Daniel Day-Lewis, the Lunatic


Daniel Day-Lewis, the Lunatic

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The opening scene of There Will Be Blood was my first introduction to Daniel Day-Lewis. I was a young undergrad in my first year in acting school. The scene was a silent one, sans any dialogue. Daniel Day-Lewis is seen toiling in a pit in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of all the mining, he breaks his leg and then through sheer willpower drags himself out of the pit, into the nothingness of the desert that surrounds him. There is only the man, his body, and an ominous despair that speaks volumes about the barbaric and inhuman work that created our leisured modern age. It was only when I watched that scene did I come to realise the potential a human body holds.

It was general wisdom passed from batch to batch that all actors must sit through three DDL (as he is called in the fraternity) films before they learn anything of consequence. Young millennial actors like us, who were born in the late ’80s, would constantly hear about four Hollywood greats in the field of acting – Brando, Pacino, De Niro, and Day-Lewis. Marlon Brando was dead, Al Pacino seemed to have passed on the mantle to Amitabh Bachchan (who then fashioned a career out of mimicking Pacino trademarks), and the Robert De Niro of the ’90s was busy mimicking the De Niro of the ’70s and ’80s. The only respectable contemporary flag-bearer of method acting known to mankind was Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrayed a man suffering from cerebral palsy, a butcher, a money-obsessed oil tycoon with a bad right foot, and much more during the course of his life. DDL’s preparation for a role is aimed at turning it into a lived experience so that a new version of the self, which suits the script, can emerge. He acquired the reputation of a lunatic, willing to lose his sanity by wanting to become a different person for a different film.

Shortly after my DDL moment, Naseeruddin Shah, one of the most respected faculty members at the institute, conducted a workshop with the senior batch. It came as a surprise to all of us when he declared that he detested DDL’s approach toward acting. Benjamin Gilani, another excellent teacher who has inspired generations of actors, also held a similar opinion. They felt that results could be achieved without always having to hang on the brink of lunacy. Gilani believes an actor should always be aware that he is acting and should not lose himself to the extent that he starts hurting himself or others around him. I didn’t know what to make of it. Of course, DDL was great, but was there any truth to what these men, masters in their own right, were saying?


Daniel Day-Lewis decided to actually train as a butcher in preparation for Gangs of New York.

Still from Gangs of New York

At the fag end of my first year, I picked a part of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a monologue demonstration. It is the part where Raskolnikov has just killed the moneylender, has not eaten in days; he is scared and has fever. Now I was trying my best to arrive at this physical and mental state, but try as I might, I just could not. I was living a comfortable life, eating three meals a day, sleeping on a soft bed. Could I still pull off the character without compromising myself as Naseeruddin Shah had said, or would I have to change in order to get close to the character’s physical and mental state? The choice weighed heavily on me. It was hardly the role of a lifetime, but it seemed like a defining moment for me. Should I believe in DDL, or should I choose my sanity?

In the Name of the Father, DDL plays a man fighting a wrongful conviction, and for that he spent two days and two nights in a prison cell without food or water. I decided to lose my sanity. I shut myself in the room I was supposed to perform for four days, eating sparsely, and isolating myself from life around me. Four days later, when I approached the scene, the results were dramatically different. I could feel the pain, the fear, and the fever.


Daniel Day-Lewis refused to leave the wheelchair even when the camera wasn’t rolling in order to play the Irish artist Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot..

Still from My Left Foot.

I think that’s when I realised that acting is personal. It can never be divorced from one’s life. You have to go through a transformation in order to achieve certain aspects for certain roles. Perhaps this is what DDL followed, when he refused to leave the wheelchair even when the camera wasn’t rolling in order to play the Irish artist Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot, or decided to actually train as a butcher in preparation for Gangs of New York.

Daniel Day-Lewis is done with his acting career and I’m just about starting out on mine. I’m yet to find out the limits to which I will give myself over to the shaky experience of inhabiting another world to the extent of losing my own. It’s easy to want to follow DDL’s way, but when you think about how he made himself hunt and skin animals for The Last of the Mohicans or lived away from his wife for The Ballad of Jack and Rose, you realise that he may really be a lunatic. But even lunacy takes balls.