Ethics of Daniel Day Lewis

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Often times, actors struggle when attempting to “create a character.” Within the acting world some people simply act as versions of themselves and basically repeat the same performances over and over. But some actors marvelously and almost miraculously create deep, multifaceted, complex characters that seem nothing like themselves. As an actor myself, I often think about the aesthetic and ethical frameworks of actors I admire and how it pertains to the creation of their characters. Throughout the course of this paper, I will show how Daniel Day-Lewis’ ethical and aesthetic framework revolves around his characters by (i) compiling and analyzing self-proclaimed explanations throughout multiple interviews and (ii) analyzing Lewis’ existing filmography, particularly his most recent role as the titular character in Lincoln.

Defining another person’s ethical and aesthetic stance is always difficult, especially an actor as high profile as Daniel Day-Lewis. Often, when a person develops their ethical framework, it revolves around their religious upbringing. However, Lewis’ story is different. During a 2002 interview with the now-defunct Index Magazine, Lewis stated, even though he was raised Catholic, he is a “die-hard agnostic.” Regarding his childhood upbringing he stated, “I certainly prayed from time to time, but it was not something that I was brought up to do. We prayed at school, but I had no real religious education.” (Myles). Instead of centering his ethical framework on religion, Lewis seems to determine which roles he accepts by focusing on the character. In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Lewis stated, “ When I’m drawn to something, I take a resolute step backward, and I ask myself if I can really serve this story as well as it needs to be served. If I don’t think I can do that, no matter how appealing, I will decline. What finally takes over, what took over with (There Will Be Blood), is an illusion of inevitability” (Hirschberg 1). In other words, Lewis’s main ethical concern is whether or not he can portray the character in the way it needs to be portrayed.

Lewis’s aesthetic framework, however, is as difficult to describe as it is unique to his person. During a publicity interview for Gangs of New York, New York times journalist Sarah Lyall described Lewis as an actor who does not play himself or who is himself uninteresting; “Some off-duty actors seem affectless and insubstantial, as if they come alive only through their characters; others seem barely distinguishable from their on-screen personas, as if they are capable only of performing variations on a single theme. Mr. Day-Lewis’s own forceful personality suggests none of the characters he has played…he may be an actor who loses himself in his roles to the point of self-obliteration, but in person he makes it seem that his profession is almost beside the point” (2). In the past 10 years Lewis has committed himself to only five films, which is understandable considering the extraordinary amounts of preparation time Lewis utilizes to immerse himself in his characters. While preparing for Gangs of New York, Lewis worked in a butcher shop, learned how to throw knives, and “immersed himself in the literature and vernacular of the time” to obtain the appropriate accent (Lyall 2). For The Last of the Mohicans, Lewis learned how to track and skin animals, built a canoe, and carried around a flintlock gun (Hirschberg 2). For his most recent film, the historical biopic Lincoln, Lewis visited the president’s home state of Illinois and, among other things, stood alone in the Old State Capitol’s chamber and requested to touch Lincoln’s handwritten letters to his generals at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Associated Press). During filming, Lewis regularly stays in character, even going so far as to greet his friends on set in character. However, Lewis’s process embodies much more than learning specific skills, visiting relevant locations, and...
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