MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't make movies, he lives them. He spent weeks in a wheelchair to prepare for his Oscar-winning performance in "My Left Foot" and learned how to hunt for "Last of the Mohicans." On set, he prefers not to break character and he admits that it can take him weeks, if not months, to leave a part once the cameras stop rolling. It's no wonder that he makes so few films. His fourth in 10 years opens today. In "There Will Be Blood," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an obsessive loner who hits it big in California's turn-of-the-20th-century oil rush.
(Soundbite of movie "There Will Be Blood")
Mr. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS (Actor): (As Daniel Plainview) If we decide to drill for oil and if the well begins to produce, I'll give your church a $5,000 signing bonus.
Unidentified Man #1: Ten thousand.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview): You wanna find someone else that's gonna come up here and drill the line, make the investment and all the hard work that goes into it? I can just as easily hunt for quail on another ranch as I can here so - though I'll happily be a supporter of your church as long as I can for the bonus only.
SIEGEL: When Daniel Day-Lewis came to our New York studio, I was struck by how different his voice is from movie to movie and from movies to real life. Somehow, he says, he discovers a character's voice from research, from working with the director, from just immersing himself in the screenplay.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: I'm not entirely sure how it works. Probably because there's some part of me that prefers to let it remain a bit of a mystery. It can fray the nerves a little bit because months could go by and no voice comes to you. But at a certain moment at that - I might be listening to tapes, listening to different voices, allowing things to just run though me, something might stay, something might not. But at a certain given moment, if I'm lucky, I begin to hear a voice and then the work becomes about trying to reproduce the sound that I hear.
SIEGEL: Do you remember the moment when whatever it was you heard, whether it was an old recording from the (unintelligible) or something? Do you remember moments that - I think I've got it now, I think I know what Daniel Plainview sounds like.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: I remember a quickening of the pulse when a sound began to resonate and I begin - I was work - I worked with a very primitive little recording mechanism, sending Paul this tiny little tapes from time to time just saying, look, this is where I am now, because he lived in California, I lived in Ireland, and we need to just keep in touch just to know what, you know, what the other was doing at any given moment. And I didn't want to stray too far, of course.
SIEGEL: Well, Daniel Plainview, your character, is, to put in mildly, not an amiable guy. And it's not unusual for you to be playing somebody whom the audience will regard with at best mixed feelings throughout the film. How do you approach someone who is pretty much a maniacal brute in many ways?
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: I don't know how it has happened to me. I used to play nice boys for a time.
(Soundbite of movie "There Will Be Blood")
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: (Daniel Plainview): Because when I — I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I wanna earn enough money. I can get away from everyone.
The discovery of any life that isn't your own is, it follows - in some sense, it follows the same path. In another sense, of course, you start from scratch. You begin with nothing. You reduce yourself as far as possible to the state of an empty vessel, which may or may not fill with something that's going to be useful to you. And I daresay, because the unconscious plays such an important part in the work, the imagination being on the frontline of that, it's really, I suppose, you know, what could be more liberating than to explore with impunity the darker recesses of one's imagination and psyche.
And I suppose that has always appealed to me. And I always am most often intrigued by lives that seem very far removed from my own. And Plainview wasn't the violence of the man or the misanthrope of the man that attracted me, particularly, but just that unknown life in its entirety.
SIEGEL: But I assume that there must be a period of at least several months during which you are inhabiting both the life of Daniel Day-Lewis and the life of Daniel Plainview. I mean, it must be a long time that you're cohabiting with this guy.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: Yes. It's a partnership.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: It's a partnership in which you become the sleeping partner, I suppose. Is that an expression you use here, sleeping partner? I believe it's something else, silent partners.
SIEGEL: Now we - yeah, sleeping partner is more graphic than that.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: It's good that you clarified. The silent partner. Yes, I would become the silent partner in that relationship.
SIEGEL: And you, in many ways, become the character during that (unintelligible).
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: Well, as far as I'm able to delude myself, believing that if I can't create that illusion for myself, then it's unlikely I'll be able to create it for anybody else.
(Soundbite of movie "There Will Be Blood")
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: Wake up. Wake up.
Unidentified Man #2: Wake him. Wake him.
SIEGEL: There is a whole popular mechanics dimension to this film where you watch the process of extracting oil from the ground as it was, I assume, as it was done in the day. And when certainly it feels that your character - that what he's put in to this effort is so exacting and difficult and the time's obviously quite painful, that he feels he over there where he can get from this quite clearly.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: And I think that's very true. And I think it's very important the way that Paul has structured it. As he discovered Plainview, he's doing what they all did at the outset, which is to take that pickax and a shovel, if you're lucky you get a donkey as well. And you start digging and see if you can find something, something shiny that's going to maybe buy you another bit of scrub land where you might find a little more and then a little more and so on and so forth.
But when you see Plainview as he addressed later on, you know, he's the boss. You need to feel that he's a man that could do the job that anyone of his men are doing equally as well and probably better than them. As you rightly say, he's earned his right to stand and watch.
SIEGEL: I wanted to ask you, you've talked about this a bit, but it's a wonderful thing that you've told Aileen Miles(ph) in an interview in 2002, in those quiet months before you approached the dreaded beast, you begin to enter into a world that isn't yours. People are always reading some sort of craziness into that, but it seems logical to me.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: Yeah.
SIEGEL: You just start taking…
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: Well, I'm so glad that you feel that way. I feel like I'm constantly almost having to justify what appears to other people to be a form of self-inflicted insanity. And for me, the work is really pure pleasure. I do the work because I love to do it, not because I feel the need to punish myself. I'd do something else if I needed to punish myself. I love to do the work that I do. It's a game. Paul creates a playground for us and we go and play in that playground for as long as we're able to.
SIEGEL: So explain, then, why you aren't playing the game twice as often as you are? I mean, why aren't you making twice as many movies as you make, which the calendar would suggest you could do, but I gather your approach to work doesn't.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: I think it's because I love to do it so much, I couldn't love it as much if I did it more often. As simple as that. I - it's not in retreat from that work that I go in search of other things. It's a very positive feeling that I would like to learn about other things for a while. And I personally believe those two lives go hand and hand. They need each other. I don't think I'd have very much to offer if my experiences really were taken from other movie sets.
SIEGEL: Well, Daniel Day-Lewis, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. DAY-LEWIS: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you.
SIEGEL: "There Will Be Blood" opens in theaters today. To hear Daniel Day-Lewis discuss the film's score and how music helps him shape a character, go to our Web site, npr.org.