When Daniel Day-Lewis Came to Athens

Considered perhaps the finest actor of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis has been coming to Greece for the premiere of every one of his films. Here's why.

Cameras line the back of the hall where the Athens press conference for the film Phantom Thread is about to take place. Some camera operators are getting ready for a live transmission. Journalists of all ages and calibres arrive and take their seats underneath the hall’s lavish chandeliers. There is a murmur of low-level chatter among colleagues. Gradually, about a dozen photographers huddle up front and center for the perfect shot of the talent who is running a little late. They seem a little fidgety. All of a sudden, the journalists start to applaud and, as if on cue, the photographers begin to click simultaneously.

Three-time Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis has just entered the room, accompanied by his old friend Daphne Economou whom he puts an arm around as he poses for the photographers, familiar with the routine. A desperate photographer keeps yelling “get out of the way” towards some unidentified obstacle. Day-Lewis looks humble, smiling a generous and contagious smile.

As the clapping subsides he takes his place at the dais between his friend on one side, and a well-known Greek film critic on the other who will be coordinating the conference. The photographers are allowed some more photos with the film poster as backdrop before they have to be almost forcibly removed so the conference can begin.

Daniel Day-Lewis is in Athens for the premiere of his latest film – which he has also stated will be his cinematic swan-song. But this is not the first time he is in town, nor the first Greek premiere he is attending. In fact, he has been attending the Greek premieres of all his movies since 1989. That was the year he made the film My Left Foot (for which he picked up his first Oscar) where he played Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy, who could control only his left foot.

To prepare for the role he spent three months in a school for disabled children in Dublin, which immersed him in their world. It was then that he realized that Daphne Economou, the mother of George Economou, his good friend from college (the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School), was president of Cerebral Palsy Greece, an organisation that had been caring for people with cerebral palsy and raising awareness since 1972. He immediately decided to help by donating the proceeds from the film’s Greek premier to the organisation.

Cynics might dismiss that move as a savvy exercise in public relations. But if it was, it has been remarkably long-lasting: since then – effectively over almost his entire career – he has seen to it that the revenue from every Greek premiere of his films has gone to supporting the work of Cerebral Palsy Greece.

The press conference kicks off with the coordinator asking a few questions about the film at hand and his collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis is eloquent and takes his time with the answers — even joking about them being too long. Soon, it’s the journalists’ turn to pose some questions, but not before the coordinator can seek to quench everyone’s curiosity by addressing the “elephant in the room,” as he calls Day-Lewis’ decision to quit acting.

I (and everyone else in the room) lean in to listen. I mean, it is a decision that begs for an explanation; he is immensely talented, only in his early 60s, and unlike so many other artists who do not know when to stop, he simply decided to. Why?

“If I knew the answer I would probably try and avoid answering it anyway. But as it happens, I can’t answer the question. I wouldn’t have chosen to try and talk about it. I already feel that I talk too much about it. I don’t fully understand [my decision] but it came to me with a sense of conviction and so I choose to move forward in acceptance of that, rather than struggling with it. I am sure there’ll be struggles in the future because it’s work that I’ve loved not just in my adult life but since I was a child and in a way it saved me from myself when I was a kid. It’s been a sanctuary in many ways. It’s been an endless source of fascination for me. I’ve had wonderful collaborative relationships with many actors and directors, cinematographers, crews and I am incredibly thankful for all of it, but I just feel that I need to explore the world in a different way now.”

I like that last bit about explorations – occupational hazard, I guess – and I am tempted to ask him to elaborate, but it seems like it would be too irrelevant. And yet, it is about explorations that Day-Lewis goes on to talk about — in answer to the coordinator’s question about his method-acting technique.

He has never been a fan of the British tradition which dictates that the transformation for a role begins from the exterior. “Otherwise we would just wear a fake mustache and go out and deliver our lines.” Day-Lewis prefers to begin from the interior. He talks about the explorations into the life of the characters he portrays which are necessary if he is to understand and be faithful to them. And, of course, the consequent self-exploration which comes with being an actor. His characters may be the complete opposite of him, but there’s always some aspect of his own self he gets to explore through his parts.

“And what happens to all those extraordinary characters that you create when you are done filming?” asks a journalist. Day-Lewis smiles, liking the question, “Well, I guess they go back where they came from, inside me. They live with me.” Though people think he is crazy, he adds, he likes to hold on to his characters after filming. He does not need to untangle as one might think. In fact, he is rather bewildered when a film wraps and someone hands him a plane ticket back home, so holding on to his characters is a way of coping.

“So would you be going back to working with your hands now that you are retiring?” asks another journalist. Day-Lewis has famously worked as both a carpenter and a shoe-cobbler. “I like making things with my hands. The focus required quietens the spirit. There’s a serenity I’ve always envied in people that use their hands, especially when I was younger and a ‘savage.’ I once asked to work as a cabinet-maker’s apprentice, but I was told that I did not have the temperament for that. My reply was a [crazy-angry] ‘what!?’ – which showed that I clearly did not have the right temperament.” He laughs along with the audience.

“I don’t think I will be going back to doing things with my hands. I might mend my kids’ trousers, however, which I am already doing anyway.” (more laughter).

After some more film-related questions, Daphne Economou wraps things up with a few touching words about Daniel-Lewis the person: “Nobody in this room can doubt Daniel’s enormous talent as an actor. I would like to mention his other great talent and that is a talent for friendship and for love.” Which comes as no surprise. He has, after all, been coming to Athens not to promote his films but rather to be there for the children of Cerebral Palsy Greece’s Open Door Centre of Education and Rehabilitation.

Economou stresses that: “The only reason Daniel is with us today are those children.” He humbly nods in agreement.

* Phantom Thread premiered in Greece on February 1 at the Greek National Opera’s Stavros Niarchos Hall (Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center). It is nominated for six Academy Awards (including one for best performance by an actor in a leading role).

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