Desperately Seeking Daniel Day-Lewis

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In 1989, during a performance of Hamlet at the National Theater, Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage. Like Hamlet, he claimed, he’d seen his father’s ghost. He never took to the stage again. With this week’s announcement that Day-Lewis is retiring from acting, it looks like his film days are over, too. And when Daniel Day-Lewis commits to something, he really commits.

Cue the public mourning for one of our most dedicated actors, a man as famous for avoiding the cameras as he is for standing in front of them. Day-Lewis embodied Acting with a capital A, embracing all of its finicky pretense. The end of his career may also be the end of an era for the great method actor — and the brilliant, if reluctant, male movie star.

When Truman Capote profiled Marlon Brando for The New Yorker in 1957, he was, like Day-Lewis, considered one of the greatest actors of the day. The 33-year-old Brando had only been making movies for six years, and while some of his best roles were behind him, Brando’s legend had grown bigger than the man himself:

Among the company were some who felt that the social protection supplied by Brando’s inner circle was preventing them from “getting to know the guy” as well as they would have liked. Brando had been in Japan for more than a month, and during that time he had shown himself on the set as a slouchingly dignified, amiable-seeming young man who was always ready to coöperate with, and even encourage, his co-workers—the actors particularly—yet by and large was not socially available, preferring, during the tedious lulls between scenes, to sit alone reading philosophy or scribbling in a schoolboy notebook. After the day’s work, instead of accepting his colleagues’ invitations to join a group for drinks, a plate of raw fish in a restaurant, and a prowl through the old geisha quarter of Kyoto, instead of contributing to the one-big-family, houseparty bonhomie that picture-making on location theoretically generates, he usually returned to his hotel and stayed there.

Capote could just as well be talking about Day-Lewis, who has mostly eluded interviewers in the years since his stratospheric rise. Profiles of Day-Lewis, like this 2007 conversation with LA Weekly, try to figure out how he does it, only to get caught up with the seemingly ordinary man before them:

When Day-Lewis shows up on the patio of the Hotel Bel-Air one November day for an interview, it’s a shock: There are the sharp green eyes, the slightly bent nose, gold hoops hanging in the earlobes where Plainview had little holes. But in this man — the one wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, a mop of curly black hair flecked with gray tumbling over his forehead, great lines swooping up around his eyes when he smiles — there isn’t the faintest shadow of Plainview; or of Christy Brown, the writer with cerebral palsy Day-Lewis played to great acclaim in My Left Foot; or of Gerry Conlon, the young Irishman wrongly accused of terrorism in In the Name of the Father. If I’d been impressed with his performance in Anderson’s film before, after meeting him, I was awed. When you meet Daniel Day-Lewis, to paraphrase Gibson, you don’t meet the characters. You don’t even meet the actor. You meet the place where it lives.

It is the actor, writ large. Like Brando, Day-Lewis embraced the method, taking the performance from a self-conscious act to an embodied one. For both men, the camera was beside the point — it was a witness to real life. And both developed outsized reputations because of their craft. Sure, other actors have tried to step into those shoes. (Shia LeBeouf, anybody?) But somehow these attempts seem more like stunts than legit attempts to inhabit a role.

Sure, method acting is a little crazy. There’s no real reason for an actor to, say, sign his texts with the letter A for Abraham Lincoln, as Day-Lewis did while filming his Academy-Award winning role. Or for an actor to douse himself with ice-cold water every night, as Brando did when playing a murderer who emerged from a chilly lake. But given the performances they elicited, the strange and unnecessary labors of both actors seems worth it.

I fell in love with Day-Lewis through one of his early performances, the chauvinistic bore Cecil Vyse in 1985’s A Room With a View, which brought an unexpected humanity to a role that was meant to be a caricature. The same year, he starred in My Beautiful Laundrette, reportedly threatening to break his director’s legs if he didn’t get the chance to play a gay punk in one of the era’s few films to portray a nuanced mixed race, same-sex relationship.

The career that followed has been nothing short of legendary; the lengths to which Daniel Day-Lewis will go for a character has made for great moviegoing. It’s humbling to read his own descriptions of his work, as when he spoke with TIME’s Jessica Winter about Lincoln, and to realize the love and care he puts into every role.

Day-Lewis’ initial misgivings fell away once he began to research the part, finding his way toward Lincoln as a scholar would. “The minute you begin to approach him—and there are vast corridors that have been carved that lead you to an understanding of that man’s life, both through the great riches of his own writing and all the contemporary accounts and biographies—he feels immediately and surprisingly accessible. He draws you closer to him.”

Unlike Brando, Day-Lewis seems to have sidestepped the late-career self-indulgence that turned his predecessor into a joke, but there’s no saying he won’t return for a late iconic role, like Brando did with The Godfather. Day-Lewis has attempted to retire more than once. (He later recanted his remarks about seeing his dad’s ghost.) And Brando himself told Capote that “I only mean forty per cent of what I say.” Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis has a final act ahead — but if not, his fans have plenty be thankful for.