Day-Lewis, Daniel: Director P.T. Anderson on his Phantom Thread Star

Daniel Day-Lewis, the only performer in Oscar’s history to have won three Best Actor Awards, had announced his retirement from acting back in the summer.

This season, he can be seen to an advantage in his last screen role in Phantom Thread, directed  by Paul Thomas Anderson, the helmer who had guided him to his third Oscar in There Will Be Blood, in 2007.  In my interview with P.T. Anderson, he discussed  his unique collaboration with Day-Lewis, who had previously won Oscars for My Left Foot and Lincoln.

Film’s Origins

PTA: I had a vague idea of a story based on the notion of need: what it means to be sick in bed and look at someone and need them. What if your personality, day in and day out when you are healthy, acts as if you don’t need anybody.  We had this premise and we knew we needed someone creative because that was the kind of a challenging character, somebody that was a bit self-obsessed and had an enormous amount of self control.  Honestly, the character that Day-Lewis plays (fashion designer) could have been a writer, or a painter, or a sculptor. But there was something so decadent and luscious about this world of  haut couture and we knew that it would create a beautiful backdrop, and something quite beautiful to look at, even if it meant that our character might be too harsh for the audience to take.

Day-Lewis’s Multiple Talents

PTA: Day-Lewis is very obsessed with his hands and with making things, and he is very good at that.  Once we read about Balenciaga and Dior, it just took us from there.  The next thing you know, we were discovering all of these English designers, and it really spoke to Day-Lewis in terms of his English heritage.  And whether he will admit it or not, he has a great appreciation for clothes. I think that secretly inside him there is a fashion designer wanting to get out, because he is very artistic.  He is a great painter,and before he was making great shoes.  So the role of fashion designer was not far away from Day-Lewis’ personal experience.

Real Collaboration?

PTA: I did the typing and I had the basic premise.  But we were really–it doesn’t say it on the film–in conjunction working together.  I would write ten or fifteen pages and I would present them to Day-Lewis, and he would make some ideas.  Because I speak more American than English, it was very helpful to have his words shape the screenplay as it went along.

Day-Lewis: the Handsome Star

PTA: We worked together before (on There Will Be Blood). We also have a strong friendship and we spoke about wanting to work together again, because we had such a nice time doing it the first time.  It was really a mutual feeling of wanting to collaborate again.  And with Day-Lewis, there was never any question about his skill level or anything like that.  But I wanted to write something that I thought would be interesting for him to play–and not necessarily fun.  I thought about him and what I know him, and I wanted to apply that to my film.  I love seeing him handsome, when he is dressed up.  He has played quite a few roles where he is dirty, or not handsome–Gangs of New York and certainly in the last film we made together. But there’s a gentlemanly part of him, a very handsome part that I wanted to exploit.  So once I started talking to him, it became clear quickly that we were enjoying what we were writing–until it was impossible for us to stop. We were also getting excited about the possibilities of working with other actors. It gave Day-Lewis an opportunity to work with great actors like Lesley Manville (who plays his sister in the film), and also to find a relatively unknown actress to play his love interest.   All of these things made our journey much more interesting to pursue.

Day-Lewis’ Retirement (Seriously?)

PTA: He is very good at speaking for himself about his plans and wishes.  I think he expressed himself as clearly as he could–I don’t want to quote him, but he is just not feeling that acting it right for him right now.  There was a certain amount of sadness that came along with the film that we didn’t anticipate.  Also, the nature of the story was very difficult at times and very melancholy. Fr him to have to behave that way for months of shooting probably took its toll on him.  But many people would be surprised to know that he is incredibly upbeat, funny, and generous with his laughs,  He has got a wicked sense of humor, and some of it is in the film.  But there are also sadder parts that just took hold of him.  I am trying to take his retirement seriously, but I hope that there is an asterisk, and that he will reconsider acting again, because he is so brilliant at it.