What’s it really like to work with Daniel Day-Lewis? Team ‘Phantom Thread’ tells all

The three-time Oscar winner secluded himself from his co-star and improvised some of the fashion drama’s funniest moments.

He’s also one of the most dedicated, notorious for his intense preparation and method acting whenever he steps onto a film set. That was certainly true of his approach to Phantom Thread (now playing in New York and Los Angeles; expands Jan. 12), which reunites him with There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. 

The 1950s drama weaves a curious love story between Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a London dressmaker obsessed with his work, and his muse Alma (newcomer Vicky Krieps), who resorts to sordid measures to hold his attention. It’s also said to be Day-Lewis’ last movie, after the 60-year-old announced in June that he’s quitting acting for good. 

More: Daniel Day-Lewis’ ‘Phantom Thread’ co-star thought she auditioned for a student film

With his retirement imminent, we couldn’t help but wonder what he’s actually like to work with. Here’s what Anderson, Krieps and costume designer Mark Bridges had to say: 

1. He created a dress from scratch to prepare. 

Day-Lewis fully immersed himself in the fashion world before shooting Phantom Thread. He studied couture gowns from the period at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and trained with a cutter in New York for months. His education culminated with a re-creation of  a Balenciaga sheath dress from a photograph: he sketched it, using his wife (filmmaker Rebecca Miller) as a model, and then stiched it together. 

“I must say, it turned out pretty darn well,” Bridges says. “I believe his wife has worn it out in public. He certainly does his homework.”

Fitting becomes an erotic exercise for Reynolds (Day-Lewis) and Alma (Krieps). (Photo: Photo : Laurie Sparham / Focus Features)

2. His shorthand with Anderson made filming easier.

Because Day-Lewis played such a prominent role in helping develop the script, “there was not much dialogue (between us) once we got to the actual shooting day,” says Anderson, who says they averaged six to eight takes for most scenes. Rather, daily deliberations “would most likely have to do with a wardrobe decision, like what color bow tie. That was usually discussed over breakfast, and then we would get to work.”

3. He (mostly) kept to himself. 

Ever the method actor, Day-Lewis requested that he not rehearse with Krieps beforehand. In fact, they met for the first time on set, to film the scene in which Reynolds introduces himself to Alma. “That was unusual and scary, because I didn’t know what to expect,” Krieps says. But his full immersion into the role  ultimately helped her own performance: “I just accepted whatever he would bring as a character. I didn’t have to ask myself, ‘Is this the character, or is this Daniel now?’ “

And as the relationship between Reynolds and Alma progressed, so did the actors’ friendship offscreen. “As the story would go along, we would meet in between (takes) and have tea, or eat our lunch on the square outside of the house,” Krieps adds. “But it was always related to the character and the work.”

With withering stares and dry one-liners, Reynolds (Day-Lewis, left) and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) bring levity to ‘Phantom Thread.’ (Photo: Laurie Sparham, AP)

4. Some of his funniest onscreen moments were off the cuff. 

“What’s missing from all stories that you read about Daniel and the mythology that seems to follow him around is just how funny he is,” Anderson says. “That might seem strange, because he’s considered a very serious actor, but he knows what makes me laugh and how to do it.” Some of Day-Lewis’ comical contributions included Reynolds’ meticulous grooming ritual and unwieldy breakfast order early in the film, although his most unexpected improvisation was during a confrontational, climactic dinner with Alma. 

“What Daniel brought to the scene was as soon as (Reynolds) takes a bite, he prepares his fork in a stabbing position — just in case,” Anderson says. “I didn’t know that was coming, and I started laughing.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, left, and Day-Lewis, who are collaborating for a second time after 2007’s ‘There Will Be Blood.’ (Photo: Evan Agostini, Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

5. He lost himself in Reynolds, to the point that it was overwhelming. 

In a rare interview with W magazine, Day-Lewis discussed an inexplicable “sadness” that came over him while playing the character, which contributed to his decision to retire from acting. Asked if he’s ever concerned that the three-time Oscar winner goes too deeply into his roles, Anderson responds, “Not really. I like the way that he works, and I feel at home with the same level of investment and concentration.”

As for his retirement, “Like a lot of people, I hope he changes his mind,” Anderson says. He hasn’t broached the subject with him yet, but “maybe we’ll deal with it later.” 

 

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