Deconstructing Daniel Plainview

September 4, 2017

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has appeared on a bounty of top ten lists over the last ten years: top ten of the decade, top ten of the aughts, top ten of all time, top ten acting performances–and so many more. It could be argued that this level of praise is a bit unexpected for such a harsh and unforgiving film; certainly,  TWBB is a very dark, nasty, and relentless little ditty. But given Daniel Day-Lewis’ no holds barred performance as the cynical and murderous Daniel Plainview, all expectations and strictures fly straight out the window.

In the attached clip, heavyweight writer-director Quentin Tarantino opines on Lewis’ watershed performance. He argues that in the first scene of the film, the broken-legged prospector Daniel Plainview literally drags himself back to town–which is seemingly miles away–on his hands and knees through the roughest terrain imaginable after striking gold. And the material point is that Lewis pulls the role off with such grit and authenticity that you believe Plainview would actually crawl through broken glass to achieve his goals, which in this case is enormous wealth–wealth that would put him out of contact with ordinary people who he ostensibly loathes.

The question then becomes how do you create a character that would swim through a river of vomit to succeed? Well, of course, Lewis’ preparations and commitment are indeed legendary. He is said to have never left his wheelchair during the filming of My Left Foot; he actually built his character John Proctor’s wooden house in the 17th-century drama The Crucible; and Daniel is purported to have thrown real bowling balls at his co-star Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood–which hurt!

Lewis had over two years, albeit with interruptions, to research and “discover the whole life” of Plainview. And being that his common practice is to remain in character both on and off the set, his wife and children had to live with the ruthless man for long periods of time. “You go to these great lengths to imagine another world and time and imagine a man, like Plainview, living in those times–and having spent your imagination on that, it seems more fun to live there all the time than jumping in and out,” he once revealed. “That is the playground you’ve created, so why not stay there and play?”

Lewis’ legendary commitment is paramount in crafting such titanic and compelling characters, no doubt. But, it should be noted, that the first two weeks of the shoot were very stressful for the director. It turns out that Lewis’ well-nurtured character was clearly off the mark and not fitting into the overall dynamics of the film. When Lewis was told to look at the dailies after those first weeks, he didn’t need anyone to spell it out–he immediately understood he needed to make changes. And like a pro, he quickly adapted. Could it be that after all the training and preparation, simply being present on set, flexible with direction, and exhibiting a determination to pursue excellence were the most important factors in Plainview’s portrayal? Whatever the case, Lewis has said he likes the mystery of how his characters come into being and how they fit into their worlds. And he finds the most fascinating aspect of his work as an actor to be the part which he has “absolutely no control over whatsoever.”