Daniel Day-Lewis. The last dandy
Daniel Day-Lewis, a few days before the Oscars, tells us about his Florentine retreat
When we met him in Berlin, a few days before the Academy Awards ceremony, he was very different from the man we had seen two years ago while presenting, in Berlin again, the movie “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” directed by his wife Rebecca Miller.
He had a bushy beard and long hair and was wearing an earring, old-style brown trousers and a red t-shirt. He could have been one of those homeless people walking slowly along Hollywood Boulevard and pushing a shopping cart full of junk.
The “reborn” man we met for the second time is one of the greatest actors of his generation. An actor that becomes one with his characters, who learns how to punch and lives like a hermit for six months separately from his wife to play the role of a boxer.
We are talking about Daniel Day Lewis.
There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson earned him his second Academy Award (the first one was received for his performance in My Left Foot) for his perfect interpretation of a wild, beastlike, wounded man who is unable to live at peace with himself and the others.
Now that he has won again, everything might seem easy. But there were times when he had to take refuge in Florence to recover his lost serenity and get away from a stressful world where everything is out of proportion.
“Perhaps it is not uncommon for an actor to be somewhat antisocial - he told us in Berlin- I instinctively feel when it’s time to get away from all that frenzy”. So, after The Boxer, in 1997, Daniel put himself in “retirement” for five years.
“I felt the need for doing something different. I have often taken a break from acting during my career”. That time he chose Florence to retreat from the world.
Daniel Day-Lewis had been in Florence before, for several weeks, during the shooting of the movie A Room with a View by James Ivory in 1985. Florence had been transformed into a nineteenth-century set, with young girls strolling with a parasol in Piazza Signoria.
Daniel fell in love with Florence.
That love would explode fifteen years later. Daniel’s shoemaker sent him to Florence to take foot measurements. In Florence, Daniel met Stefano Bemer, not an ordinary shoemaker, an artisan making bespoke shoes by hand with precious materials and taking all the time and calm required. Nearly timeless shoes.
Daniel had a flash of inspiration. He realized that the craft of shoemaking is an art, a sort of religious exercise, a work requiring the care and attention of an artist. Something that in Hollywood could not be found anymore.
Daniel asked Stefano Bemer to teach him how to do it. Not how to make a shoe, but how to do one’s job attentively, patiently and with obstinacy.
He probably entered Bemer’s workshop as he would have done in a Buddhist monastery and he stayed there with the persistency of a Buddhist monk. In seclusion, in a secret room, hidden from journalists and photographers.
“I have always been good at manual work” he proudly says. He has a passion for woodworking like his colleague Harrison Ford. Bemer’s shop is in the San Frediano quarter, in the heart of the true Florence, the Florence filled with artisans’ workshops: frame-makers, leather goods makers, second-hand and antique dealers. He moved into a house in the Santo Spirito area, Florence’s rive gauche, with his wife Rebecca and one-year-old son he personally took to kindergarten.
He was spotted in a sportswear store, wrapped up in a coat and sweater, he looked like anything but a celebrity, or in a nearby Japanese take-away. Anyway, his actions were not made publicly known. Hollywood wanted him back and offered him a role in Lord of the Rings and Solaris by Soderbergh. Daniel turned down the proposal.
One day, Martin Scorsese arrived in Florence. He met Daniel and talked to him. He asked him to play the role of “Bill the Butcher” in his new movie Gangs of New York.
A very violent character that Daniel would portray perfectly. Goodbye Florence and the shoemaker’s shop where he had found peace within.
“Acting is an unusual job: at first you spend time learning, then you play in one movie and another and another. One day you are worshipped, the next you are dog food. In the end you feel exhausted” he told us. It is difficult to understand. Taking a break means giving up a lot of money and success.
You have to be a strong man to stop, to have people forget about you.
Who knows if his choice was influenced by the fact that Bermer’s shoes are nearly timeless. “I have a pair of boots that belonged to my father- says Daniel-. He travelled the States for six/eight months wearing those boots when I was a child. He came back wearing those boots and with an album by Bob Dylan, The Freewhelin. Dylan was wearing the same boots on the cover of the album. My father was sixty years old but he told me. “Listen to that guy. He is a true poet”.
“When my father died- goes on Daniel- I wore those boots till the soles fell off and it broke my heart”.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why he learned to make timeless shoes in Florence.