Daniel Day-Lewis Goes Full Method, Redefines Acting in The Last of the Mohicans



Butcher, boxer, painter, couturier, oil baron and Abraham Lincoln. These are some of the roles of Daniel Day-Lewis, now officially retired from acting with Phantom Thread. We’re still trying to get over it. But within a career that’s been dizzying in scope, perhaps his most unexpected role came with 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, in which the actor entered new territory: action star.

In the 18th-century epic, Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, a frontiersman who’s a crack shot with a musket and a bi-cultural outsider (born of English parents, he was raised by a Mohican father). He’s similarly caught between English and French forces vying for power in the North American continent. After a bloody ambush by a Huron war party, Hawkeye becomes the de facto guide for a pair of sisters (Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May) traveling to meet their father at Fort Henry.

Based on the James Fenimore Cooper novel, it’s a classic setup for adventure, but not entirely clear why it seduced an actor as choosy as Day-Lewis.

With seven roles in the past two decades, it takes a lot to convince him. (Ask Peter Jackson, who suffered countless rejections trying getting him to join The Lord of the Rings.) So you might guess his reasons for accepting a role in a big-budget studio picture had to be esoteric and personal, and you’d be right.

"I liked the idea of a man who had not been touched by 20th-century neurosis," he explained in a 2003 interview. “A life that isn’t drawn inwards.”

Day-Lewis’s level of commitment is of course legendary, be it enduring solitary confinement for In the Name of the Father, or remaining wheelchair-bound for the filming of My Left Foot (resulting in two broken ribs, and an Academy Award). He’s an actor who wants to immerse himself in his characters.

In The Last of the Mohicans, becoming Hawkeye meant learning how to skin animals, throw tomahawks, build canoes and reload muskets while running. In Day-Lewis’s greatest performances, his preparations result in one-of-a-kind executions that seem less like acting and more like intensely realized works of human sculpture. “I think it comes through, the details of discovering a way of life,” the actor later reflected about his background work. “There’s no wasted experience. In the discovery of it, you’re becoming at ease with it.”

In The Last of the Mohicans, a frontier tale that’s light on talk and heavy on physical action, Day-Lewis creates a complex character almost entirely through body language. In an early scene, Hawkeye, who has been avoiding eye contact with Cora (Madeleine Stowe) while escorting her through the wilderness, finally locks eyes with her when they reach Fort Henry — acutely aware of her presence all along.

“What are you looking at, sir?” she asks him, as if struck by hot white light.

“I’m looking at you, miss.”

She realizes what we've already registered: An entire romance has transpired through their silences, gestures, and looks. That subtlety of communication is a hallmark of Day-Lewis’s performances. It’s something less than Method acting, and maybe closer to the muscle memory of a trained athlete. It feels like magic.

Day-Lewis’s focus is matched by the expert craftsmanship of director Michael Mann, who shot in remote locations in North Carolina and constructed forts and villages using the materials of the era. He’s a perfectionist (there are two director’s cuts for the film) and the movie at times feels like someone shot the colonial era using modern cameras. An operatic climax on a mountain ridge stands, alongside the bank robbery in Heat, as one of the director’s great set pieces.

Released in fall of 1992, The Last of the Mohicans was a huge blockbuster. One can imagine the big action roles that came Daniel Day-Lewis’s way in its aftermath; one can imagine him turning them down one after another.