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"Look," he concludes, "everyone has insecurities. Every single person on the set at one time goes through a moment of black despair about what it is they're trying to do. They're all subject to those weighty questions that seem to press us into the ground sometimes. And it's possible one might be insensitive to the needs of somebody who's spinning off course, because you're taken with a fever, just like all those oil prospectors were — all driving forwards.
"All that I ever hope for from any colleague is that when the collision takes place in front of the camera that there's a recognizable human being there, telling the truth. Speaking, listening, responding. I don't care how extreme that process is."
Dano had already been indoctrinated in the Day-Lewis experience when he played the teenage Thaddius in The Ballad of Jack and Rose ("a boy with a face like a blade," wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times). After There Will Be Blood, he suggests that working with Day-Lewis is far less frightening than inspiring. "I think there's a general feeling about Daniel that what he does is abnormal," Dano says by phone from New York, where he's appearing off-Broadway in The Things We Want. "But I have to say, when you're there with him, it could not make more perfect sense. He's doing what he has to do to give the best performance he can, and he has the nerve and passion and commitment to do it."
It sounds like very serious work, this thing Day-Lewis does, but only when somebody writes about it. "I think I've been my own worst enemy in the past," the actor admits, "judging by the stuff that's been said about me. It sounds as if I'm being kind of dragged in a straitjacket to the set, kicking and screaming, struggling with a sort of reluctance." What almost never comes through is the obvious delight Day-Lewis takes in pretending so thoroughly to be somebody else.
"For my sense of continuity, I suppose I work in a certain way," he says. "But it goes beyond that. It's really about the sense of joy you have in having worked hard to imagine and discover and — one hopes — to create a world, an illusion of a world that other people might believe in because you believe in it yourself, a form of self-delusion. After achieving that, it seems far crazier to jump in and out of that world that you've gone to such pains to create. And it wouldn't be my wish to do that, because I enjoy being in there.
"It all sounds so grandiose, because of course you're surrounded by reminders of the modern world, everywhere you go. Part of the work you have to do is narrowing your focus, continually shutting out, closing off the peripheral vision that would take in the cables and the catering and the anoraks and so on and so forth. But I don't find that hard to do — the power of self-delusion, I suppose — and it's the joy that I find in that work, in inhabiting a world that you've taken such pains to imagine.
"Just like in other kinds of creative work, you get to enjoy that extraordinary sensation of timelessness, that time ceases to have any relevance or importance while you're working. And within that, you experience the loss of the self. It's a temporary thing, but it's a very invigorating thing, the loss of the self. Do you know what I mean?"
I would be lucky if I did, I think — and probably a much better actor.
"It's like you're constantly trying to head off the conscious mind, which will, whether you like it or not, attempt to stay one step ahead of you," he elaborates. "The imagination is on the frontline of the unconscious. And you do whatever you can do to engage that animal part of yourself, that instinctive part of yourself."
These are not tricks he learned in theater school, at the Bristol Old Vic. "The learning of skills and the disciplines and so on and so forth — those just provide a framework to stop you from spilling over into chaos," he says. "But it's very important to live close to the possibility of chaos. Very, very important."
To the question "How did you know Daniel Day-Lewis was right for the role of Daniel Plainview?" Paul Thomas Anderson answers, "That's like asking, 'How did you fall in love with your wife?' I could say, 'Well, she's got a great sense of humor,' but that doesn't describe her. I guess you just have to assume because of Daniel's previous work that he's capable of doing anything."
It also helped that Day-Lewis is not, in the traditional sense, a movie star. "It is very helpful to a filmmaker to work with an actor who doesn't have a personality that is easily accessible in the way that some film stars do. You are that much more at an advantage when creating another world entirely, when creating the illusion of somebody else. It's quite hard to get past someone's personality if it's bigger than their performances."