He is smart, erudite, uncannily eloquent, at times self-effacing, slightly obsessive, polite and humble. And, perhaps, all these are the reason why Daniel Day-Lewis, 55, can be considered the best actor of his generation and a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It seems almost surreal that Steven Spielberg considered anyone else to play Abraham Lincoln (which he did, as Liam Neeson was the first choice). Only at first glance Daniel Day-Lewis does not fit the bill. His fashionably faded outfit—dark jeans, chequered shirt plus T-shirt—seems to belong to a regular workman. Then again, who knows the actual soul of this man? Excerpts from an interview:
Do you feel changed by the respective roles that you play?
Undoubtedly one is [changed]. But I wouldn't ever attempt to say in what precise way. Who couldn't wish to be changed by the experience of playing Abraham Lincoln? You can only benefit from that. With other characters you wouldn't necessarily benefit.
Can you talk about the physical preparation? Did you lose a lot of weight? Was that your beard?
It was all me. Just me. And a rather remarkable make-up department.
The whole thing of losing and gaining weight is finally so unimportant. There has been this tendency over the last 15 years ever since [Robert] De Niro did Raging Bull, which should have been the first and last word on the subject of weight change performance. Performances have been measured by the pound since then. As if you can claim some kind of kudos. It's part of the job like anything else. You need to lose weight—you lose it. You need to gain it—you gain it. It's not really interesting.
Evidently Abraham Lincoln has been a very lean man. I am naturally lean, but I starved myself for a while.
How did you find his voice?
I wanted to find whatever I could that felt right. You never know what people will pick up on in any given piece of work. But it seems like his voice was something that aroused interest.
For me, it was just a part of the period of time during which I had to try to discover a life in its entirety. And I never dismember the life of a character. Least of all if it's a character that has been a living being as in this case. That wouldn't work for me.
So you don't focus on specific aspects of a role?
For me, I have to create an illusion for myself first, in the hope that then I may create it for you. To do that, I have to kid myself into feeling that all these decisions take care of themselves.
It's not that some part of me is searching for that voice. I wouldn't even think to try and find it or look for it until I am some way into that process. The voice is a very deep personal reflection of any character. It's not something that can be just reached for like reaching for a jar of cookies on the shelf.
My tendency is to try to absorb as much as I can over a period of time. Luckily for me, there were no contemporary recordings of Lincoln. So nobody can say that categorically I don't sound like him. There are many contemporary references to him having a voice that was in a surprisingly high register.
If I am lucky at any given moment, I begin to hear a voice when I am working. This is generally the way I do it. If I live with that interior voice for a while and if it pleases me, I then try to reproduce it, which is another set of problems.
I suppose somehow that work is technical, but I need to believe it isn't. For things to happen the way I need them to, I have to believe there is some mysterious ingredient, which I choose not to identify. If I felt it was all about nuts and bolts, putting these pieces together and then you put the key in the ignition and off you go, I wouldn't be able to do the work. Work wouldn't interest me anymore.
Is this why you have a long hiatus between your movies and don't do films back to back?
Some [actors] don't because they have to. And I completely respect that. If one day, financially, I find that my family would need me to do so, I'd find some way of doing it. But thank God, I have not been put in that position.
That would make me uneasy. Truth is I'd probably go and find work in a construction crew than make films back to back. Because it would completely destroy my enthusiasm for that work. I work in terms of my rhythm.
The creative impulse is a selfish impulse. It's one that has to be recognised as a very personal thing. And if you listen to that, the chances are that you work in the way you need to. But if you try to listen to somebody else's idea of what you should do, then the chances are you'll go astray.
You said you felt very alone for the most time of Lincoln....
I had to qualify that by saying that that aloneness was one of the gifts that Steven allowed me. The experience I imagine of being the leader of the free world at any time is a very lonely thing, and being the leader of the free world during a civil war is unimaginably lonely. So my job was to imagine that.
Are you in your role when you communicate with your family during a shoot?
I found a balance. It's a game that I love to play. But there are limits. When I did not have a family and even when my children were very young and didn't know the difference, it was irrelevant to what extent I existed in that world that I created for myself. But it makes a difference now. So I am not a crazy person. I am not.
Is it true that you lost your temper with the airplanes flying over the set?
No, I don't think so. Obviously you are surrounded by the clutter of the modern world. You'd have to be stark raving mad to deny the existence of all of that. And in England they tend to believe that's what I am.
Yes, a certain [part] of your energy is needed to close off the peripheral vision, the awareness of those things that are not connected to the world that you are creating. The more you can create that sense of illusion for yourself and those around you, the better chance you have then of presenting a believable world to the people who watch the film later on.
How familiar were you with Abraham Lincoln's biography before the film?
Nothing. We gave ourselves a year to get ready for the film. And I didn't stop reading during that year, but the quality of the reading changed.
There is an invisible line drawn somewhere in the sand. You don't know when you have crossed it until you have. But the objective works in learning about that world, the larger world of the society, the smaller world of the capital, the even smaller world of the political system. The generation before is important, because you always inherit the problems that they failed to solve.
But after one has crossed that line, then the reading is entirely different, and for me the substance in all that reading for the last few months was all Lincoln's writing. Because everything is in there. His letters, his speeches, his memos, his meditations. And it's just glorious. All of it.
Can I ask you where you keep your two Oscars?
You can, but I won't answer.