awards analyst Scott Feinberg, Daniel Day-Lewis looked back on his most memorable work and explained his decision to wait several years between projects.
The two-time Oscar winner (and nominee once again this year for his leading role in Lincoln) appeared at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 26, to receive the fest’s Montecito Award, which recognizes “a performer who has given a series of classic and standout performances throughout his/her career.” After being introduced by his Last of the Mohicans director Michael Mann, Day-Lewis took the stage to engage in a sweeping discussion of his career
Day-Lewis started out by discussing his upbringing in London in a home full of creatives, being the son of actress Jill Balcon and Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis went to both public school and boarding school, enjoying the former much more than the latter.
“I grew up in a class-driven society,” said Day-Lewis. “It still is. The demarcation lines have become a little more obscure, but they’re still there.”
While attending the boarding school Sevenoaks in Kent (which he did not enjoy), he was part of a play called Cry the Beloved Country.
“What delighted me what the discovery that there was an alternative universe. And that’s what the theater is — it’s an alternative,” he said.
Feinberg asked if Day-Lewis felt that his life changed after My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View came out, showing the world that Day-Lewis could play two characters who couldn’t be more different.
“I think things changed without me being fully aware of it,” he said, adding that it was luck that they opened up the same day in New York.
“And therefore as a result of that, I think people started to take an interest,” he said.
Feinberg commented that most of Day-Lewis’ film work has been in projects set in an earlier time. He asked the Lincoln star if that was on purpose.
“It certainly was never my intention to kind of claw my way through one century after another,” he said, getting laughs for the crowd. “I hope that I might eventually emerge in the 21st century. I’ve still got a long way to go.”
“I’ve no idea how that happened. It wouldn’t have been my intention,” he added. “In fact, most of the performances that have influenced me have been contemporary performances, so I can’t account for that except I think it has something to do with my nose.”
When Feinberg asked him to elaborate on that, Day-Lewis said, “Well, until I got it broke doing The Boxer, it was just a nose that people like to throw a cloak over. But that accounts for most of my mistaken forays into Shakespeare. I have the look of someone who ought to really exist in another time.”
Day-Lewis also touched on the gaps between his performances. There have been several instances in his career where he would wait years to work on another project.
“There’s no thought process behind it, but there’s a very strong sense, which I think I’ve been blessed with from an early age, of my own rhythm,” he said.
He said he’s often asked about this by journalists because from their point of view they see a pattern of public presence and then “what they consider to be a reclusive need to withdraw from that.”
“But from my point of view, these two things are mutually dependent on each other,” he said. “I cannot do the work I love to do unless I take time away from it. In the time taken away from it when — god forbid — I reengage with life, it allows me to do the work in hopes that I might bring something to that work.”
After The Boxer, Day-Lewis took five years off from acting in what he called a “semi-retirement.” Feinberg asked what specifically brought him back to acting.
“Martin,” he said, referring to Scorsese, who directed Gangs of New York. “I didn’t feel ready to work, but as he told me the story, I knew I had no choice, really.”
He met with Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and knew that he had to take the part.
“No one’s ever had to sell it to me,” he said. “Anyone that’s ever had something of value, doesn’t have to sell it. I’d say it’s true of everything I’ve ever done. These directors that have given me these incredible opportunities, they’ve never tried to sell them to me; they didn’t need to.”
At the end of the Q&A, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln co-star, Sally Field, presented Day-Lewis with his award.
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