Oscar 2007: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood

At 50, Daniel Day-Lewis is at the top of his form. This year, he's the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar for his stunning, tumultuous performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's uniquely American epic, “There Will Be Blood.”

If Day-Lewis receives a Best Actor nod, it will be his fourth nomination, having won the Oscar in 1989 for “My Left Foot,” and having been nominated for Jim Sheridan's “In the Name of the Father,” in 1993, and exactly a decade later for Scorsese's “The Gangs of New York.” All of these films have also been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Though he's considered to be the most brilliant actor of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis projects the image of the reluctant star, one who's extremely picky about his screen roles, which may explain why he has made few films ever since he burst into the international scene in 1985, in “My Beautiful Launderette,” playing a gay punk.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Day-Lewis denies that he has lost passion for acting, noting that, “When I do go to work, the fever level is exactly the same now as it always was.” A meticulous actor dedicated to his craft, the humble yet confident Day-Lewis has gone out of his way not to become a movie star in the big, Hollywood way.

This season Day-Lewis plays the lead, the greedy oilman-entrepreneur Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic saga, “There Will Be Blood,” loosely based on Upton Sinclair 1927 novel “Oil!” Not surprisingly, there's already Oscar-buzz about his performance, which is considered to be “the one to beat” comes Oscar time; nominations will be announced January 22.

Day-Lewis is also not comfortable talking about his quest for perfection, the enormous preparation that goes into the process of devising a totally different look, walk, accent, and voice for each role, resulting in epic creations that have prompted critics to label him the “Brando” of our times.

Day-Lewis claims one of the most meager output of an actor of his caliberfour films over the past decade, including “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” which was directed by his wife Rebecca Miller.

As always, what attracted him to “Blood,” is the quality of the writing. “Paul (Thomas Anderson) is first and foremost a writer, which is not the case of most other directors. He has a deep love and appreciation of language.” This should come as no surprise for the son of Cecil Day-Lewis, the late poet laureate of England. Yet when asked if he inherited from his father the gift for writing, he quickly says, “There's no such thing as inheriting talent. Writing was his thing, not mine.”

Day-Lewis has always loved American movies. He professes love for the actor De Niro and the director Martin Scorsese, who collaborated on such seminal films as “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” and particularly “Taxi Driver,” a movie he saw numerous times as a teenager in 1976, when it came out.

Day-Lewis is quick to disparage his cultured background: “Where I came from, it was 'heresy' to say you wanted to be in movies, let alone Hollywood movies. We were encouraged to believe the classics of the theater were the only thing to do.” For Day-Lewis, one of the great advantages of growing up in a middle-class literary English family, while attending school in Southeast London, was the “opportunity to become half-street urchin and half-good boy at home.” To this day, in person, he initially appears rough, but his conduct is courtly and his expression eloquent, with carefully chosen words.

Day-Lewis was first introduced to acting when he was at school in Kent. He made his screen debut at the age of 14 in “Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which he played (uncredited) a vandal. He later applied and was accepted to the renowned Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he performed with the Bristol Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal National Theater, turning in notable performances in “Another Country,” “Dracula,” and “Hamlet,” in the title role.

From his earliest roles, Day-Lewis impressed audiences and critics alike, moving easily from a punk rocker in “Beautiful Launderette” to a delightfully foppish Victorian suitor in Merchant-Ivory's “Room With a View,” two films that earned him the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Supporting Actor.

A string of accolades followed, including a 1989 Best Actor Oscar for Jim Sheridan's powerful biopic “My Left Foot,” in which he embodied artist and cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown. He reunited with Sheridan for “In the Name of the Father,” the true story of a man unjustly imprisoned for 15 years, for which he received another Oscar nomination.

Day-Lewis made two vastly different films with Scorsese, as the aristocratic Newland Archer in the drama of mores and manners, “The Age of Innocence,” and “Gangs of New York,” in which he portrayed Bill the Butcher, easily staling the show from Leonardo Di Caprio, the nominal hero. He says he did Archer, “because Scorsese asked me,” and that he found it more challenging to play the rough, violent king in “Gangs of New York.”

His other wide-ranging roles include the early American adventurer Hawkeye in Michael Mann's thrilling “Last of the Mohicans,” which established him as a potential Hollywood heartthrob, a label he detests. Indeed, you feel he's not even comfy with his handsome looks, which he often covers with long hair, big hat, and bohemian attire.

Day-Lewis' additional credits include Philip Kaufman's charming version of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” in which he won praise for his memorable, sexy performance opposite Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin, and the Arthur Miller classic “The Crucible,” directed by Nicholas Hytner, in which he portrayed Puritan John Proctorand where he met is future wife.

Asked what “baggage” he carries from film to film other than emotional intensity and hard work, he says: “If there's some consistency, it's because it's me rather than somebody else doing those various things. With each work, I begin from nothing again. One of the essential demands of acting is the humility to recognize that you're a baby when you start a new role.”

Does he subscribe to any school “I never had the need to define myself as a Method Actor, but apparently people seem to think that's what I am. My training was in the Stansilvasky Method, therefore my way of working would certainly have a lot in common with that. But if you take a group of 10 or 20 students who might undergo exactly the same training with the same teachers in the same institution, each one of them will find their own unique way of arriving at the place that they need to be. I don't ask other actors how they arrive at their particular truth; it's none of my business.”

Upon the reading of any script, Day-Lewis asks himself if there is any way to avoid doing the movie. He explains: “I always ask myself if I can really serve the story well, not the other way around.” To Day-Lewis, “performing is very much a process of mining, and mining is often conducted in the dark, and in such way as you have no notion of where the reward will be found.” He elaborates: I'm not trying to over-mystify acting, I'm just saying it's just impossible and perhaps silly to put a rigid frame around that.”

The need to fully embody his character means extensive preparationit took years before a single frame of “Blood” was actually shot. Since his character is loosely based on Edward Doheny, who began as an itinerant gold prospector and went on to become the billionaire owner of Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, Day-Lewis read books and examined photographs of the era, and also watched movies, like “John Huston's 1948 classic study of greed and paranoia, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” starring Humphrey Bogart.

He says the American West has always held “the lure of unlimited possibility, opportunity.” Hence, he perceived “Blood” as a sprawling saga about freedom and sudden success, basic tenets of the American value system. Ultimately, what attracted him to the picture was its “character study of the corruptive effects of money, fame, and power.”

Aware of his shy, reticent public persona, he notes “It's been suggested that I have something of the hermit in me, but I don't know if that's true. I just lead a quiet life when I am not working, and not working is a very positive thing to me.” “If I'm not working, it's not rejection of the work,” he explains,” “there are just other things I like to do, but there's no chasm between the two worlds; I am not hiding behind closed doors when I am not making films.”

Splitting his life between Ireland and New York City, he says he's happily married to Rebecca Miller (daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller) and enjoys being father to his two boys with her, Ronan, 9, and Cashel, 5; he has another son, Gabriel, 12, who lives with his mother, French actress Isabelle Adjani.

Day-Lewis began visiting Ireland with his father, a native Irishman, when he was 4, and continued to go with his sister, always staying on the island's Western coast. In 1993, he obtained Irish passport and now holds dual citizenship.

Day-Lewis says he's never bored or idle: “I spend long periods of time doing things which might for other people be extremely boring, like looking at the landscape where I live in the Wicklow Hills, and I get such pleasure that I am not even aware of the pages turning.”

One of Day-Lewis' passionate hobbies is MotorGP, the competitive bike tournament. Last summer, he borrowed a GSXr 1000 bike and rode from L.A. to Laguna Seca to cheer his hero-champion Valentino Rossi. He gets more excited talking about Valentino than about acting: “Valentino is a genius, and I really don't use that word like we all say awesome. He's really separate from the elite group of superhuman athletes.”

Is it similar to his genius of acting Responding in a roundabout way, he observes, “The way I see it, it's a combination of tremendous physical discipline, agility, and concentration. I'm not sure I know how to explain it, but I know when I see it.”

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