Inside The Process: Daniel Day-Lewis’ Intense Portrayal of a Tree in his Nephew’s 3rd Grade Play

While many were convinced that acclaimed actor and Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis was truly retired from acting following 2017’s Phantom Thread, it seems that he’s back at it yet again. This time his re-emergence from retirement was inspired by none other than his young nephew Franklin Day-Lewis’ third grade play after another student’s father was unable to perform his role as Background Tree. We were fortunate enough to get to sit down with Day-Lewis and delve into his acting process.

The Salmon Pages: So, we think it’s really sweet that you did your nephew a favor by stepping into this role. How exactly did it come about?

Daniel Day-Lewis: A few corrections, if I may. Not a single thing about this adventure young Franklin and I went on was sweet. In fact, the production was an utter nightmare from head to toenails but we’ll get to that. Secondly, an actor does not “step into” a role like it’s a pair of house slippers, but merely “becomes” the role.

As for your question, a father of another child in the play abandoned the role of Tree, saying he was ‘too busy with work’ but it was evident to me he cares nothing for theater or perhaps even his child and would’ve botched the role anyway. So, naturally, I offered my services when Franklin relayed the story to me at a family dinner.

TSP: That’s so nice of you. But of course it’s a volunteer role in a grade school play. It must’ve felt pretty silly being up there as basically background scenery after playing roles like Daniel Plainview and Bill The Butcher. Did it take any preparation at all?

DDL: Merging one’s consciousness with that of a tree is quite complex, as the tree itself is alive, of course. But plainly speaking, I spent a good month standing very still and tree-like amongst my fellow arboreal friends of Avondale forest outside my home in County Wicklow, Ireland.

I was rained upon. I was marked by a hunting dog. A family of robins nested on my shoulder. But as my body sadly cannot operate by the laws of photosynthesis, I was forced to dine on the grass below. Thus, my character of Background Tree became a cannibalistic deformity as a simple byproduct of my humanity.

After such a grueling and lengthy study, I returned to London to my nephew’s school theater and felt myself weighted by the incredible privilege of many, many words to say on behalf of the tree community, as it were. So I did add some dialogue to say the least.

TSP: Early reviews of the play — which, we should add, is a vastly simplified version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ made for children — said you were, “Like a tyrannical monster bent on righting humanity’s wrongs against nature by yelling at a group of terrified kids.” Do you think that’s a fair reaction?

DDL: Do you think life is fair, little website newspaper boy? Do you think the child performers on the stage that night will grow up to treat this planet even one iota better than the silly oafs who birthed them? In fact, had the children properly prepared, the courageous Dorothy and Wicked Witch of the West would never have burst into tears and ruined their makeup. The Cowardly Lion was the only performer worthy of any respect.

TSP: Aww. Was that your nephew?

DDL: No, my nephew was another tree. Albeit bland and unwilling to risk diverging from the script apart from fleeing the stage. Very untree-like, I’ll tell you that.

TSP: Based on that awful experience, will you actually retire now? Go back to cobbling shoes?

DDL: “Awful experience”? Mr. Salmon, I’ve been offered a year-long one man show at the Royal National Theater based on my performance. They’ve practically chiseled my name into the side of a Tony award already. We’re bringing in a new set of children for every show to keep the scares legitimate. It’s going to be wondrous.