What’s the Deal with Daniel Day Lewis?
This is a post related to my theory about Stochastic Aesthetics, and how it applies to acting. What’s going on here is, I’m trying to figure out what acting is. While I was at that Theater Research Symposium, some folks asked questions about Daniel Day Lewis–who has a reputation for being completely subsumed by his roles–and whether or not it was good or bad for actors to be like that.
One of the professors said something about truth or honesty, and I’m not sure I believe that.
Well, let me put it another way. I don’t know anything about “truth.” I know what I see, certainly–or, at least, I know that I see it. Or else, I know that I think I see it. And I know what it is–or, I know that I think I know what it is. Whatever it is, I know that it’s something.
Whatever Daniel Day Lewis is doing, as an actor–building a house for himself to live in for The Crucible, or always talking in that crazy accent for Gangs of New York–he’s doing something. And when it comes to activities like this, there are two salient questions: first, what is it, actually? Second, how is he doing it?
Well, what is he doing? I don’t know. I know that a lot of people think that Daniel Day Lewis is a good actor, and I certainly think he’s a good actor. I’m going to engage in a Socratic Dialogue with myself, and see if I can figure it out.
Daniel Day Lewis is a good actor.
How do you know?
Well, he was really good in Gangs of New York.
What does that mean, he was really good?
I mean, I really believed he was a real person in that.
He is a real person; he’s Daniel Day Lewis.
I mean, I believed he was someone other than Daniel Day Lewis.
But you don’t know Daniel Day Lewis. How do you know that’s not what he’s like?
Well, I’ve seen Daniel Day Lewis in other roles, and he was different in those.
So, does that mean you can only recognize that an actor is good if you’ve seen him in several movies?
No, I think you can know that an actor is good from just one movie.
So, what made his performance in Gangs of New York good?
I just really believed his performance in it.
You’ve said that, what does that mean?
I mean, I believed that he was really Bill the Butcher.
But you don’t know who Bill the Butcher was. How do you know he was like that?
Well, when he did things, it made sense that he was doing them.
So, you’ve got some kind of sense for when Bill the Butcher is doing something that’s Bill the Butchery, and for when he’s not?
Well, where did you get this sense?
From the movie, I guess. I don’t know anything about New York gangs.
Ah! So, by watching the movie, you got an idea for what Bill the Butcher is like–how he should behave, what kinds of things he could say, what kinds of characteristics he ought to have–and from that, you were able to determine that Daniel Day Lewis was behaving the way that Bill the Butcher ought to be. But, did nothing he do surprise you?
A lot of things he did surprised me. Like, when he tapped his metal eye with the knife. I didn’t think he was going to do that.
So, he did do things that you didn’t anticipate, but they still fulfilled this sense of “That’s a Bill the Butcher thing to do?”
But he could have done something that was out of character. Something that would make you think, “That’s not the kind of thing that Bill the Butcher would do”?
Yes, but he didn’t. Daniel Day Lewis is very good.
I know, I agree, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this. Would it be fair to say that Daniel Day Lewis could do things in Gangs of New York, and those things could even be surprising and unexpected, but as long as they didn’t violate your sense of “what is Bill the Butchery,” then those things could be called good aspects of his performance?
Yes, that sounds about right. So, doctor, what’s wrong with me?
Phlebitis. You’ve been sleeping with too many hookers.
Okay! So, that was a Socratic Dialogue. I think that what we’re seeing happen is that we, the audience, are given a certain number of cues and restrictions–via the setting, via description and dialogue, and via the character’s past behaviors–that gives us an idea of what kind of things should be true. And when those shoulds are met, our idea of the character is reinforced. It might be right to say that an actor who fulfills all of the “shoulds” of character behavior has turned in a decent performance–but a great actor is one who is able to deliver surprises that are unanticipated, but not unanticipatable. That is to say, he can do things that you didn’t expect, but when you attempt to reconcile those unexpected behaviors with the things that you already know should be true, you find that there’s no essential contradiction.
(There’s another level to do this, and it’s got to do with Dr. House, so I’m going to skip it for now.)
So, now that we have kind of an idea of what Daniel Day Lewis is actually doing onstage or screen–that is, he is both fulfilling out expectations of how a particular character ought to behave, and sort of improvising on those expectations–it’s important to get an idea of how, exactly he’s doing it.
I mean, why is he building a cabin in the woods, by hand, so he can do a good job in the Crucible? You and I, the audience members, don’t get to see the cabin. It’s not in the movie. And if Daniel Day Lewis has tell-tale cabin-building calluses on his hands, they’re necessarily too small to notice–and, even if I DID notice them, I don’t know the difference between cabin-building calluses and, say, lobster-fishing calluses, so I wouldn’t recognize them anyway. So what was the point of that?
In acting class, they tell you that you have to be honest, or that you have to find truth, or the truth of the character, or things like that, and this all sounds like nonsense to me. It gives acting teachers this idea that they’re promoting some kind of spiritual development, as well as a craft, and this also sounds like nonsense.
But one of the other things they tell you is, “don’t indicate.” “Indicating” is a thing that an actor does when they want to show the audience something. Like, if your character is sad, you will snuffle and shed tears that the audience can see, and that way they’ll know your sad. This is frowned upon, of course, because it looks fake.
Or, rather, it’s frowned on when it looks fake. If you could do it without looking fake, acting teachers wouldn’t notice. (This is 100% true. Acting teachers do not have magic powers, or even heightened sensitivities. They CANNOT read your mind.) So, this leads us to another important question: sometimes, doing a thing looks fake. Sometimes it doesn’t. What’s the difference?
Good question, I don’t know. But I believe that there must be a difference. Human beings have five limited means through which they can perceive each other (in film, really only two)–whatever that difference is, it MUST be transmitted through those channels. It must be something that we can either see, or hear, or both.
And, in fact, since there is no arbitrary truth being uncovered here, however Daniel Day Lewis is doing it, what he’s really doing is indicating to the audience certain aspects of Bill the Butcher’s character. He’s just doing it in a way that doesn’t look fake.
Well, so. Here’s the thing: demonstrating that you’re sad isn’t the same thing as being sad, so why should they look the same? Indicating to the audience an emotion looks like what it is: indicating. Being sad looks like being sad (mostly). This suggests that the easiest way to indicate sadness is simply to be sad. And, since we know from science that human beings tend to not consciously notice a lot of information that still affects us, this is also the most comprehensive way to indicate sadness.
Actually being sad fills all those channels, conscious and unconscious, that the audience has access to with sad signifiers–this is a handy shortcut for an actor, because otherwise, they’d need to find some way to consciously put those signifiers in those channels, and since some of the channels at least are probably unconscious, this can be tricky.
But not necessarily impossible–after all, humans are pretty good at recognizing abstracts. We can ascertain a thing’s nature from seeing some scratched lines on paper–a thing doesn’t need to be a photograph for us to recognize it. So, many of those channels that are filled with the sad signifiers may just be wasted energy anyway–a kind of sensory overkill.
But, if it’s so easy to be sad, why not just be sad, and be sure? Well, for a lot of reasons. In the first place, being sad is hard. In the second place, being sad on cue can probably damage your sad muscles (I’m not joking, this is a metaphor) which can be problematic later in life. And, in the third place, actually being sad can interfere with many of the other things you need to do onstage or onscreen. Enunciating clearly, for example, or not tripping on the furniture.
The point of all of this is: what Daniel Day Lewis is doing is stochastic aesthetics: purposefully establishing expectations, then either fulfilling or surprising them. How he is doing it is a different question altogether–and while many people have many theories about how valuable or how effective it is, no one seems to have bothered to test it.