Disappearing Act
Empire Australasia|April 2018

Phantom thread will be the swan song of the legendary daniel day- lewis. Five film makers who worked with him reflect on the chameleonic master

Alex Godfrey
STEPHEN FREARS DIRECTOR, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985)

Despite leading roles on stage, on film Day-Lewis had only played a couple of bit parts before he came to Stephen Frears’ attention. After meeting the director, determined to get the part as big-hearted gay thug Johnny in the London-set drama about class and community, Day-Lewis wrote him a threatening letter (which the actor himself has described as “fairly vile”) saying that he’d break Frears’ legs if he didn’t cast him.

“The first time I met him was in 1983, when I was originally going to make Prick Up Your Ears. I hadn’t seen his work. He came in to see me and he had a south London accent. I said, ‘You’re the son of a poet laureate, why are you speaking like that?’ He said, ‘I went to a comprehensive, so I learned to conceal myself.’

“For My Beautiful Laundrette, there was a shortlist of four actors: Gary Oldman, Ken Branagh, Tim Roth, and Dan. And the girls all said, ‘You want Dan. He’s top of the crumpet list.’ The search for the other boy, Omar, was much harder. I said I had to cast them on the same day. I knew I was going to cast Dan, but I made him wait. That’s when he wrote this letter saying he’d break my legs, or was going to take a knife to me. I didn’t take it seriously, not for a second. It made me laugh. He wanted the job. Good for him. But it didn’t get him the part — I’d already made that decision.

“He used to look after Gordon Warnecke [Omar], it was wonderful. If it was a big break for Dan, it was inconceivable for Gordon, suddenly playing a lead. So he was very kind to Gordon. They used to come round to my house and sit and watch Badlands. I think they used to go to Millwall to watch football.

“Afterwards I saw A Room With A View, and I said to someone, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Dan could do things like that.’ And they said, ‘No, you don’t understand — you were the original one, casting him as Johnny was the original thing.’ He generally played upper-class blokes. And I had gone the other way, completely oblivious to what he’d done in the past. Nobody said to me, ‘This chap is gonna be a big star.’ But he was jolly good.”

JAMES IVORY

DIRECTOR, A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1985)

Having finished My Beautiful Laundrette, Day-Lewis went to work as upper-class buffoon Cecil Vyse in Merchant Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptation. It was an extraordinary double-whammy.

“When Daniel came to be interviewed he was still shooting My Beautiful Laundrette and his hair was blond with pink streaks. I didn’t know who he was, but immediately I wanted him for the film. He left the office that day with that part. He didn’t read — I just knew somehow. I had a feeling he’d be right.

“He wasn’t living the part every moment off-camera, there wasn’t any of that. He is a very sharp observer and I loved the things that he did with the dialogue — he really went over the top with it, but that is what makes the performance so interesting. All of the things you find so preposterous on the page as E.M. Forster wrote them, he really made them into little wonders. In the window he sees Lucy coming up and the way he’s leaning out, speaking half in Italian and half in English, it’s just wonderful. And swatting the bee when he has a teacup in his hand, that’s just such a brilliant thing he does.

“And then of course, when he’s turned down by Lucy at the end, his affectation disappears and there is a humbled person there, sitting on the stairs tying his shoes. That appeals to people very much, how one moment he was this insufferable know-it-all snob, and then the next moment there’s this young man who’s been turned down by this girl who didn’t want to marry him, and it’s affected him.

“The films opened on the same day in New York, and it was interesting the way that Daniel was written about. It was almost as if the writers couldn’t understand how this same young unknown actor could play two such different parts, and look so different in them. There was just this astonishment in New York.

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