Daniel Day Lewis: The Biography

Daniel Day Lewis: The Biography

by Laura Jackson

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Regarded by many as the finest actor of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis has become one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. His diverse performances in roles such as cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot and Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York have cemented his reputation as a chameleon method actor. Yet behind the on-screen personas and theatrical masks


Regarded by many as the finest actor of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis has become one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. His diverse performances in roles such as cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot and Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York have cemented his reputation as a chameleon method actor. Yet behind the on-screen personas and theatrical masks lies a complex figure about whom relatively little is really known. Acclaimed biographer Laura Jackson has spoken to many close friends of the actor, including Dame Judi Dench and Simon Callow, and has provided us with a fascinating insight into this intense and talented star. As well as a wonderful portrait of his creative life, this book also reveals Day-Lewis's past relationships with his co-stars and how he has found happiness with Arthur Miller's daughter Rebecca. There are very few books about this reclusive and chameleon-like actor despite his award winning film roles and ever increasingly popularity. His new Oscar & Bafta nominated movie Lincoln is scheduled for UK release early 2013.

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"The insight into his preparation, choice of roles and motivations might serve well the budding actor looking for inspiration."  —Publishers Weekly

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Daniel Day-Lewis

The Biography

By Laura Jackson

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Laura Jackson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-605-0



'Life is ladders, that's all.' Guy Bennett, Another Country

Slanting shafts of early morning light pierce the dense woodland, glinting off the deadly blade of the curved hunting knife gripped in Nathaniel's right hand. He is stripped to the waist, his long unruly black hair bouncing off his muscular shoulders. His breath comes in faint rhythmic pants as he runs swift and sure, crashing through the undergrowth in unison with his blood-brother Uncas.

Nearby, another kind of crashing tells him what he needs to know He sheathes the knife. Smoothly, purposefully, he slides the wooden-handled, long-barrelled rifle from his back and slots it under his arm as the powerful deer breaks cover.

Arrestingly intense eyes set in a strong, unlined face concentrate with deadly intent as he takes aim. Slowly, inexorably, the sleek blue-grey steel barrel moves round in a sweeping arc to stare the viewer straight in the eye. Seconds later he fires. As the fierce flame flashes across the screen, Daniel Day-Lewis blasts his way to Hollywood heart-throb status. The part is frontiersman Hawk-eye; the film is Michael Mann's lavish 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel The Last of the Mohicans.

The description, heart-throb, does not sit easily on Daniel Day-Lewis who often questions the validity of being an actor at all. Yet, the following two decades would see him inhabit with raw intensity a string of diverse roles, turning out vivid portrayals of, among others, a tortured soul, a wronged Irishman, a hideously unhinged New York gang leader and a chilling oil prospector before astonishing audiences the world over, in 2012, with a barnstorming performance as one of America's most revered Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Daniel's immense talent for assuming another's identity on screen perpetuates the mystery of who this gifted chameleon is in real life.

What is hardly a mystery is why he should have opted for a career in film at all. His maternal grandfather was the legendary film producer Sir Michael Balcon, one of the pioneers of British cinema. He reputedly gave Alfred Hitchcock his first job and was head of Ealing Studios during its most fertile period from the 1930s to the 1960s. He was responsible for turning out such influential comedy classics as Whisky Galore, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob. Respected film critic and BBC television presenter Barry Norman defines his importance. 'Ealing Studios was the best ever,' he says, 'the jewel in the crown of the British film industry, particularly in the war and post-war years, and Michael Balcon was the head of all of that.'

Michael Balcon's family were Latvian refugees from Riga who had come to England around the turn of the century. The family of his wife, Aileen Leatherman, whom he married in 1924, came from Poland. Their daughter, Jill Angela Henriette Balcon, Daniel's mother, became a familiar voice on British radio as a continuity announcer and verse reader during World War II. Later she was famous as one of the country's star radio actresses.

Daniel's grandparents on his father's side were the Reverend Frank Cecil Day-Lewis, a curate in the Protestant Church of Ireland, and his wife Kathleen Blake Squires. Their only son Cecil became a writer, an Oxford professor and eventually Poet Laureate. Born in what is now County Laois, Cecil had strong roots in Ireland. During the 1930s, when he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, Cecil's name became inextricably linked with a clutch of left-wing, anti-fascist poets comprising W.H. Auden, Louis MacNiece and Stephen Spender. Collectively they were often satirically referred to as MacSpaunday.

At this time Cecil was married to Constance Mary King, and during their twenty-three-year marriage they produced two sons, Sean and Nicholas. The marriage ended in divorce early in 1951. By this time Cecil had struck up an association with Jill Balcon, twenty-one years his junior, whom he had met when they were co-readers for the BBC Home Service programme Time for Verse. They married in April 1951 and two years later had their first child, a daughter Lydia Tamasin. It was a further four years before their son was born on 29 April 1957.

Inheriting his mother's jet black hair and startling pale green eyes, Daniel arrived two days after his father's fifty-third birthday in the front room of the Day-Lewis family home at 96 Campden Hill Road, west London. Cecil immediately penned a poem in celebration of the birth called The Newborn. At the christening at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the baby was baptised Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis – Daniel as an amalgam of the parents' Jewish and Irish associations, and Michael Blake to honour one grandparent from each family, thereby keeping the peace with both.

In keeping with Cecil's socialist sympathies, one of Daniel's four godparents was Julia Gaitskell, whose father Hugh was the leader of the British Labour Party, then languishing in opposition. Then, like his sister Tamasin before him, baby Daniel was promptly placed in the care of the live-in nanny, Minny Bowler, who became the centre of his day-to-day life.

With the addition of a second child to their family, Cecil and Jill decided to look for a roomier house and found one almost immediately. In its heyday, 6 Crooms Hill in Greenwich, southeast London would have been a fine example of Georgian architecture, nestling snugly at the foot of a sweeping hill, opposite an equally grand, and lively, music hall. By the end of 1957, when Daniel was eight months old, its elegance had faded and the four-storey end house, complete with imposing sash windows and fronted by black wrought-iron railings and gate, was in serious need of renovation. The adjacent music hall was nothing but a derelict eyesore. Nevertheless the family moved out of Campden Hill Road and into Crooms Hill, or rather Cecil and Jill did. Daniel and Tamasin were farmed out to the comfort of Jill's parents' family home until work on the house was completed.

When he was reunited with his mother and father, family life for the young Daniel in the exquisitely refurbished Greenwich dwelling seems, by today's standards, to have had a somewhat remote quality to it. For his first few years he lived mainly on the third floor, which had been set aside as the nursery wing. By the time he was three, and had lost his older sister to infant school during the day, he was normally alone with Minny Bowler. She, from the tips of her yellow streaked hair to her laced-up flatties, was every inch a formidable-looking nanny of the old school with very set ideas on the care of her charges. Only when they were ready for bed and turned out in faultless cherubic perfection could the children visit the sumptuous drawing room on the floor below where one of their parents would take pleasure in reading them a bedtime story.

The children would also make an appearance at weekend family meals but apart from these occasions it would appear that Cecil's interaction with them was, by choice, limited. By this time he was a director of the publishers Chatto & Windus. When he was not at his office at the publishing house, he would closet himself in his wood-panelled, book-lined study at home. This room was steadfastly out of bounds to Daniel and his sister, as a previous study in a previous house many years before had been out of bounds to his two elder sons by his first marriage. Cecil appears to have been a remote figure to his children, perhaps more comfortable encouraging sedate respect and affection from his offspring than with a display of anything deeper and demonstrative.

If this affected Daniel at this time, it did not show. Neighbour Ann Broadbent, who had been an Oxford student when Cecil was Professor of Poetry there, recalls, 'He was a sweet little boy, very fond of long words even at a young age. I remember being very surprised when he came out clearly with 'helicopter' – a big word for a little one, then hardly more than a tot.' She adds, 'He and my son Tom, who was a little younger than him, played together quite a bit.'

As a young child Daniel was unremarkable in appearance, but pleasant faced with a wide-mouthed cheerful smile. His coal black hair, neatly barbered and sprayed in a straight uncompromising fringe across his pale brow emphasised his resemblance to his darkly attractive mother. Through primary school that resemblance would deepen pronouncedly, carving out a well-defined nose and jawline, and developing the same willowy frame and long slender hands.

To outsiders he appeared to be a bright, certainly sensitive, but entirely normal young boy with impeccable manners. He was prey too to all the normal childhood ailments. Mumps struck when he was six, laying him low for most of the summer of 1963 and delaying the annual family holiday. That year the trip was to the west of Scotland and it proved to be a washout in more ways than one. As bad weather battered the rugged coastline, tensions and undercurrents bewildering to Daniel spilled out between the adults, resulting in a spate of arguments that ruined the entire break for everyone.

In addition to the strict formality of his highly organized life in the nursery, another significant aspect of Daniel's upbringing is that, rather than mainly mingling with children of his own age, he was surrounded by distinguished and eminent adults. This was the case both at Crooms Hill and when he accompanied his parents and sister on holidays to the home of Janet and Reynolds Stone at the village of Litton Cheney in Dorset. The Old Rectory was usually bursting at the seams with a cross section of the cream of the literati of the day, but Daniel looked forward to his visits and from the age of five spent many happy times here.

Janet Stone, a bishop's daughter and a descendant of the Quaker Elizabeth Fry, was born in Cromer in 1912. After training as a singer at the Royal College of Music, Janet married the painter and engraver Reynolds Stone. After her marriage, she became a professional photographer. Today her work forms part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The Old Rectory, a large rambling house positioned halfway down a hill, nestled snugly below the ivy-clad walls of Litton Cheney's ancient churchyard. Its nine acres of wild and wonderfully overgrown grounds were a profusion of leafy ferns, bubbling streams and concealed lakes which provided an adventure playground for the young Daniel. Bounding along the sandy lanes leading to and from the house and scattering the odd hen on his way, he would head for the many tangled tree tunnels, exploring as he went.

Friends of the Stones for many years, Cecil and Jill enjoyed rubbing shoulders here with a shifting galaxy of guests, including the celebrated composer Benjamin Britten, the writer J.B. Priestley, John Betjeman the poet and broadcaster and the actress Joyce Grenfell. While Janet played the ever-perfect hostess, Reynolds, a quiet gentle man, spent much of his time working at his engraving in the corner of the drawing room. This was a haven of spacious chairs covered in floral chintzes and exquisite period furniture, while floor-to-ceiling shelving crammed with a vast variety of books barely left room for the numerous paintings and framed photographs on the wall.

The gatherings in this charming drawing room, especially in the evenings, took on the aura of old-fashioned soirées. Cecil and Jill, already used to public reading, vied for floor space and much enjoyed reading aloud for the assembled guests. Altogether the atmosphere was one of intellectual stimulation and mutual appreciation.

Janet's most vivid memories of the small dark-haired child centre on what she refers to as his very formal upbringing, but it is the picturesque winter scenes he would wake up to on Christmas morning that Daniel recalls from those days. These and the comforting yearly ritual of sitting snugly by a roaring coal fire while Cecil read aloud the poem The Christmas Tree, or from Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester. Although there were four Stone children, they were all considerably older than him, which left him more often than usual in the company of his father, who would occasionally take him boating on one of the hidden lakes.

Holidays played an important role in Daniel's growing up. When not spent at Litton Cheney, they mainly centred on trips to Ireland, his father's birthplace. Cecil adored Ireland and, as Ann Broadbent recalls, at Oxford he would often take delight in regaling his eager audiences with anecdotes about the wide variety of people he met there. She says, 'As Professor of Poetry, Cecil gave something like three lectures a year. He didn't teach there on a full-time basis. Well, I remember him, during one of his lectures, telling us a very funny story about a trip to Ireland where he'd gone to see someone on business. He got to the house and announced himself, whereupon the butler promptly took him straight to the barnyard as he thought Cecil had said he was the Professor of Poultry at Oxford!'

Misunderstandings aside, Cecil's love of the emerald isle was all-encompassing and he was determined to imbue this passion in all of his children. He certainly succeeded with Daniel, whose deep and lasting affinity with all things Irish took root. Perhaps one reason for this is that being there effected a welcome change in his father. For the duration of the trip he seemed to lose the need for any barriers and became carefree, even playful, and certainly far more emotionally accessible to his children.

Cecil was, of course, in his sixties by now. There were limits to how much he could physically lark about with them, but nevertheless Daniel lapped up his attention. His happiest childhood memories, without question, focus on trout fishing or cheering on the winners of many an unofficial horse race along the beaches around County Mayo. In troubled times ahead he would draw on memories of these halcyon days to help him through.

It is true, though, that moments of emotional confusion in his life began early on for Daniel. Cecil, a man described as having exuded considerable charm, elegance and style, as possessing a spirit of generosity and laughing easily in company, was not a faithful husband. Emotionally at least, if not also physically, he was untrue to Jill – as he had been to his first wife Mary – and this naturally led to distressing outbursts between the pair.

When Daniel was just eight years old, on holiday with the family in the west of Ireland, his mother happened upon a love letter which had fallen from her husband's coat pocket. As a result of the ensuing quarrel, Jill suddenly disappeared and stayed away for a couple of days. It must have seemed a very long time to the young boy, anxious and bemused as to what was going on. Worse still, there was no reassuring explanation to Daniel or his sister from their father, and no indication as to when their mother would return either.

Indeed, Daniel's pre-teen years had more than their fair share of shadows. In the rest of Britain during the swinging mid-sixties the seams of society had given way to a much happier and more progressive freedom of expression, but life within the walls of 6 Crooms Hill clung to the mores of a bygone era. For most youngsters at this time pop music was God, with a major battle for supremacy being slugged out between devotees of the Beatles and those of the Rolling Stones. However, even the squeaky-clean Fab Four were deemed unsuitable for Daniel's young ears, so the raunchier Stones stood no chance.

By now, in accordance with Cecil's socialist principles, Daniel was attending Sherington Junior Boys School on Sherington Road, one of the local state primaries. Initially he was picked on by the other children for living in the big house and for not being one of them. His cultured accent also marked him out, earning him the nickname of 'Poshie', and the fact that he was not encouraged to bring his working-class acquaintances home highlighted the division.

Daniel quickly realised that here the rule was survival of the fittest. He would only break down the barriers by taking whatever steps were necessary to becoming more like his classmates. Determinedly he set about integrating himself into the daily fabric of life at Sherington and succeeded well enough to eventually establish himself fairly happily there.


Excerpted from Daniel Day-Lewis by Laura Jackson. Copyright © 2013 Laura Jackson. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From the Publisher
"The insight into his preparation, choice of roles and motivations might serve well the budding actor looking for inspiration."  —Publishers Weekly

Meet the Author

Laura Jackson's other biographies include Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, Neil Diamond, Queen, and Steven Tyler.

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