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Striking It Rich: Day-Lewis Digs Deep for His Role as Oil Tycoon


 BEVERLY HILLS -- Here's one way to tell when Daniel Day-Lewis has gotten into character: He'll bean you with a bowling ball.
Not that he exudes anger or aggression. If anything, the lanky actor seems the antithesis of the often-fearsome characters he plays.
But when it comes to embracing a role, few do it with the zeal of Day-Lewis.
Paul Dano learned that the hard way. Dano, who play opposite Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, which opens Wednesday, had to square off against the star in a key bowling alley fight sequence.
The scene called for Day-Lewis to fling bowling balls and pins at Dano. Real balls. Real pins. 
"They start flying, and I realize he's getting into it," Dano says. "Then a ball bounces up and hits me in the leg. And I'm thinking, 'OK, those are heavy. This is getting serious. I better duck.'"
Such are the perils of working opposite Day-Lewis, a press-shy actor who has become, almost in spite of himself, a critical darling and the front-runner for the Oscars, which are still 2 1/2 months away.
"The three sure thing in this Oscar race are that Daniel Day-Lewis, George Clooney (Michael Clayton) and Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) will be nominated for best actor," says Dave Karger, Academy Awards prognosticator for Entertainment Weekly. "And Daniel Day_Lewis has a commanding lead."
That kind of talk unnerves Day-Lewis, who prefers not to command anything but his characters. The 50-year-old is reticent to do a movie, let alone discuss it.
"This is all kind of silliness, isn't it?" he says over fruit at the secluded Bel-Air Hotel. "The thing I find hardest about making movies is talking about them. You want people to discover your movie, or there's not much mystery to it."
There is, though, still some mystery to Day-Lewis, primarily because he's as close to a recluse as Hollywood actors get, and not many people see his work.
He lives in a rural country home near Dublin with his wife, actress Rebecca Miller, and their three sons. He has done only four movies in a decade, and not one has been a runaway hit. His biggest movie, 2003's Gangs of New York, did $77 million domestically.
That hasn't stopped the accolades. He has been nominated for three best actor Oscars and won one, for 1989's My Left Foot. Already, he has earned nine wins and nominations from critics groups for his portrayal of an oil baron in Blood, including Thursday's Screen Actors Guild nomination.
Whether Blood changes his star status, though, is anyone's guess. The film by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie  NightsMagnolia) is a sprawling  about California's booming oil industry at the turn of the century -- not exactly popcorn fare.
And, despite the title, there isn't much blood.
But Day-Lewis doesn't mind the tough sell. If anything, he's drawn to it.
"I'm attracted to thing I know very little about," he says. "The further away a character is from me, the tougher it is to find, the better."
'He's a chameleon'

Certainly, reading Day-Lewis' own character isn't easy. He as articulate as an English professor and as tattooed as a rock star. Most of the body art is hand prints of his children, climbing up his arms to his shoulders.
He stands nearly 6-foot-2 but tends to slouch. He dresses like he has house chores waiting, but the hoop earring in each ear hints at the artistic streak.
"in a way, what makes him so good is he doesn't have a persona," says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. "There isn't a Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle. He's a chameleon who disappears into each character. The guy in Last of the Mohicans doesn't resemble the guy in The Age of Innocence. That we don't have a strong sense of him from the talk show circuit helps."
On this, however, there is no confusion: The guy is deliberate. Ask him a question and he'll ponder for 10 seconds the answer. Offer him a movie, and he'll prepare for two years.
That was the case with Blood, based very loosely on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!
After taking the role of Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis spent two years researching the tools and dialect of the period, including obtaining audio recording from Dust Bowl witnesses.
For Mohicans, he built a canoe and learned to hunt and skin animals.
For Foot, he practiced eight weeks for the opening scene, which called for him to put the needle on a record with his toe. He got it on the first take.
"Daniel has two gears: neutral and fifth," says Anderson. "He'll go off and simmer on the part. Then when it's time, he'll explode in that character."
He inhabits a character throughout a movie. During Blood's 60-day shoot, Day-Lewis stayed in his role, refusing even to acknowledge the actor playing his character's nemesis, the hell-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday.
He employed the same tactic with Leonard DiCaprio in Gangs.
DiCaprio survived it. The actor who originally played Sunday -- whom Day-Lewis, Anderson and the studio refuse to identify -- did not. He was fired halfway through the movie, and Dano was brought on.
For Dano, who had worked with Day-Lewis on The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the intensity was welcome.
"It's pretty easy t get into character when you come on set and don't really acknowledge each other," Dano says.
"I didn't see Daniel. I saw Plainview. It helps when you're going to be slapping the hell out of each other. I haven't seen anyone who disappears in his character like Daniel does."
Stage to big screen

Credit Taxi Driver for that. Day-Lewis says he decided he wanted to be a film actor -- telling American stories -- after seeing the 1976 Martin Scorsese classic.
He became obsessed with American Method actors after that. Although he began on the British stage, he devoured Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro movies. He'd walk out of spaghetti Western marathons mimicking Clint Eastwood's gangly body movements.
"I knew it would be heresy to leave the theater in England," Day-Lewis says. "But there was something infinite about the stories you could tell in American movies.  The dialogue doesn't have to be so clever. There's something very real about the characters in American movies. Well, the good ones."
And he was convinced he found one in Anderson's scrips. Like Day-Lewis, Anderson takes time choosing projects. His last movie was 2002's Punch Drunk Love with Adam Sandler.
Anderson says he had no intention of turning Sinclair's 1927 book about the oil business into a film. Initially, he adapted one scene "just as an exercise. I hadn't been liking what I was writing lately."
That scene grew into a film, one that took stars and filmmakers to the remote arid landscape of Marfa, Texas. The crew built and 80-foot derrick filled with fake oil that Anderson says included ingredients used in McDonald's milkshakes.
"We weren't really on sets," Day-Lewis says. "When you're isolated out in the desert, you feel like you're prospecting. Every place felt like you were in that world."
That included the bowling alley, which was oon the Beverly Hills estate of the late oil magnate Edward Doheny. In addition to Sinclair's book, Blood is loosely based on the life of Doheny, who began as an itinerant gold prospector and went on to become the billionaire owner of Pan American Petroleum and Transport Co.
The setting, Day-Lewis says, allowed the actors to take the gloves off, literally.
"I guess you always have to be carful of taking your character home with he," he says with a grin. "But that's why I choose carefully."
So what will he choose next?
"I'm not sure,"  Day-Lewis says. I'll have to slow boil on it a bit."