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13 Daniel Day-Lewis Performances That Prove The Mad Genius Of His Notorious Method

Updated September 7, 2020 2.2k votes 494 voters 89.4k views13 items

List RulesVote up the Daniel Day-Lewis performances that prove the Method works.

Today, the Stanislavski Method is probably best known as the thin basis a certain type of actor uses to justify extreme behavior in service of a role. Whether it yields abusive mail or just straight-up abuse, the occasionally extreme, full-immersion, "don't address me by anything other than my character's name" approach to nurturing a performance has all but fallen out of favor with the public, but it still certainly has its adherents among performers. One of the most prominent is, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Whether the man's spending pre-production learning Czech or forcibly pitching his voice a few octaves higher than normal to give a historically accurate version of the US's favorite president, his three Best Actor Oscars (not to mention his six total nominations) certainly suggest Stanislavski was onto something. Here's a brief rundown of how Day-Lewis devoted himself wholly and completely to a number of his roles.

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  • His Role: Martin Scorsese’s 2002 crime epic, Gangs of New York, tracks a bloody conflict between Protestants and Catholics for control of the Manhattan neighborhood Five Points in 1846. At its heart are Amsterdam Vallon, the vengeance-obsessed son of the slain leader of the "Dead Rabbits," the Irish Catholic faction, and Bill the Butcher, the head of the Protestants. And while the pair square off in elaborately staged battle after elaborately staged battle over the course of the film's nearly three-hour runtime, it's the performances that Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis turn in, respectively, that keep the sprawling and incredibly violent film from ever becoming a slog. Though the former is probably the worse-remembered of the two today, both DiCaprio and Day-Lewis brought their particular charms to the proceedings, with Leo displaying all the wounded preening of an aggrieved 20-something quite well as Day-Lewis went for big, evil, and commanding.

    His Method: How exactly Day-Lewis built out his character has become a significant part of the legend that's cropped up around him since. At the time he was cast, he was enjoying one of his semi-retirements training to be a cobbler. To pull himself into Bill's particular lithe, fighting shape, the production reportedly brought in butchers to coach him on knife technique - when he wasn't busy getting into street brawls in his off time. So total was his commitment that he came down with pneumonia after refusing to wear a non-period coat warm enough to keep him from getting sick. All of it proved worthwhile, however, as he earned another Best Actor nomination for his work.

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  • His Role: Michael Mann’s 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans, tracks a pair of Mohican Native Americans and their adopted son's run-ins with European colonizers during the French and Indian War. Day-Lewis starred as Hawkeye, the Mohican Chingachgook's white tracker son. Over the course of the film, he transitions from a skeptical assistant to the in-over-their-heads Europeans to an out-and-out love interest for Cora, one of the daughters of the British colonel Edmund Munro.

    His Method: In order to achieve his version of Hawkeye, who'd been adapted a number of times before, Day-Lewis learned to build a canoe, fight with a tomahawk, fire and load a flintlock rifle, and skin and prepare meat. Over the course of filming, he reportedly ate nothing else.

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  • His Role: Steven Spielberg’s 2012 adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, Lincoln, tracks the 16th president of the United States during the final days of the Civil War as he and a committed band of congressmen fight to pass the 13th amendment, bring a close to the conflict with the South, and end slavery. Day-Lewis delivered yet another hyper-committed performance, for which he was awarded an unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar. His version of Abraham Lincoln, with his until-then under-dramatized (but historically accurate) reedy voice and profound sense of inner turmoil, made the famed emancipator a steady heart at the center of the film's sprawling cast. Scripted by Tony Kushner and stuffed with more character actors in more prosthetic beards than Spielberg had ever employed before, Lincoln was a huge success. That Day-Lewis managed to rise above his many co-stars is a testament to just how strong he is in the role.

    His Method: In order to pull off the portrayal of a 19th-century Kentuckian despite being a 20th-century Englishman, Day-Lewis reportedly maintained his president’s voice when cameras weren’t rolling, insisted on being addressed as "Mr. President," and signed letters "Abe."

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  • His Role: Jim Sheridan’s directorial debut, the 1989 dramedy My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown, tracks the life of the Irish artist and writer, Christy Brown, as he develops his practice in the face of his severe cerebral palsy. Adapted from Brown’s memoir of the same name, the film went on to net five Oscar nominations and two wins, for Day-Lewis and for Brenda Fricker, who played Bridget Brown, Christy’s mother. And while popular attitudes about able-bodied actors portraying disabled characters have shifted substantially in the past 30 years, the film never betrays a sense that Day-Lewis is anything less than committed in the hyper-demanding role.

    His Method: In order to reproduce Brown's most workable appendage, his left foot, Day-Lewis practiced extensively to train his dominant right foot to pull off the considerable amount Brown managed to. The left-foot swap was achieved by deploying a mirror during filming, which reversed Day-Lewis's foot appropriately. Prior to filming, he spent weeks at a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, where he developed his version of Brown's distinctive speech pattern. And when cameras weren't rolling, he stayed in character - a choice that had crew members feed him, lift him into and out of cars, and pilot his wheelchair.

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