Daniel Day-Lewis, Oliver Twist, and the Mysterious Spectacle of Acting

A recent interview with Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis in London’s Telegraph Magazine prompted some reflection on the nature of acting.

“Because of his commitment to a character, he has a very difficult time disengaging from a part. ‘There’s a terrible sadness,’ he told me. ‘The last day of shooting is surreal. Your mind, your body, your spirit are not prepared to accept that this experience is coming to an end. You’ve devoted so much of your time to unleashing, in an unconscious way, some sort of spiritual turmoil, and even if it’s uncomfortable, no part of you wishes to leave that character behind. The sense of bereavement is such that it can take years before you can put it to rest.’”

I recently watched the masterpiece “There Will Be Blood” and loved it. The film showcases Day-Lewis’s performance and reveals the actor to be probably the finest of his time. Acting is something of a mystery, a mysterious spectacle, and Day-Lewis is the embodiment of this enigma. Though he often struggles to get out exactly what it is that allows him to power through his performances, the above quotation explains a bit of his magic. For Day-Lewis, acting is a spiritual exercise, an attempt to find the soul of the character he is charged with portraying. No mere act of mirroring, acting for Day-Lewis signifies an assumption of the personality of another. It is for this reason that his performances draw your eyes like a burning sun.

My wife recently endured (well, I think she actually enjoyed it) a round of Day-Lewis films due to a slightly obsessive desire on my part to watch the actor portray other characters. My favorite film of the few we’ve watched was the 1997 drama “The Boxer”, a tale of tragic love set against the backdrop of bloody 1990s Ireland. Don’t watch the film if you want lots of fireworks and crazy plot twists. The film itself is moving and well-made, but the thing to watch is Day-Lewis’s portrayal of a once-imprisoned boxer who seeks not vengeance but peace in the midst of a hometown torn apart by feuds between the Protestants and Catholics. The actor glides quietly through scenes washed in dark colors and carves out a man who is simultaneously capable of ferocity in the ring and tenderness with the street children he trains in his boxing club. One is moved not so much by swelling music or emotional outbursts but by Day-Lewis’s profound humanity. In a town where men recruit boys to blow other men up, “Danny” devotes his life to living for others, to helping those around him in a self-sacrificial way. His character is nuanced, emotionally etched as if with the finest of brushes, and awes the viewer for the good he is able to accomplish by his gentle but stubborn will. In a world where so many men are worthy only of epithets, Danny’s goodness considered as a whole puts tears in one’s eyes. I’ve rarely been motivated to live more for the Lord by an invented person, but I was by this character as played flawlessly by Day-Lewis.

I remember playing the character Oliver Twist many years ago, back when I was the world’s smallest eighth-grader. I have no illusions that I burrowed deeply into that character, though I can still make my mother and sister cry by singing “Where Is Love?”. That useful talent aside, there is something in me that yearns to emulate Day-Lewis in disappearing into a character and bringing it to life. I don’t think that I ever will, and I’m not sure that I ever could, but perhaps some out there understand this desire to probe the magic of drama. Is there not something almost unearthly about playing another person? I recall my limited drama experience with great happiness, and I suppose I’ll carry a bit of a sadness with me until the end due to my inability to act. We all carry bits of sadness with us, I suppose, and that’s one of mine.

But I can’t stay melancholy for long, much as my current musical accompaniment (the Cranberries’ “Empty”, chosen in honor of Day-Lewis) seeks to do. It is a joy that though I do not now act, others do, others of great talent and insight. Perhaps more than this, though, this brief reflection on this “mysterious spectacle” that we call acting takes us to something beyond, something higher, something quite magical and mysterious, but something also real. One recalls a performance that involved the assumption of another nature, but this assumption was no fictional exercise, but one of authentic reality. Jesus Christ took on flesh and entered into a drama of positively cosmic proportions. The drama’s climax, the death of the God-man, does not merely move us by its example. No, it has changed we who love Christ to our very core. Never was anything so real, so transformingly real, as this act. Held up against this figure, all our acting appears as vanity, for what is it that we strive for in our acting but the assumption of a second personality and the transformation of our audience? Daniel Day-Lewis may move us, but in Jesus Christ, we have found a performer, a dramatic figure, whose very real crucifixion has not simply touched us, or awed us, but has made us nothing less than a new creation. That, friends, is a mysterious spectacle we cannot quite comprehend, a genuine performance we cannot ever reproduce.


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