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Sunday 21 September 2014

Daniel Day Lewis - the man behind those myths

Published 20/01/2013 | 06:00

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Daniel Day Lewis speaks on stage at the TIME's screening of Lincoln and Q & A on October 25, in New York City.
Daniel Day-Lewis joked he 'ran out of excuses' for why he should not star in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

The telephone call came out of the blue one summer Saturday morning, in 2009. "I nearly fell off my chair with the shock," Evanne Cahill says. It was two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

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Three months earlier, she had sent the actor a letter asking if he would consider becoming a patron of the Wicklow Hospice Foundation, of which she is a committee member. The Arklow-based businesswoman was hoping that a big name would help with the fundraising drive to build a centre on land donated by the Columban Sisters at Brittas Bay.

"I'd read about him in the paper," she said, "and knew he lived in Wicklow. I'd almost forgotten about the letter by the time he phoned but he had been very apologetic and said he had been away and had only just seen it.

"Right from the start, he said he was interested. We had a meeting in one of his favourite Wicklow haunts, Hunter's Hotel in Rathnew, and he's been on board ever since."

The fruits of that hopeful letter will be realised tomorrow when the Wicklow Hospice Foundation will benefit from the proceeds of the Irish premiere of Day-Lewis's latest film, Lincoln, in which he plays the much-admired US president in the months leading up to his assassination.

Oscar-nominated once again, he is strongly tipped to become the first to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor.

In what's likely to be one of the biggest society nights Dublin has seen for years, Day-Lewis has persuaded the film's director Steven Spielberg and co-star Sally Field to attend. Later, a 900-seat post-screening banquet will take place in the Burlington Hotel. Tickets sold out quickly. And it's hoped that serious money will be splashed on memorabilia from the movie - including the white gloves worn by Day-Lewis and a signed copy of Tony Kushner's script.

"About a year ago, he told me that he hoped he'd be able to have a premiere of the film here with the proceeds going to the Foundation," says Cahill. "He's taken a great interest in this from the start and he's often in touch with me to see how the fundraising is going. We've raised €2.4m to date and our target is to get to €3m."

Evanne Cahill was not to know it, but the timing of her letter struck a chord with Day-Lewis. His mother, the actress Jill Balcon, died in 2009 and she had seen out the final month of her life in a hospice in the English countryside. Daniel and his sister Tamasin were by her side in those last weeks. He has spoken about how moved he was by the care she received there and what a great pity it is that a similar opportunity is denied Wicklow people in their own county.

Ever since moving to Annamoe, near Roundwood, in the heart of Wicklow in the mid-1990s, the London-born Day-Lewis has talked about his passion for the Garden County. He seemed particularly taken with being given a newly devised honour, the Freedom of Wicklow, in 2009.

He holds both Irish and British citizenship and his love of this country was fostered during childhood holidays in Co Mayo. His father, the late Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, was born in Stradbally, Co Laois, and retained a sense of Irishness throughout his life.

The popular image of the actor is that of an intense figure who goes to extreme lengths to inhabit the roles he plays – whether it's insisting on being locked up in a jail cell to play Gerry Conlon in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father or mastering the art of butchering to provide authenticity to the challenging part of the fearsome Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

But his reputation for reclusiveness is misplaced, according to local residents. "You'd see him around a lot," says a farmer who lives in the vicinity of the Georgian house the actor shares with his wife, the writer and director Rebecca Miller, and their two sons Ronan (14) and Cashel (10). He met Miller on the set of The Crucible, a film adaptation of the celebrated play penned by Rebecca's father, the late Arthur Miller. He has another son, 17-year-old Gabriel-Kane, with the French actress Isabelle Adjani.

"I'd know him to say hello to and he's very down to earth. There's nothing standoffish about him – he does seem to have a love for this place."

It's a view shared by Evanne Cahill. "He's one of the nicest, most genuine people I've never met," she says. "There's a great sense of empathy there. He's about as far as you can get from those celebrities who latch on to a good cause just because it's the thing to do.

"He really wants to see this hospice happen and he's just as excited as we are about the fact that ground will be broken at the site this summer. All going well, it should be open by the end of 2014."

While neighbours at Annamoe say he values his privacy, he is not one to hide himself away. "He's always on his bike," one local says. "He's clearly a very fit bloke – you'd need to be to cycle all the hills around here. You'd see him out running too, although, to be honest, you'd be taking your life in your own hands running on the roads around here considering the way people drive."

Some years ago, Day-Lewis had an association with the Parnell’s Athletic Club in Rathdrum and his superb fitness levels were much commented on in Wicklow athletics circles. Age hasn't proved a barrier either: he's a youthful-looking 55.

The actor's willingness to push his body to the limit was evident to Barry McGuigan, who was drafted in to help Day-Lewis prepare for his part in The Boxer. Day-Lewis threw himself into the task, training twice a day, seven days a week for 18 months. So impressed was McGuigan with his determination, that he reckoned he would have had what it took to cut it in the professional ranks had he taken up the sport when he was younger.

Day-Lewis's status as perhaps the greatest screen actor of his generation stems, partly, from his unwillingness to overstretch himself. He is highly selective about the films he signs up to – and has turned down everything from the role of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the part in Philadelphia that Tom Hanks would go on to win an Oscar for.

Even Spielberg found it unusually difficult to convince him to play the part of Abraham Lincoln. It was only on the third time of asking – when Spielberg met Day-Lewis in Hunter's Hotel – that he finally said yes. And when Spielberg saw Daniel silhouetted against a window at the hotel, the likeness to Lincoln was unnverving. He knew he'd chosen the right actor.

The two have subsequently forged a solid friendship. Last summer, Spielberg and Day-Lewis attended the Bruce Springsteen concert in Dublin's RDS and later enjoyed a meal at the Roundwood Inn.

Yet, Day-Lewis was much more amenable to a request to narrate a forthcoming documentary, Access to the Danger Zone – which focuses on the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

"We wanted someone with a distinctive voice," its co-director Peter Caesar told Weekend Review, "and Daniel was the first person on our list. I knew that he had worked with MSF before, so we were hopeful he'd say yes and he did. He was very obliging and he said he would do the recording as soon as Lincoln had finished. He never takes on two projects at once because he lives the character he plays.

"We met him in New York and he did the recording in a matter of hours. But he was very particular about every sentence he spoke being perfect and we would ask for several retakes.

"Afterwards, we went to the MSF office in New York and I was struck by how much time he had for everyone – from the receptionist to the director. He left a great impression on me."

In the past month, Day-Lewis has been busy promoting Lincoln around the globe – and the film has already made $150m at the US box office alone. Uniquely, among his A-list peers, there are no future film roles confirmed – although there will be no shortage of offers.

In one of his most revealing interviews he told the British journalist Peter Stanford – author of an acclaimed Cecil Day Lewis biography – that his adopted homeland offers the ideal environment to choose and prepare for forthcoming parts.

"In a rural parish," he told the writer, "you become utterly unnoticeable. Or that's the impression I have. I couldn't work or get ready for a piece of work from a city base, from city life [although he and Miller have an apartment in New York].

"I need deep, deep quiet and a landscape too that I can be absorbed into. So much of the work is in the process of aimless rumination in which things may or may not take seed."

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