Day-Lewis shifted between theatre and film for most of the early 1980s, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream, before appearing in the 1984 film The Bounty. He starred in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), his first critically acclaimed role, and gained further public notice with A Room with a View (1985). He then assumed leading man status with The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988).
One of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, Day-Lewis has earned numerous awards, including three Academy Awards for Best Actor for his performances in My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007) and Lincoln (2012), making him the only male actor in history to have three wins in the lead actor category and one of only three male actors to win three Oscars. He was also nominated in this category for In the Name of the Father (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002). He has also won four BAFTA Awards for Best Actor, three Screen Actors Guild Awards and two Golden Globe Awards. In November 2012, Time named Day-Lewis the "World's Greatest Actor". In June 2014, he received a knighthood at Buckingham Palace for services to drama.
Day-Lewis announced his retirement in 2017, following the completion of his acting role in Phantom Thread.
Day-Lewis was born in Kensington, London, the son of poet Cecil Day-Lewis and English actress Jill Balcon. His father, who was born in Ballintubbert, County Laois, Ireland, was of Protestant Anglo-Irish and English background, lived in England from the age of two, and later became the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Day-Lewis's mother was Jewish; her ancestors were Jewish immigrants to England from Latvia and Poland. His maternal grandfather, Sir Michael Balcon, was the head of Ealing Studios. Two years after his birth, his family moved to Croom's Hill, Greenwich, south-east London, where Day-Lewis grew up along with his older sister, Tamasin, who became a documentary filmmaker and television chef.
Living in Greenwich (he attended Invicta and Sherington Primary Schools), Day-Lewis found himself among tough South London children, and, being "Jewish" and "posh", he was often bullied. He mastered the local accent and mannerisms and credits that as being his first convincing performance. Later in life, he has been known to speak of himself as very much a disorderly character in his younger years, often in trouble for shoplifting and other petty crimes.
In 1968, Day-Lewis's parents, finding his behaviour to be too wild, sent him to the independent Sevenoaks School in Kent as a boarder. At the school, he was introduced to his three most prominent interests: woodworking, acting, and fishing. His disdain for the school grew, and after two years at Sevenoaks, he was transferred to another independent school, Bedales in Petersfield, Hampshire, which his sister attended, and which had a more relaxed and creative ethos. The transfer led to his film debut at the age of 14 in Sunday Bloody Sunday in which he played a vandal in an uncredited role. He described the experience as "heaven", for getting paid £2 to vandalise expensive cars parked outside his local church.
For a few weeks in 1972, he and his parents and sister lived at Lemmons, the north London home of Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Cecil Day-Lewis had cancer and Howard invited the family to Lemmons as a place they could use to rest and recuperate. Cecil died there in May that year.
Leaving Bedales in 1975, Day-Lewis's unruly attitude had diminished and he needed to make a career choice. Although he had excelled on stage at the National Youth Theatre in London, he applied for a five-year apprenticeship as a cabinet-maker, but was rejected due to lack of experience. He was then accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which he attended for three years along with Miranda Richardson, eventually performing at the Bristol Old Vic itself. At one point he played understudy to Pete Postlethwaite, with whom he would later co-star in the film In the Name of the Father. John Hartoch, Day-Lewis's acting teacher at Bristol Old Vic, recalls,
There was something about him even then. He was quiet and polite, but he was clearly focused on his acting – he had a burning quality. He seemed to have something burning beneath the surface. There was a lot going on beneath that quiet appearance. There was one performance in particular, when the students put on a play called Class Energy, when he really seemed to shine – and it became obvious to us, the staff, that we had someone rather special on our hands.
During the early 1980s, Day-Lewis worked in theatre and television including Frost in May (where he played an impotent man-child) and How Many Miles to Babylon? (as a World War I officer torn between allegiances to Britain and Ireland) for the BBC. Eleven years after his film debut, Day-Lewis continued his film career with a small part in Gandhi (1982) as Colin, a South African street thug who racially bullies the title character, only to be immediately chastised by his high-strung mother. In late 1982 he had his big theatre break when he took over the lead in Another Country. The following year, he had a supporting role as the conflicted, but ultimately loyal first mate in The Bounty, after which he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In 1985, Day-Lewis gave his first critically acclaimed performance playing a gay man in an interracial relationship in the film My Beautiful Laundrette, set in 1980s London during the period when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Day-Lewis gained further public notice with A Room with a View (1985). Set in the Edwardian period of turn-of-the-twentieth-century England, he portrayed an entirely different character: Cecil Vyse, the proper upper class fiancé of the main character. In 1987, Day-Lewis assumed leading man status by starring in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he portrayed a Czech surgeon whose hyperactive sex life is thrown into disarray when he allows himself to become emotionally involved with a woman. During the eight-month shoot he learned Czech and first began to refuse to break character on or off the set for the entire shooting schedule. During this period, Day-Lewis and other young British actors of the time such as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tim Roth, and Bruce Payne, were dubbed the "Brit Pack".
Day-Lewis threw his personal version of method acting into full throttle in 1989 with his performance as Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot, which garnered him numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Actor and BAFTA Award for Best Actor. Brown, a writer and painter, was born with cerebral palsy and was only able to control his left foot. Day-Lewis prepared for the role by making frequent visits to Sandymount School Clinic in Dublin, where he formed friendships with several people with disabilities, some of whom had no speech. During filming, he refused to break character. Playing a severely paralysed character on screen, off screen Day-Lewis had to be moved around the set in his wheelchair, and crew members would curse at having to lift him over camera and lighting wires, all so that he might gain insight into all aspects of Brown's life, including the embarrassments. Crew members were also required to spoon-feed him. It was rumoured that he had broken two ribs during filming from assuming a hunched-over position in his wheelchair for so many weeks, something he denied years later at the 2013 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Day-Lewis returned to the stage in 1989 to work with Richard Eyre, in Hamlet at the National Theatre, London, but collapsed during the scene where the ghost of Hamlet's father appears before him. He began sobbing uncontrollably and refused to go back on stage; he was replaced by Jeremy Northam who finished the performance word-and-action-perfect and received a standing ovation. Ian Charleson then formally replaced Day-Lewis for the rest of the run, except that Charleson's ill-health forced Northam to stand in again many times. Although the incident was officially attributed to exhaustion, Day-Lewis later claimed to have seen the ghost of his own father. He has not appeared on stage since. The media attention following his breakdown on-stage contributed to his decision to eventually move from England to Ireland in the mid-1990s to regain a sense of privacy amidst his increasing fame.
In 1992, three years after his Oscar win, The Last of the Mohicans was released. Day-Lewis's character research for this film was well-publicised; he reportedly underwent rigorous weight training and learned to live off the land and forest where his character lived, camping, hunting and fishing. Day-Lewis also added to his wood-working skills and learned how to make canoes. He carried a long rifle at all times during filming to remain in character and learned how to skin animals.
He returned to work with Jim Sheridan on In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four who were wrongfully convicted of a bombing carried out by the Provisional IRA. He lost 30 pounds (14 kg) for the part, kept his Northern Irish accent on and off the set for the entire shooting schedule, and spent stretches of time in a prison cell. He also insisted that crew members throw cold water at him and verbally abuse him. The film earned him his second Academy Award nomination, third BAFTA nomination, and second Golden Globe nomination.
Day-Lewis returned in 1993, playing Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence. To prepare for the film, set in America's Gilded Age, he wore 1870s-period aristocratic clothing around New York City for two months, including top hat, cane and cape.
In 1996, Day-Lewis starred in The Crucible, a film version of the play by Arthur Miller. During the shoot he met his future wife, Rebecca Miller, the author's daughter. He followed that with Jim Sheridan's The Boxer as a former boxer and IRA member recently released from prison. His preparation included training with former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan, and attending professional boxing matches such as the Nigel Benn vs. Gerald McClellan world title fight at London Arena.
Following The Boxer, Day-Lewis took a leave of absence from acting by going into "semi-retirement" and returning to his old passion of woodworking. He moved to Florence, Italy, where he became intrigued by the craft of shoemaking, eventually apprenticing as a shoemaker with Stefano Bemer. For a time his exact whereabouts and actions were not made publicly known.
After a five-year absence from filming, Day-Lewis returned to act in Gangs of New York (2002), directed by Scorsese and produced by Harvey Weinstein. In his role as the villainous gang leader William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, he starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Bill's young protégé. He began his lengthy, self-disciplined process by taking lessons as an apprentice butcher, hiring a butcher from Peckham, south London to instruct him in carving up carcasses. He also hired circus performers to teach him to throw knives. While filming, he was never out of character between takes (including keeping his character's New York accent). At one point during filming, having been diagnosed with pneumonia, he refused to wear a warmer coat or to take treatment because it was not in keeping with the period; however, he was eventually persuaded to seek medical treatment. His performance in Gangs of New York earned him his third Academy Award nomination and won him his second BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
After Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis's wife, director Rebecca Miller offered him the lead role in her film The Ballad of Jack and Rose, in which he played a dying man with regrets over how his life had evolved and over how he had brought up his teenage daughter. During filming he arranged to live separately from his wife to achieve the "isolation" needed to focus on his own character's reality. The film received mixed reviews.
In 2007, Day-Lewis starred in director Paul Thomas Anderson's loose adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!, titled There Will Be Blood. Day-Lewis received the Academy Award for Best Actor, BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role (which he dedicated to Heath Ledger, saying that he was inspired by Ledger's acting and calling the actor's performance in Brokeback Mountain "unique, perfect"), and a variety of film critics' circle awards for the role. In winning the Best Actor Oscar, Day-Lewis joined Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson as the only Best Actor winners awarded an Oscar in two non-consecutive decades.
In 2009, Day-Lewis starred in Rob Marshall's musical adaptation Nine as film director Guido Contini. Day-Lewis was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and the Satellite Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for his role, as well as sharing nominations for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Cast and the Satellite Award for Best Cast – Motion Picture with the rest of the cast members.
Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln (2012). Based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film began shooting in Richmond, Virginia in October 2011. Day-Lewis spent a year in preparation for the role, a time he had requested from Spielberg. He read over 100 books on Lincoln, and long worked with the makeup artist to achieve a physical likeness to Lincoln. Lincoln received widespread critical acclaim, much of it directed to Day-Lewis's performance. It also became a commercial success, grossing over $275 million worldwide. In November 2012, Day-Lewis received the BAFTA Britannia Award for Excellence in Film.
At the 70th Golden Globe Awards on 14 January 2013, Day-Lewis won his second Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and at the 66th British Academy Film Awards on 10 February, he won his fourth BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. At the 85th Academy Awards, Day-Lewis became the first three-time recipient of the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Lincoln. John Hartoch, Day-Lewis's acting teacher at Bristol Old Vic theatre school, lauded his achievement,
Although we have quite an impressive alumni – everyone from Jeremy Irons to Patrick Stewart – I suppose he is now probably the best known, and we're very proud of all he's achieved. I certainly hold him up to current students of an example, particularly as an example of how to manage your career with great integrity. He's never courted fame, and as a result he's never had his private life impeached upon by the press. He's clearly not interested in celebrity as such – he's just interested in his acting. He is still a great craftsman.
Shortly after winning the Oscar for Lincoln, Day-Lewis announced he would be taking a break from acting, retreating back to his Georgian farmhouse in County Wicklow for the next five years, before making another film.
His first acting role in just under five years will be Phantom Thread, set in the London fashion industry in the 1950s, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Filming began in Whitby, north Yorkshire in January 2017, with an intended release in late 2017. On 20 June 2017, Day-Lewis’ spokeswoman, Leslee Dart, announced that he was retiring from acting.
Day-Lewis rarely discusses his personal life. Protective of his privacy, he described his life as a "lifelong study in evasion". He had a relationship with French actress Isabelle Adjani which lasted six years, eventually ending after a split and reconciliation. Their son Gabriel-Kane Day-Lewis was born in 1995 in New York City, a few months after the relationship ended.
In 1996, while working on the film version of the stage play The Crucible, he visited the home of playwright Arthur Miller where he was introduced to the writer's daughter, Rebecca Miller. They married later that year. The couple have two sons, Ronan Cal Day-Lewis (born 1998) and Cashel Blake Day-Lewis (born 2002) and divide their time between their homes in New York City and Ireland.
Day-Lewis became an Irish citizen in 1993 and currently holds British and Irish dual citizenship. He has lived in Annamoe, County Wicklow since 1997. He stated "I do have dual citizenship, but I think of England as my country. I miss London very much but I couldn't live there because there came a time when I needed to be private and was forced to be public by the press. I couldn't deal with it". He is a supporter of South-East London football club Millwall.
On 15 July 2010, Day-Lewis received an honorary doctorate in letters from the University of Bristol, in part because of his attendance of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in his youth. Day-Lewis has stated that he had "no real religious education" and that he "suppose[s]" he is "a die-hard agnostic". In October 2012, he donated to the University of Oxford papers belonging to his father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, including early drafts of the poet's work and letters from actor John Gielgud and literary figures such as W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, and Philip Larkin. In July 2015, he became the Honorary President of the Poetry Archive. A registered UK charity, the Poetry Archive is a free website containing a growing collection of recordings of English-language poets reading their work.
In 2008, when he received the Academy Award for Best Actor from Helen Mirren (who was on presenting duty having won the previous year's Best Actress Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen), Day-Lewis knelt before her and she tapped him on each shoulder with the Oscar statuette, to which he quipped; "That's the closest I'll come to ever getting a knighthood". In June 2014, Day-Lewis was made a Knight Bachelor in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to drama. In November 2014, he was formally knighted by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, at Buckingham Palace.