The secret of Daniel Day-Lewis' success

By Genevieve Hassan
BBC News entertainment reporter

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDaniel Day-Lewis picked up Oscars in 1990, 2008 and 2013

Daniel Day-Lewis has announced he is to retire from acting. It's a surprise - and yet not all that surprising - for an actor who made history as the first man to win three best actor Oscars, but who is also famous for leaving years between roles.

The acclaimed actor won his first Academy Award in 1990 for My Left Foot, his second in 2008 for There Will Be Blood and third for Lincoln in 2013.

That tally is bettered only by the inimitable Katharine Hepburn, who secured four best actress Oscars.

Having starred in just five films over the past 20 years, Day-Lewis is famous for being choosy with his roles and for the huge amount of preparation he puts into his characters, both on screen and off.

He notably confined himself to a wheelchair for his role in My Left Foot and became an apprentice butcher for his part in Gangs of New York.

He also made cast and crew refer to him as Mr Lincoln while filming the movie about the US president, and he refused to step out of the role off-set.

The actor told the BBC just before his third Oscar win that his immersive acting method made "complete sense" to him. "All you're trying to do is lay the groundwork, which might allow the imagination to free itself," he said.

media captionDaniel-Day Lewis speaks to the Andrew Marr Show

"When the imagination frees itself, you have no goddamn idea what's going to happen. So it's not a constrictive or restrictive way of working - quite the opposite."

He added that he found it far easier to stay in character during the filming process, saying: "What would drain me much more, in my case, is jumping in and out of that world that we've gone to such an inordinate length to create for ourselves."

But this also isn't the first time Day-Lewis has stepped out of the limelight, usually leaving long stretches of years between roles.

He appeared to quit the business at the end of the 1990s and reportedly worked as a cobbler until Martin Scorsese convinced him to return to acting in Gangs of New York - so he may still be tempted back in the future.

So what was the secret of his success? A selection of film experts give their opinion:

image copyrightGetty Images

Robbie Collin, Daily Telegraph

"His unique selling point, as far as the hype around his films is concerned, is the enormous amount of preparation he puts into every role and his commitment to staying in that role when filming begins.

"There's a mystique around his craftsmanship - there are anecdotes of him being addressed as Mr President on the set of Lincoln, and he got an apprenticeship in butchery after he was cast as a butcher in Gangs of New York.

"But what matters is how that intensity and preparation translates onto the big screen. He is a presence that's totally cinematic and the sheer size of his character is impressive. When you think of There Will Be Blood, there was an enormous, empty landscape, but he filled it with his personality.

"He did something similar with Lincoln - in preparing and inhabiting it, he's not just giving a performance as president, he embodies Lincoln and pushes through the iconic quality of the role."

"The seriousness in which he takes his profession is beyond imagining - we know how dedicated he is. He's the perfect mix of English classical acting and American method acting, he merges the two perfectly.

"His dilemma is - how do you become somebody who observes nature when you're as famous as he is? He's notorious for finding reasons not to do films and combs every project for reasons not to do it.

"He has an extraordinary ability to mimic people and his chameleon ability is staggering. There's an extreme contrast between his role in There Will Be Blood and the role in Lincoln - you couldn't get two more different characters.

"There are lengthy gaps in between his films, so when you see him, you're not bored because you've not seen him for a while.

"He's got a perfect 'mid-Atlanticness', which makes it easy for him to be trans-Atlantic than someone like Hugh Grant, who's very much English."

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe star won his first Oscar in 1990 for My Left Foot, based on the true story of Christy Brown who was born with cerebral palsy and could only control his left foot

"The choice of who he works with is clearly a significant factor when it comes to recognition that those roles get.

"He's very discerning - for Lincoln, it was Steven Spielberg trying to convince him as he had turned it down. So just because Spielberg comes knocking, it doesn't mean he'll take the role. It has to be pretty special.

"As a result, after six months of research and method work, he delivers the goods. A role like Lincoln is the kind Oscar voters respond to because they're a bit older and this kind of prestige project is something that speaks to them.

"He takes it to a level that others aren't prepared to do, where it's a much larger-than-life performance that would be corny if done by lesser actors. But he brings a truth to these roles through that method and that makes them convincing and worthy of awards.

"In terms of other roles, [2009 film] Nine was a rare misfire. I think that's a case of him pushing himself in a different direction to bring a certain prestige to a musical role that hadn't been attempted before and it's association with a great film-maker like Fellini. But he's got a pretty strong hit rate."

"He can play heroic characters. Even when he was starring in My Beautiful Laundrette, he turned it into a heroic character and that's not a very English quality.

"Dan was always known as being top of the 'crumpet list' - he was very good looking and very sexy. He was also a good actor, but he was a dazzling fellow.

"If you ask me to analyse what it is about him, about his character, I have no idea. We didn't think 'this bloke is about to become a huge star', just as we didn't think this film was going to be successful and change our lives. He was just Dan."

A version of this story was first published on 25 February 2013.

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