Icons / August 2016

Method in the Madness: Sir Daniel Day-Lewis

As our month’s coverage of eminent, experienced gentlemen draws to a close, we celebrate acting’s greatest craftsman, Daniel Day-Lewis.

A dandy dresser, an iconoclast, an aficionado of craftsmanship, an uncompromising individual who plays by his own rules, refusing to accept anything but the best — so particular, so choosy, that he’s made a scant 16 movies in the past 30 years. There are few actors working today who, in their work and life, are as in step with the major philosophical touchstones of The Rake as Sir Daniel Day-Lewis.

The son of poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and actress Jill Balcon, Daniel Day-Lewis was born to a life of the mind — though not one of enormous privilege, his father’s occupation hardly being the most lucrative of professions. He first honed the skills of mimicry that are an actor’s stock-in-trade growing up in Greenwich, London, where he was bullied for his apparent poshness, reacting by adopting the mannerisms and accent of his scrappy peers, as well as certain of their destructive, petty criminal habits.

“I was a savage for so many years of my life,” Day-Lewis said. “I broke things to get attention.” Nevertheless, the duality of his youth had its upsides for the future performer. “One of the great privileges of having grown up in a middle-class literary English household, but having gone to school in the front lines in Southeast London, was that I became half street-urchin and half good-boy at home. I knew that dichotomy was possible.”

"I became half street-urchin and half good-boy at home. I knew that dichotomy was possible.”

Naturally intelligent, well-bred, erudite, a bit naughty, a chameleon changing his image to suit the setting — so far, so rakish.

The rebellious lad was soon packed off by his exasperated parents to board at the exclusive, selective Sevenoaks School (one of Britain’s costliest institutes of learning) where he inevitably rebelled, moving after a couple of years to the more creatively focused Bedales, at which point his nascent interest in acting took hold. His first role, a bit part in the movie Sunday Bloody Sunday at age 14, allowed Day-Lewis to indulge both thespian and tear-away tendencies — he was paid to vandalise a series of cars on camera. (“Heaven,” he called it.)

After graduating, said Day-Lewis, “For about a year, I just didn't know what to do. I did laboring jobs, working in the docks, construction sites.” A career in woodworking strongly appealed for a time, but Day-Lewis came to realise that “If you have a certain wildness of spirit, a cabinet-maker's workshop is not the place to express it.” So it was that he settled on his other keen interest, acting. “At a certain age it just became apparent to me that this was probably the work that I would have to do,” he said. “When I did make the decision to focus on acting, I think my mother was just relieved for me that I had finally started to focus.”

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.