Acting Analysis: Daniel Day-Lewis


Daniel Day-Lewis plays the heroic Hawkeye from Michael Mann’s inspiring epic, The Last of the Mohicans, one of many character portrayals in his brilliant on-going career.

“I like things that make you grit your teeth. I like tucking my chin in and sort of leading into the storm. I like that feeling. I like it a lot.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

There are actors and then there are ACTORS. Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson — these artists command the screen and have come to forever define the characters they played. Any thought of an alternative encompassing those roles is unfathomable. Today, we look to the acting talents of Daniel Day-Lewis, an artist some would consider to be the greatest actor of all-time. It’s a proclamation that is difficult to argue with.  A winner of the Academy Award an unprecedented three times, he’s widely known as a devout performer completely immersed in the method form of acting, an actor who becomes the personalities he creates. From moving our hearts with his performance as a man suffering from cerebral palsy to playing one of the most important leaders in American history, there aren’t that many actors that have demonstrated such great range and receive such wide critical acclaim.


Daniel Day-Lewis and Lina Olen star in Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed by Philip Kaufman, a film about a man who battles with his choice of sexual freedom over matters of the heart.

“I suppose I have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion, so it’s no problem for me to believe that I’m somebody else.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

Today, we’ll take a look at a few scenes of his from a small four-film sample. In each one, we’ll see that not only are Day-Lewis’s creations wholly original but that he utterly encapsulates the full range of human expression — mental,  physical, and emotional. Like the aforementioned legends before him, he has formulated characters that have come to define the very films in which they place.

Gangs Of New York (2002):


In Martin Scorcese’s colorful, if sometimes cartoony portrayal of turn of the century America, Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the charismatic villain, Bill The Butcher, a principled yet violent man, who leads an array of characters fighting for the rights to the underworld in the Five Points district of New York City in the late 19th century.

In this magnetic scene, Day-Lewis delivers a lesson in presence, rhythm and texture. Moments of stillness contrasts assertive action giving the scene weight and magnifying tension. Watch how he balances the use of body language, hesitations in his voice and cold hard stares, all of which culminates into a character who both interests us yet frightens us at the same time. When he reminisces, he lets us inside, and his Bill The Butcher is charming, human and likeable. Then, in the blink of an eye, the tone changes and the directness in which he dictates the terms pushes both us and his adversary (Amsterdam, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) back, as if he owns us, like we’re only here because he lets us be here. Afterwards, he draws us back in again, forcing us to listen attentively, playing us back and forth like the master puppeteer that both he and his character is. The scene wraps up beautifully with a series of telling physical gestures marking the end of a tale well told.

Gangs of New York may not be one of legendary director Martin Scorcese’s best, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill The Butcher shines, stealing scene after scene with his physicality, vocal delivery and command of any scene he’s in.

My Left Foot (1989):


In Director Jim Sheridan’s moving biography My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the real life story of Cerebral Palsy victim, Christy Brown — a spastic quadriplegic who later becomes a successful writer, poet and artist using only his left foot. The character is both inspirational yet unsentimental which is an unusual take on disadvantaged film characters who are typically portrayed with excessive melodrama and likeability. Day-Lewis creates a completely convincing character who challenges his environment and our view of someone living under the kind of circumstances which are beyond our comprehension.

In this five minute scene, Day-Lewis transforms his character midway by breaking out into a physical performance that grips the audience, first with stillness and then with action. Here, the physical challenges are magnified by the expression of the character’s deep emotional loneliness, creating both discomfort and empathy. Watch carefully how the tension builds and is ultimately expressed in violence. What results is tremendous sorrow and relatability. Director Jim Sheridan’s nice touch with the camera — panning around to other characters during Christy’s change in state — results in a larger perspective of the darkness and tragedy of human behavior. We feel like them — awkward, frightful and helpless — much like Christy has felt his whole life never knowing what might happen next.

The film is inspirational (and marks the first of Daniel Day-Lewis’ three Oscars). The performance is unforgettable.

There Will Be Blood (2007):


Day-Lewis plays oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s turn of century film about a man whose family, faith and fortune culminates into madness. A thoroughly enrapturing character study, it’s a film that haunts us long after the film credits roll.

In these two scenes from the film (they need to be seen together to understand them), we have Daniel first having a meeting with some company men who aim to purchase his land. At the end of this clip, Plainview storms after being offended by the man’s remarks. But before doing so, he verbally threatens him as he makes clear his position when he’s pushed by either aggression or patronization. In the second scene, he’s with his young son at a restaurant before being irked by the arrival and presence of those same adversaries. It is in this scene, where the acting really shines, as we begin to witness his pride and view of injustice (according Daniel’s own principles anyway) boil in his eyes. You witness his outlandish mockery with his little playful act with the napkin, and then, when it becomes too unbearable to stay put, he makes his displeasure known directly.  The final act of drinking the other man’s whisky is the perfect exclamation mark of a proud and imposing man, who despite his flaws, earned his keep. (Note: This action affirms his character. There is a brilliant earlier scene in the movie where his character crawls his way back to town after having broken his leg from falling down a mine shaft. It’s a scene that showcases his character’s most admirable trait – his grit and determination – one that allows the audience to respect and follow him even if doesn’t morally justify his more abhorrent actions later on.

Lincoln (2012):


In this most subdued direction by Steven Spielberg, we get to witness one of Daniel Day-Lewis’ latest and most perhaps most brilliant creation — America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. It’s been rumored that the actor spent eight months in seclusion to develop the character, from his voice all the way down to how the president would walk, sit and gesture. The portrayal is so convincing, that it’s impossible to think Lincoln walked or talked any other way. It reminds me of the story of Gilbert Stuart‘s painting of America’s first president George Washington, known as the Lansdowne Portrait. It conveyed such a regal and dignified portrayal of the president that despite it not being the most accurate likeness of him, it came to define how he would look forever in history. Every minted coin and paper currency uses that particular portrait of Washington.

“A voice is such a deep, personal reflection of character.” – Daniel Day-Lewis

In this crucial moment in the film, Day-Lewis’s character expresses not only his angst but his absolute determination and resolve when it comes to abolishing slavery in America. Here, you witness not only dignified physical expression but absolute control through his voice, which reveals deeply his frustration with the political process and the pain it has caused him. The verbal here leads and implies the physical. And as the scene plays, he becomes more animated and his drive extends more and more into his physical being, his strength building with his anger and resolve. It’s a great escalation of total human expression.

“Leaving a role is a terrible sadness. The last day of the shooting is surreal. Your soul, your body and your mind are not ready at all to see the end of this experience. In the following months after a film shoot, one feels a deep sense of void.” — Daniel Day-Lewis

There has already been so many accolades and so much said about Daniel Day-Lewis that one can easily disregard all this as another glorification of actors and their celebratory status. But if we do that, we forget to actually look at the work and study it.  We must always search for and analyze the technique, form and intent of great artistry to understand it and be touched by it and to come closer to it in our own work. And ultimately, we need to look and listen to it to be inspired because we always need inspiration. Day-Lewis’ devotion as an actor displays such tremendous comprehensiveness — taking in everything and then giving everything and more — that it reminds us that when our craft begins to defines us and us the craft, a great symbiotic relationship has been founded. This is a great personal joy to us as artists.

“At a certain age it just became apparent to me that this was probably the work that I would have to do.” — Daniel Day-Lewis



Time seems so endless and yet ever-diminishing at the same. Never in our brief human history has the concept of time become as dominant as it is now.

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein

As an animation artist the issue of time is a serious matter. As a subject it represents both a tool we use to execute our artistry and a constraint in terms of production (i.e. deadlines). But in life, time has come to be viewed as a commodity — something to possess, to get more of and to take advantage of. Speed and efficiency have become the buzz words of the 21st century.

Charlie Chaplin stars in one of his funniest films, Modern Times. Despite being made over 80 years ago, the theme of Chaplin’s film is just as significant today in its profound statement about the progress of technology and its impact on humanity.

For animators, time is represented by frames — units of measure that depict the spatial travel of objects or shapes. In typical film work, animating 24 fps (frames per second) is standard, while in Virtual Reality, the goal now is a mind-whopping 120 fps (to prevent nausea for the gamer). A solid understanding and control of time’s properties can help an animator tell a story by controlling the mood or energy of a shot. And when used in conjunction with sound posing and composition, wonderful patterns emerge forming rhythms not unlike what music creates — moments of action and stillness that trigger sensations that can’t be described verbally. Such is the beauty and power of this craft.


The suspension of disbelief through the astute usage of “hang time” are what helped make Wile E. Coyote’s foibles ever so interesting. From Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies series directed by Chuck Jones.

But like anything in film or any computer-enhanced imagery, nothing about animated time is actually real. Both the shapes made and the speed at which they travel are illusions. They can’t be physically touched and its information is contained only in an invisible digital format. Much like money and social approval, time is ultimately insubstantial — it has no physical bearing or weight. There’s nothing there. Units of time are just symbols, mere markers for the sake of convenience.

“We mistook the symbol for the real thing.” — Alan Watts


Chow Yun Fat burns counterfeit currency in his spectacular performance in director John Woo’s 1986 Hong Kong mafia flick, A Better Tomorrow, a film about money, power and brotherhood.

So the irony remains — the animator controls the units of time in his craft but not in his life. Tight external and sometimes unrealistic deadlines and creative demands generate immeasurable pressures on the production artist. We don’t have to be animators to live or understand that. This pressure is now everywhere, in every industry. We work to find time, and use that time to do more work. When do we stop or rest? What has happened to presence and leisure?

“Pruning minutes and seconds and hundredths of seconds become an obsession in all but a few segments of our society.” — James Gleick, from his book, Faster.

Having already mistaken money for wealth and social approval for love, we’ve now confused time  — or its synonymous cousin, speed — for power. The most valued artists, or workers, are not necessarily the most effective ones anymore but those that deliver “acceptable” quality the fastest. The most successful and popular product isn’t the best product but one that reaches the market in the most timely fashion. It’s why release dates, and thus deadlines, have become so important, so pressing. How did this come about? How did we so blindly and voluntarily give in to such madness? Is there truth in that old saying “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”?

Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishbourne star in the Warchowski’s brothers iconic film, The Matrix. Our minds often confuse fantasy with reality.

As a society, we have all bought into the hurry-sickness of our times. It’s hard to break free from this mindset when everyone else is on board the same ship. It’s why crowd behavior is so powerful, and manias and financial asset bubbles form. Trends and formulas get repeated. A wave of belief assures even the most suspicious-minded, luring them also towards conformity. As a modern people, we can’t stand idleness — we’re all Type A personalities now. We’re all rushing to get things done so we can do even more. Wants become needs and time is something everyone wants. Unfortunately, the more time we have, the more we tend to fill it up.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” — William Penn

Is it no surprise that every CEO, producer, manager and coordinator is trying to cram as much as possible in the schedule? I once knew of a producer who was constantly pressing his programmers to design tools to deliver animations ever faster, to reduce the need for customization and ultimately, to cut down the need for staff while at the same time, demand greater artistry and emotional connection (which of course, requires that same customization and personalization he sought so hard to eliminate). Motion capture tools, auto-animate controls, special dynamics scripts and preset lighting modules are all the rage when it comes to speeding up the animation pipeline. The motivations behind these technologies rarely have to do with advancing the art form or improving quality, but rather reducing costs in order to increase profits, which ironically is diminishing because of the constant out-bidding among studios. It’s truly becoming a fruitless and futile, lose-lose scenario. All we did was get faster.


Untitled V. The art of Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning looks like it’d be easy to duplicate to the untrained eye, but that’s far from the reality. Fantastic personal artistry is impossible to duplicate.

Fortunately, nature has its limits. Creativity, and the emotional impact that responds to the highest quality — which can only come from the personal space that lies within the artist’s mind and soul — can’t be duplicated. Did photography remove the need for drawing or painting? Do realistic animations remove the need for live actors? Will machines or programs replace artists? The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO. We don’t connect to any work that is impersonal.


If you’re Olympic Champion Usain Bolt, or any professional athlete for that matter, speed is paramount. But we must ask, for most other things in life, such as artistic creativity, why should it?

Time is a tool. As much as it is a tool to help us get things done, it’s a tool to help express our craft. Furthermore, clocks and watches helps us measure things like cooking times and athletic performance, as well as set up conveniences like meetings. But when time is used to measure artistic merit or self-worth, it fails miserably. A musician isn’t judged by how quickly he plays and neither should an artist be judged by his rate of production. No great piece of art in history, whether in the realms of music, film or painting is remembered for how quickly it was done. Yet again and again, we commonly hear how successful a person or company is because of the speed of execution or how quickly a fortune has been amassed. Let’s get over this delusion. Society has yet to realize that when one person or one company has gotten faster, so has everyone else. The end result being no one is further ahead. The goal of art (and life) shouldn’t be to do it faster, but to learn from it, dance with it, and having a bit of fun with it.

South Park Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker lend a little animation to some Alan Watts wisdom.

But what if the world refuses to behave and our deadlines remain just as real and foreboding? Well, then hard difficult decisions have to be made. We must ask, is the work we’re doing worth doing? If not, why should we keep doing it? And if it is, can we find balance somehow?  Is there a way of working within the external constraints? Musical talents like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen found ways to express their poetry in the standard three minute song. Within our everyday performance,there are many ways of working to improve our focus and effectiveness. Improved skill is highly correlated with improved efficiency and execution — it’s part of being a professional to bolster our abilities. Asking the right questions helps us get stronger. At the end of the day, we’re all  judged by the quality of our contributions. Shortcuts don’t work, they never have.

“There are no secrets that time does not reveal.” — Jean Racine

Now, the other concern we may have is whether our work will suffer if we can’t work quickly or be able to endure super long hours. My own experience has shown me that rushing decisions (for example, skipping the planning stage) and working when we’re tired both diminishes performance and results in poor delivery — which ultimately results in having to do things over and taking even longer. Bottom line is, we can only do the best we can in the time allotted — the key word being allotted. Mistakes and failure are bound to happen and we have to learn from them. They are acceptable outcomes of being an artist and being a human being. Wise organizations will make adjustments and set more achievable milestones. The unintelligible ones will remain short-sighted and have short life spans.

Always remember that lack of success doesn’t break us, but rather helps us grow — it’s good and proper feedback. Rushing and pressing for more and more, with less and less time and resources, however, can break you. In fact, it will lead to a mental state that turns us sick in mind, body and spirit. If we let something as abstract as time dominate us, we will have invited impatience, irritation and aggressiveness into our lives and allow these attributes to define us. If we let go of expectation and perpetual haste, the anxieties attached to our creative performance diminishes.

At the end of the day, art requires the time that it needs. Varied pacing and balance are needed for great and interesting art. It’s only logical that the same goes with working and living.

Perhaps this moment from John Lasseter’s marvelous film, Toy Story 2, says it best. Good work requires skill, technique, care, and most of all, time.

“Art tends toward balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.” — Robert Henri

Dealing With Criticism


The always opinionated Statler and Waldorf from Jim Henson’s marvelous creation, The Muppets. This comedy duo lambasts everything and everybody. 

“Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinion are endless.” — Seneca

Everyone’s a critic. Family, friends, peers, the boss and your mother-in-law all have signed up as candidates. If your neighbor’s dog could speak, it’d probably have something discouraging to say too. Being an artist means facing an endless barrage of opinion and conjecture. And that’s just from people with neutral to positive opinions of you. Then there are those busy-bodies — people with nothing better to do than to put other people down — they should be completely ignored and their comments erased from memory. There is no value in defending against their tired vituberations and especially if they hide under the cloak of anonymity.


Shallow Hal, starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow, is an awkward comic romance that exposes the blindness of the small minded, judgemental critic.

As for those ‘impossible to ignore’ members of your social circle, you can (and must) forgive them. For most of the time, they do not know what they speak. When people don’t get what they expect, they get upset and frustrated, and voicing their displeasure is just a dolorous yet natural consequence.  When they’re the audience, it’s their right to do so. At the same time, however, that doesn’t make their opinions necessarily valid or worth paying attention to either. Unfortunately, whether the points contended are valid or not, and no matter who they are or how strong you are, it always stings at least a bit, and sometimes a lot. No one’s immune to painful criticism or attack. Art is a personal affair exposed to the world and dealing with feedback, mean-spirited or not, is an inevitable part of being a real artist.

“Watch out for the joy-stealers: gossip, criticism, complaining, faultfinding, and a negative, judgmental attitude.” — Joyce Meyer

Film-making is hard. Making ANY art, in fact, is a tremendous struggle. But mockery, that’s easy, and a lot of the time, it’s both weak and sad. The harshest critics are, more often than not, those who have never created anything. They can’t bear to look at themselves or their own work because they haven’t done anything worth analyzing. So why should we give these people any credit or attention?


Director Steve Spielberg and company on the set of the landmark film of CGI technology, Jurassic Park. Despite his numerous accomplishments, he is often derided for both his directing choices and choice of projects. Spielberg has five films in the AFI Top 100 Films of All Time List — Jaws,  E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. How many can his critics claim?

“The better a work is, the more it attracts criticism; it is like the fleas who rush to jump on white linens.” — Gustave Flaubert

Making art is an accomplishment. Courage, effort and diligence is to be commended. It’s an eye opener to respect the creator. It’s brave to be willing to see with eyes wide open, to let in what we’re not yet comfortable with. Action speaks much louder than words, and the active use of our imagination is the ultimate action of all actions.


Image from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was very poorly received when it was released in 1982. It has since proven to be one of the most loved and creatively acclaimed science-fiction films of all time.

What about sought-after or professional criticism? As a teacher, I have one cardinal rule — don’t judge the person when judging the work. We all have a right to an opinion, but we must remember that what connects or disturbs is personal, and quite often illogical. If criticism is expected or required, it’s got to be delivered constructively — it mustn’t be vindictive or political. That said, when worthwhile and constructive opinion is present, it is usually insightful, additive and generous. It takes time and care to do it right and its contribution must be respected and gratefully accepted.

“Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy.” — Robert Henri

It’s easy to be especially susceptible to external feedback. Given how much of an artist’s success and survival is dependent on factors such as appealing to the mass market or expert opinions from art journals — we shouldn’t be surprised that any lack of appreciation or respect for our efforts digs so deep. A single critical opinion can appear to make or break books, films, and careers.


Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock seen here with wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner. Pollocks’ radical painting style and life of strife and alcoholism brought great fame to his work and his persona, but ultimately, it is his art which shines and endures. Photo by Hans Namuth.

That said, formal criticism and the business implications associated with it, is not necessarily a realistic or true assessment of your work or abilities. Neither does positive or negative critical feedback guarantee financial success or predict failure. Therefore, we must take all such news in stride and with a healthy does of perspective. Of course, this is easier said than done. We are human after all, and as artists, we are all sensitive sentient beings whose work necessitates our keen sensory attributes. It is our willingness to expose our dreams and emotions in the most vulnerable fashion that makes us artists. How could it not hurt?

Want to know what it feels like to be a literary genius? Well, here’s a tiny sample of the criticism for Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick:

“I found myself having mini emotional break downs trying to comprehend how anyone could possibly enjoy such a terrible book.”

“Like choking down a week old doughnut.”

“‘Call me Ishmael.’ It’s undoubtedly one of the most widely recognized opening lines of any classical novel. Unfortunately, it’s also the best line in the book.”

“I think Melville was a genius*, yes, but the structure in which he wrote the book did not make sense. Don’t read this book if you don’t have to.”

(*Notice that even when you’re recognized as a genius, your work is still deemed unnecessary!)

A beautiful moment from Pixar’s Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird. This wonderful gem about rats and cooking, tells a much deeper tale – one of prejudice and judgement.

So remember when things get hard, take solace in the fact that you’re the one doing the work, taking the chance and making it happen. Whether it’s received well or not, is irrelevant. It’s always good to know your work is special because it’s personal. The unknown, which both frightens and excites us, is also what frightens and excites others. It’s what makes this whole journey worthwhile.

“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettiness.” — Søren Kierkegaard

This disruption to the status quo has always been received with opposition — harsh criticism or disdain by both critics and the masses is likely if not expected. It takes time for the world to catch up to our ideas and our artistry. What’s considered great today, has only become so after the test of time when all the dust settles.

“The big men have been rare because most men heed the dictators. Nobody wanted Walt Whitman, but Walt Whitman wanted himself and now we have Walt Whitman.” — Robert Henri

Still not convinced? Still feeling raw from hurtful feedback? Well, here’s a rule to remember that should soften the blow and that is: critics say much more about themselves, then they do of the work when they criticize. If you bear this in mind, then those rather painful moments of anger or self-doubt that accompany those nasty remarks will lose its power over you.

“Everything external is but a reflection projected by the individual machine.” — Henry Miller

Seinfeld is a great comedy series that exposes the hypocrisy of mankind, and in this case, critics. Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Throughout history, the greatest artists have been mistreated, disregarded and misunderstood. The track record of the world’s juries and critics is incredibly poor. So ignore the noise — all the main stream media and social internet chatter — and just make your art. No one EVER remembers a critic. The greatest contributors to humanity became what they became because they took risks and lived with the consequences, both good and bad.


An image from the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film, Spellbound which received mixed reviews. Hitchcock was never afraid to try new things. Here, he explored the themes of psychoanalysis working with the visually creative mind of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

A final point to remember is that we artists are not alone — other artists share our pain. A powerful kinship exists that’s built on our mutual respect for our creative dedication and courage, one that stretches beyond the mere barriers of time and geography. And as a collective, we strive to work within the shackles society might put on us or break free from them altogether. We know that the solutions and hope always lie in our hands.

“Through art, mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.” — Robert Henri

So don’t worry about criticism too much. As professionals, we can only (and must) do our best. If our work is good, it will stand the test of time. Trends, fads, and trivia fade. Pay no heed to such nonsense. Trust in yourself and make your art instead.

The late Robin Williams, shares a little Walt Whitman poetry in Peter Wier’s Dead Poet’s Society, one of the most inspirational films of the 20th century.

“If you shape your life to nature, you’ll never be poor, if according to other people’s opinions, you’ll never be rich.” — Epicurus