20 Times Daniel Day-Lewis Went To Truly Wild Lengths For His Film Roles

When you think of method acting, there’s a good chance that Daniel Day-Lewis’ handsome face will pop into your head. The three-time Oscar winner is pretty much synonymous with going all in with his performances, and he transforms himself in ways that few other actors would. Over the years, though, his approach has led to some crazy stories – and a reputation as an eccentric. So here are 20 times that he went to truly wild lengths for the sake of acting.

20. He learned to be a dressmaker

Day-Lewis collaborated with director Paul Thomas Anderson on Phantom Thread from the very beginning of development. He and Anderson, in fact, came up with his character, 1950s’ fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, together and then Anderson went away to pen the screenplay. During that period Day-Lewis learned dressmaking, including how to sew, cut and drape.

Phantom Thread is, to date, Day-Lewis’ final film role. He announced his retirement from acting in June 2017, months before the film was released. But rumors persisted that he wasn’t retiring to a life of leisure. A source close to the actor told Page Six that he became so enamored with dressmaking that he intended to pursue it professionally. That hasn’t come to pass, as of yet, but who knows what he future holds.

ADVERTISEMENT

19. He learned to hunt, kill, and cook his own food

Day-Lewis took his method to astonishing lengths when he played Hawkeye in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. As The New York Times put it in a 1992 profile, he would go as deep into a character as possible, pushing the very limits of his contract. In this case, he lived life as an 18th century frontiersman.

The actor learned to hunt, kill, and skin animals, as his character would have done back in the era. Mann once admitted, “If he didn’t shoot it, he didn’t eat it.” The flintlock gun he used in the film, too, was always by Day-Lewis’ side, as it would have been at Hawkeye’s. He even reportedly had it with him during Christmas dinner, wrote The New York Times.

ADVERTISEMENT

18. He learned to build canoes and fire guns on the run

Day-Lewis has always had an interest in carpentry, and he took that interest to its logical conclusion on The Last of the Mohicans; he learned to build his own canoe. Naturally, he didn’t need to know how to carve a canoe; that’s what the prop department and set designers are there for. But for Day-Lewis, it breathed more authenticity into the role.

ADVERTISEMENT

This authenticity extended to the physical demands of the role. Day-Lewis trained with fitness guru Richard Smedley for six months, five times per week, to build up his physique and his stamina. When it came to reloading and firing his rifle, he needed it to look like he’d done it countless times. So, he learned… by reloading and firing it countless times.

ADVERTISEMENT

17. He taught himself to speak Czech

To play Czechoslovakian surgeon Tomas in 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Day-Lewis learned the Czech language. Mastering another language is a difficult task, but if the role calls for it, then fair enough, right? Well, not quite. The movie was in English, so all Day-Lewis wound up doing on-screen was speaking his own language, but with a Czech accent.

ADVERTISEMENT

In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, even Day-Lewis registered some dissatisfaction with this language snafu. He said, “The idea of speaking English with a Czech accent, without actually speaking Czech, meant it wasn’t coming from anywhere. I knew that that kernel of truth that I need to have somewhere in a role would be missing.”

ADVERTISEMENT

16. He stayed in-character as President Abraham Lincoln

When he played iconic American President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic, Day-Lewis’ method included staying in character on and off set. He always spoke in Lincoln’s Kentucky accent, and he told the cast and crew to call him “Mr. President.” Amusingly, though, the method even extended to text messages.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sally Field, who played Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd in the film, confessed to TIME magazine that Day-Lewis would text her as Honest Abe. She laughed, “I’d hear that twinkle-twinkle on my phone, and he would have sent me some ridiculous limerick. He’d sign it, ‘Yours, A.’ I would text back as Mary, criticizing him for the waste of his time when he might have been pursuing something more productive.”

ADVERTISEMENT

15. He lost 50 pounds to play Gerry Conlon

Depending on which source you believe, Day-Lewis either lost 30 pounds or 50 pounds to play Gerry Conlon in In The Name Of The Father. He did it by eating prison rations. Considering he’s a fairly thin man to begin with, 30 pounds sounds the more reasonable option. But then again, this is Day-Lewis we’re talking about, so 50 certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

ADVERTISEMENT

In comparison, it was reported that Matthew McConaughey lost 38 pounds to play Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. A naturally slim man like Day-Lewis, McConaughey told Metro that starving himself led to issues with his vision. These problems persisted even a year after he’d put the weight back on. So here’s wondering if Day-Lewis had similar trouble.

ADVERTISEMENT

14. He spent two days in solitary confinement in an abandoned prison

To get into the headspace of prisoner Gerry Conlon, Day-Lewis decided to put himself through what Conlon had experienced in real life. So he spent two days and two nights in solitary confinement, without any food or water, in the abandoned prison in which the film was shot. Once that ordeal finished, six policemen questioned him for nine hours straight. Wow!

ADVERTISEMENT

Day-Lewis explained to The Guardian in 2008, “You have to learn. You need to understand what it is like to be interrogated by three two-man teams over a period of two days. If an innocent man signs a confession, which pisses away his life, it is part of your responsibility to touch on why a human being would do that. So, my curiosity leads me into those places.”

ADVERTISEMENT

13. He learned to write and paint with his toes

Christy Brown, the subject of My Left Foot, was an Irish artist and author who suffered from cerebral palsy which paralyzed almost his entire body. But he was able, amazingly, to both write and paint with only the use of his left foot. So when Day-Lewis played him in the movie, he made it his mission to also learn these skills.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the opening scene of the film, Day-Lewis was able to pick up a record with his foot, place it on the player and drop the needle to make it play. But he could only do these things with his right foot. Director Jim Sheridan therefore had to film these scenes through a mirror, which made it look like he was using his left foot.

ADVERTISEMENT

12. He spent eight weeks in a cerebral palsy clinic

Day-Lewis stayed in a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, Ireland for eight long weeks while preparing for My Left Foot. To fully understand the disease, he immersed himself alongside people who actually suffered from it. The movie’s director Jim Sheridan told TIME magazine about his admiration for the star’s method.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Plenty of people will say it’s facetious to stay in character,” said Sheridan. “People will say it’s pretentious. But Daniel spent weeks with kids who really had cerebral palsy to research the part. How difficult would it have been to act like them for the camera, then jump back after each take like a jack-in-the-box, like nothing had happened?”

ADVERTISEMENT

11. He stayed in a wheelchair and was spoon-fed during the shoot

Day-Lewis remained in his character’s wheelchair for the entire My Left Foot shoot and even insisted on being spoon-fed by crew members. According to The New York Times, he also stayed in the chair when he went to restaurants and had the crew lift him over lighting cables on the set. In 2008 he admitted to The Independent, with a laugh, “A few people did find that a bit odd.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Day-Lewis confessed, “My agent Julian, who is sadly no longer with us, was quite unsettled when he came to visit me on set as I was ‘in character’ all the time and, apart from anything else, he couldn’t understand a word I was saying. So, he walked out, had a very quiet aperitif in a local hostelry, and from then on just left me to get on with it.” It sounds like Julian had the right idea.

ADVERTISEMENT

10. He didn’t bathe for a whole movie shoot

Day-Lewis isn’t really an actor who takes many roles set in contemporary times. This means he is always researching the eras his characters lived in, and, inevitably, trying to live like they would have lived. When he signed up to play John Proctor in The Crucible, which is set during the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, he did just that.

ADVERTISEMENT

While everyone else presumably traveled to and from set every day, Day-Lewis chose to live there. He stayed in the elaborate replica village, with no electricity, for the entire shoot. The village also had no running water, so he simply didn’t bathe either. He must have been ripe by the time the film wrapped. Yuck.

ADVERTISEMENT

9. He caught pneumonia and fought with strangers

While shooting Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York in Rome, Day-Lewis went a bit crazy. For one thing, he caught pneumonia because he refused to wear a modern coat, insisting on staying in his character’s thin, of-the-time-period version. He revealed to The Independent in 2008, “I had to do my preparation. And I will admit that I went mad, totally mad.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Mad in what way, though? Well, he reportedly got so into character that he would wander the streets and pick fights with total strangers. He explained, “I remembered the days of fighting on the Millwall terraces and they stood me in good stead for Bill the Butcher. He was a bit of a punk, a marvelous character and a joy to be – but not so good for my health.”

ADVERTISEMENT

8. He trained as a boxer for 18 months

Day-Lewis put himself through intense boxing training for a year and a half before he made The Boxer. Legendary fighter Barry McGuigan helped prepare the actor, and he believed Day-Lewis became good enough to compete professionally. He said, “If you eliminate the top ten middleweights in Britain, any of the other guys Daniel could have gone in and fought.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2014 it was revealed that Day-Lewis’ training location was a boxing gym in Kent, U.K. It was McGuigan who actually sent the actor to coach Ian Fleckney. Fleckney told Kent Online, “Barry asked me if I recognized the guy. Of course, I recognized him, but I didn’t say anything because obviously he had his reasons. He was just introduced to me as Danny.”

ADVERTISEMENT

7. He mastered how to use traditional mining gear

In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’ performance as the terrifying Daniel Plainview is electric. The film was widely acclaimed, and in 2019 The Guardian named it the best movie of the 21st century. And to accurately play the oil prospector, Day-Lewis learned how to use turn-of-the-century mining gear. He also reportedly threw real bowling balls at co-star Paul Dano in the climactic confrontation. Yikes!

ADVERTISEMENT

Day-Lewis told The Independent he developed the character with director Paul Thomas Anderson for three years. He said, “My preference is that, that day when someone sticks a tripod in front of you with a camera on the top, it is not day one. It begins way before, with the work before you start filming – and there is no limit to the amount of time that you take to discover a whole life.”

ADVERTISEMENT

6. He studied 19th century etiquette and used a walking stick after filming

Day-Lewis first teamed with director Martin Scorsese to make 1993’s The Age of Innocence. It saw him playing Newland Archer, a high-society New Yorker at the turn of the century. To get into the role, he pored over books on the etiquette of the upper class in the 19th century. He also reportedly checked into his hotel as “Mr N. Archer.”

ADVERTISEMENT

For once, though, this role wasn’t a million miles away from how Day-Lewis carries himself in real life. Scorsese told Entertainment Weekly in 1994, “He did go around with his walking stick off camera, talking like Newland, and we made some fun of that. But, actually, the polite way Newland speaks is not far from the polite way Dan speaks.”

ADVERTISEMENT

5. He tattooed his own hands

In 2015 People magazine published an article about something that bonds Day-Lewis and his oldest son Gabriel-Kane: tattoos. The Oscar winner has quite a lot of ink on his arms, including some tribal bands, a mermaid, and a compass. He also has the handprints of his two sons etched on either bicep. Gabriel-Kane has even more ink than his father, though, including a full sleeve on one arm.

ADVERTISEMENT

But one of Day-Lewis’ tattoos dates back to immersing himself in research for a role. While he was preparing to play ex-con Danny Flynn, he tattooed a crucifix tree on his hand. He told The Guardian in 2003, “I gave myself this one for The Boxer, actually. A lot of guys in jail tattoo their hands.”

ADVERTISEMENT

4. He wrote a threatening letter to a director

Back in the mid-1980s, Day-Lewis really wanted to land the part of Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette. The movie was about a gay romance between an interracial couple, and Johnny was a hip working class punk with bleached blonde highlights in his hair. Unfortunately, director Stephen Frears was unconvinced, feeling Day-Lewis was too posh for the part.

ADVERTISEMENT

To be fair, Day-Lewis didn’t exactly scream “punk.” He was the upper crust son of Cecil Day-Lewis, a Poet Laureate. He also didn’t have much acting experience at the time, so Frears had no evidence of his versatility. Therefore, he went full method to convince the director, writing him a letter in-character as Johnny, in which he said he’d break his legs if he didn’t give him what he wanted. It worked.

ADVERTISEMENT

3. He helped build a full village set with 17th century tools

Not only did Day-Lewis live in a replica village while shooting 1996’s The Crucible, he also helped build the set. He even used traditional tools that people would have had access to in the 17th century, because he’s a stickler like that. Yup, the man approaches carpentry and woodwork with the same level of dedication as he does acting.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1994 Day-Lewis gave an insight of his love of working with his hands to build something. He told Entertainment Weekly that he has an innate ability to concentrate on whatever he’s chosen to devote his time to. He said, “That would apply to making furniture as well. I could probably continue working on a piece of furniture for five days and forget to eat.”

ADVERTISEMENT

2. He became an apprentice butcher and learned to throw knives

Day-Lewis spoke with Rolling Stone in 2003 about becoming an apprentice butcher to play Bill in Gangs of New York. He said his preparation process for a role is usually six to eight months long, but he doesn’t like the perception people have of it being an arduous process. For him, even butchery was a pleasure.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Butchery wouldn’t be my first choice,” admitted the celebrated actor. “But anything that involves very particular skills – you watch a butcher sharpen a knife, and it’s a thing of beauty.” And speaking of knives, Day-Lewis reportedly enlisted the help of circus performers to show him how to hurl the sharp blades with incredible precision.

ADVERTISEMENT

1. He touched his own eye with a knife

We’re still not entirely sure how Day-Lewis did this. In Gangs of New York Bill the Butcher has a glass eye. The backstory is that he himself gouged it out because he couldn’t look an enemy in the eye after suffering a defeat. Naturally, given he’s a method madman, Day-Lewis had his own eye covered in prosthetic glass.

ADVERTISEMENT

That makes us queasy enough, but it’s the next part that is beyond the pale. There is a scene in which Bill touches his glass eye with the point of a knife to intimidate someone, serving as a reminder of the lengths he will go to. Day-Lewis reportedly touched his own eye with a real knife for that scene. Even if protected by acrylic, it still takes guts.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT