Few actors take their roles as seriously as Daniel Day-Lewis. The London-born performer’s hardware speaks for itself. He is the only man ever to win three Best Actor Oscars, and he’s done so with such widely disparate performances as the most beloved American president, a frothing and psychopathic oil tycoon and a profoundly disabled man who could only move one appendage. He makes traditional method acting look like child’s play, instead going above and beyond the idea of staying in character throughout a shoot. More so than perhaps any other actor ever, Day-Lewis, the man, completely disappears into his characters. Highly selective of roles in the first place, Day-Lewis almost invariably plays a lead in the few films he’s willing to appear in, and he’s prone to long hiatuses (he hasn’t worked since winning the Oscar for 2012’s Lincoln). He’ll learn complicated new skills only tangentially related to the roles at hand or even subject himself to perilous extremes that endanger his own safety.
Day-Lewis won his first Oscar in 1990 for his compelling turn as cerebral palsy-stricken Irish writer and painter Christy Brown. To prepare for the role, he spent nearly the entire duration of the shoot in a wheelchair, forcing crewmembers to spoon-feed him and wheel him around. His role in 1997’s The Boxer came after 18 months of intense pugilistic training. For The Last of the Mohicans, he got into character by living off the land for six months and even learning how to build canoes. Prior to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he taught himself novelist Milan Kundera’s native Czech, despite the film itself being in English. As the glass-eyed, absurdly villainous Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis famously caught pneumonia from refusing to wear anything but 19th century clothes.
In lesser hands, this bizarre process (even subjecting his family to living with his embodiment of the irascible Daniel Plainview in their home life during filming of There Will Be Blood) would likely be seen as gimmickry. But Day-Lewis’ process yields unparalleled results. By losing himself so completely into roles, and undergoing such intense preparation for them, he doesn’t sign onto projects on a whim—he’s appeared in only 10 films in the past 25 years. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t just play characters, he is those characters, as much as anyone can be. Overkill? Perhaps, but show me another guy with three Best Actor statues on his mantle. – Josh Goller