After another masterful performance in Lincoln, Daniel-Day Lewis has an opportunity to capture his third Academy Award for Best Actor. He has been hailed as the greatest actor alive, and his peculiar style of method-acting has become somewhat legendary. The charisma he brings to the screen instantly transports moviegoers into his character’s world. The manner in which Day-Lewis approaches his craft sheds light on what’s required for leaders to be able to connect with their audience.
Don’t Just Know the Lines, Embody the Message
Daniel Day-Lewis famously stays ‘in character’ for the duration of a movie’s production—whether a camera is rolling or not. Throughout production of My Left Foot, in which he played a writer with cerebral palsy, Day-Lewis insisted on being spoon-fed and he did not once leave his wheelchair. Most recently, in his role as Abraham Lincoln, he required cast and crew to address him as Mr. President at all times. On the set of Lincoln, the London-born actor also allegedly forbade anyone with a British accent to speak in his presence so as not to disturb his efforts to imitate Lincoln’s voice.
Any message you send must contain a piece of yourself in order to be credible. You can’t merely pass along information; you must model the message you want to deliver. A vision cannot materialize through you until it has taken root within you. Owning a vision enables a communicator to move from informing others to inspiring them.
Eloquence Is Overrated
Having watched Day-Lewis on screen, one is struck by how much personality he communicates in every scene, whether speaking or silent. Though remarkably eloquent himself, Day-Lewis has a certain disdain for fancy speech. “I am more greatly moved by people who struggle to express themselves,” he confessed to Lynn Hirschberg during an interview for the New York Times. “Maybe it’s a middle-class British hang-up, but I prefer the abstract concept of incoherence in the face of great feeling to beautiful, full sentences that convey little emotion.”
Audiences respond to how a communicator makes them feel rather than to what a communicator has to say. Our actions, tone, and style communicate far more than our words. Experts estimate that 90% of the impression we convey has nothing to do with what we actually say.
There Will Be Blood, Sweat and Tears
Day-Lewis meticulously researches his characters and goes to extreme lengths to portray them. Prior to playing Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans, he spent six months living off the land, learning to track and skin animals and eventually building his own canoe. While filming Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis refused to exchange the threadbare jacket of his character, Bill the Butcher, for a warmer one and subsequently contracted pneumonia. While readying himself for The Crucible, Day-Lewis literally built his character’s house, using 17th century tools, in order to acclimate himself to living in colonial Massachusetts. Undoubtedly, Day-Lewis places extreme value on preparation. “When someone sticks a tripod in front of you with a camera on the top, it is not day one. It begins way before, with the work before you start filming – and there is no limit to the amount of time that you take to discover a [character’s] whole life; it could take six months, a year, or a lifetime.”
To make a connection, a leader must expend energy to step toward the audience both relationally and emotionally. Initiating connection involves preparation and creativity, each of which depletes energy reserves. For this reason, connecting requires stamina. Leaders must recharge in order to have mental and emotional strength to offer to others.