In The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Jack, an altruistic man who lives on an island which once housed a commune, along with his teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle). Not only does Rose’s budding womanhood concern him, Jack is also terminally ill. This is only Day-Lewis’ fourth movie in the last ten years, and we had the great fortune to sit down with him to find out what attracted the renowned actor to return to the screen for the first time since 2002’s Gangs of New York.
filmcritic.com: What preparation did you go through to play a dying man?
Daniel Day-Lewis: Well, I suppose apart from isolating specific symptoms if you’re not actually dying, it can only ever be an act of imagination. [laughs] I suppose.
Wasn’t there a tremendous amount of weight loss?
I have to say, this subject is beginning to fascinate me all over again because it’s become so much a part of the common exchange in these situations, like ‘performance by the pound’ thinking. I never really felt that it was — whatever it is — it’s usually fairly clear when you start to try and tell a story, what the demands are. The stuff that you need to know about and some things that you need to do are fairly clear. But if they contribute to the telling of that story, it never appeared to me to be worthy of note, except you could understand that if somebody did all that, what was the point? But the whole thing about weight: I guess it’s because there is a wider fascination we all have with weight. But in terms of performances, to me it seems if it contributes to telling the story, it’s just part of that person’s job to do that and it’s no more or less important than that. But of course, Raging Bull was the beginning and the end of the conversation. He left us with nothing else to say about it.
Do you relate to the idea of an isolated lifestyle?
Well, I don’t know what impression you might have of the way in which I live. I live in a quiet place. I do not live as a hermit, though other people would prefer it if I did because that would mean that all that stuff is true. But I do prefer to live in a quiet place, yeah. Jack’s isolationism is not one of my symptoms. My need for peace and quiet is not the same as his. Quite apart from anything else, I find it easier to work when it’s quiet and I suppose the place where I live is fairly remote. It would seem remote to some people but it’s not as remote as Jack’s house.
Does that make it hard to work on film sets when it’s chaotic?
I think it would be hard to work on film sets if I didn’t have that other place. Film sets, if they’re working properly, are not noisy places. There’s a time for noise when noise needs to be made in preparation for a shot. And then there’s time for silence. And if things are working well, there’s silence then. And as far as possible, it’s good to have that a little while before you start shooting. It’s not always possible. I did have a really extraordinary experience once in Argentina when I was working on something. I didn’t understand the system there and we began the first few shots. As we began to speak there was a huge amount of hammering going on, literally within feet of the frame. So I thought somebody must notice this, the director, somebody. But no, the hammering went on. Finally, I was almost embarrassed to stop because it’s not my place to stop a shot, but I stopped and said, ‘I’m sorry, but can somebody explain to me what all that noise is?’ And the director said to me, ‘Oh, we don’t use direct sound here.’ So that was the first awful revelation to me that I was going to have to dub the whole of this thing in the studio afterwards. But then sort of trying to comprehend that and then at the same time saying, ‘But even if you’re not using direct sound, do you not think it would be better if we didn’t have people hammering while we’re trying to do this shot?’
Which film was that?
You probably won’t have seen it. [laughs] [Ed: We’re guessing it was a film called Eversmile, New Jersey.]
Why did it take you so long to decide to do this movie?
A few years actually. It’s hard to answer that because you can never fully put your finger on the reason why you’re suddenly, inexplicably compelled to explore one life as opposed to another, or one story as opposed to another. But it happens in moments, and I think in all the occasions when I’ve gone back to work, it’s always with that sense of — it sounds grandiose, but — inevitability. And that may be a complete delusion, but nevertheless it’s the one that I need to get out of bed and go about my business, that sense that I can’t avoid this thing. I better just get on with it. And I can’t say in this case why it changed, but I do know that when I first read it which is nine years ago, and before I’d met [director and wife] Rebecca [Miller], all I knew of her was this story initially. I was both at one and the same time absolutely intrigued by it in every detail. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, but also I knew beyond any doubt that it wasn’t a moment when I was able to make that contribution that she needed from me. I just knew that. It may have something to do with parenthood but that’s not only what it is. I sensed, I had a strong feeling the demands that that story would make upon me or anybody else that took it on, and I just didn’t feel up to the task at that moment.
Did you feel she needed more seasoning as a director?
No, absolutely not. That didn’t come into question. Shortly after reading the script I saw her first film, Angela, which I loved. And then I was with her during the experience while she shot Personal Velocity which again, was a quite beautiful film. Added to which I had the opportunity to understand a little bit of the way in which she works and to see how the people were around her when she was working, and that’s always a clue. It’s a big clue as to how it’s going to be. You see how the people act around a director. Because it really does affect everything, every detail of the life of that movie. So no, that was never a question.
What did you see Jack going through as far as leaving a legacy for his daughter and the costs of his life choices?
Well, he had certainly hoped to create this beautiful creature in his own image and that’s a fatal display of conceit against the gods. But it hadn’t been my choice, his choice, to raise her in isolation. This happened as a result of the slow but unstoppable disintegration of this little utopian experiment. And I had sort of imagined myself that there wasn’t a leader of this commune, that certainly Jack might have been a driving force because he has the energy for it, but nonetheless, that meeting house which Rose calls The Acid Tome [laughs], that was a place in which all decisions were made communally by all members of that group. I think probably very often in those situations is that people can only take so much democracy before they start needing a visible chief, a chieftain. And Jack I think in spite of himself was somehow designated the role of chief of the tribe. Plus, he has a checkbook which would have been a blessing and a curse, because he could keep things ticking along but they must have had very ambivalent feelings about this kind of middle class life. But I think, as you discover them, Jack certainly is very aware that they are approaching the line that mustn’t be crossed. That line is blurring and it will eventually
be transgressed. And he’s struggling within himself to keep that necessary distance, struggling but failing as his fate and this whole enterprise begins crumbling. It already has more or less evaporated. He’s in the last part of his life and has some irresistible longing to remain part of this beautiful creation and yet, he denies Rose her birthright, which is the guidance of a parent. That’s what he failed in utterly and he knows he’s failed her. But he comes to understand that and the clumsy introduction of this strange assortment of people, as dysfunctional as it may seem, I think in a weird way, kind of sets about a process by which she manages to free herself.
Where do you stand on acting now? Still urgent?
I have the same urgency when I’m working. I can’t say for sure that I will or won’t make a film in a year. It’s possible. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. But when I do work, I feel the same sense of urgency as I ever did. And if I didn’t feel that, I don’t think I would really wish to be doing it. I wouldn’t really see the point.
You make shoes professionally. As a cobbler, do people come in and talk movies?
Next question. [laughs]
Can you foresee going back to theater?
Yeah, I could. It’s hard to in an abstract way. I don’t really think about this work in an abstract way. I tend to respond to that bizarre compulsion, but it could easily lead me there as opposed to back onto a movie set.
How long does it take you to get an accent down?
I can’t really put a time on it because again, it’s one of those things, like all the aspects that we talked about earlier of weight loss and weight gain, these things are things that you see what needs to be done and you set about doing it, but as far as possible, you try and do it in such a way that you’re not really — you have to kid yourself all the time. It’s really just a game the whole thing and the game is to kid yourself into believing something that therefore you hope other people will be able to believe, and that the voice is such an internal thing. I suppose one reason why I love to work on that is because that organ is something that belongs inside of us therefore and it reflects something that potentially says something profound about who we are. So that feels like it’s work that belongs with all that kind of discovery of the interior life of a character. And you try and kid yourself, you try and let it happen in such a way that you don’t really know that it’s happening. It’s hard to describe. Because if you set about it like it’s a task, you kind of separate it off. It’s on a list of things that you need to do. And it then kind of exists outside of you. It’s as if you’re constantly pushing that thing back outside of yourself that ought to be developing somehow elsewhere.
Are you always this happy to be with press?
Part of the problem with talking about movies is that very often you’re trying to define things that you can’t really put into words, so you end up feeling a great sense of frustration because everything gets reduced and turned into little facile phrases that just don’t satisfy you. And you know that you’re not conveying what you want to convey to the people around you either. So if you find a way of talking about something that seems to make sense, it’s always okay. It’s the senseless stuff that wears you down.
Does the mysticism that surrounds you annoy or amuse you?
Well, it’s as good a smokescreen as any other.