- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Actor Daniel Day-Lewis is legendary for immersing himself in the few roles he agrees to take. He reportedly fell ill on the freezing set of “Gangs of New York” because he refused to wear coats that didn’t exist in the 19th century. He insisted on staying in a wheelchair during filming of “My Left Foot,” in which he played a man with cerebral palsy, earning him an Academy Award.

There was no time for such immersion on “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” an Oedipal drama set in an unidentified East Coast commune. The production schedule was lightning-quick. Set designer Mark Ricker had a mere eight weeks to construct a vegetable garden, a greenhouse, windmills and an authentic “earth house.” (Mr. Day-Lewis helped tar the house, according to Mr. Ricker.)

Or, perhaps, there was too much time. Mr. Day-Lewis’ wife, writer-director Rebecca Miller, sent him the script in 1995, before he had met her. The two would cross paths the next year at a screening of “The Crucible,” an adaptation of a beloved play written by Miss Miller’s father, the late Arthur Miller. They married just months later.

“Over the years, Rebecca continued working on it, rewriting it, talking about it,” Mr. Day-Lewis says by phone. She made the feature films “Angela” and “Personal Velocity” in the interim.

“It didn’t take any cajoling. I read the script so many times — more times than I’ll ever read another script. Finally, by a mixture of coincidence and determination, the moment sort of struck us both,” Mr. Day-Lewis says.

“I never thought he would do it,” Miss Miller said, according to production notes for “The Ballad.” “The character is that of a man with not much time left to live. Daniel goes so deeply into everything he does, and I knew this role would be such a quagmire of guilt and deep, conflicted feelings for him.”

“He would also have to lose 50 to 60 pounds, and he was already thin,” she added.

Aside from what he calls “token trepidations” — worrying for the sake of worrying — Mr. Day-Lewis says working with his wife was “shockingly easy.” “When it came time, there was nothing to worry about,” he says. “Rebecca is uniformly approachable; people just like to be around her.”

“The Ballad,” which opens tomorrow in area theaters, stars Mr. Day-Lewis as the unregenerate proprietor of an abandoned island commune off the East Coast of the United States. The titular Jack, suffering from a heart condition, lives in the redoubt with his daughter Rose (played by Camilla Belle), whom he keeps sheltered from modernity and outside companionship.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Jack is a stubborn reactionary, a utopian living according to the tenets of an idealized past and keeping a weirdly selfish grip on his daughter’s sexuality.

“Isn’t that the way the world turns?” says Mr. Day-Lewis, who has three sons — two with Miss Miller and another from a relationship with the French actress Isabelle Adjani.

“It’s the pagan deities’ joke on Jack. We recognize all those qualities we try to avoid when growing up. We feel that we’ve moved a thousand miles from that stultifying atmosphere, and we find ourselves saying, ‘Go and put some clothes on.’”

Mr. Day-Lewis, 47, was born in London to the poet Cecil Day-Lewis and the actress Jill Balcon. (He and Miss Miller live mostly in Ireland, although Mr. Miller’s illness kept them in the U.S. in recent months.) As a boy, he says, he found the concept of communes and the 1960s American counterculture “exotic.”

“I was intrigued in the way a kid is intrigued by something that’s just beyond reach,” Mr. Day-Lewis says. “I sensed that it would remain beyond reach, and I sensed that by the time I was able to make my own decision, it would have passed.”

He was right — though he’s quick to point out that communes still exist. In fact, he says, one was discovered in Wales just a few years ago. A group of architects, engineers and scientists were nestled deep in a national park; their cover was blown by government aerial surveillance. “They said, ‘Sorry, move along. You can’t stay here,’” Mr. Day-Lewis says.

Such a community — sober and skill-intensive, as opposed to a Haight-Ashbury-type scene with drugs and tie-dye — was partly what Miss Miller had in mind. “As the character of Jack evolved, with his scientific mentality, I started looking at earth houses, a tradition that goes all the way back to Scotland,” she said.

The subtext of “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” — the thing that ultimately brings Jack low as he battles with land developers and his daughter’s increasing sense of independence — is what Mr. Day-Lewis calls the “fascistic element” of segregated commune living. “You don’t begin with a sense of superiority, but somehow, that becomes threaded into your way of life,” he says.

Insiders grow more righteous in their own eyes. Outsiders become lower life-forms.

That, Mr. Day-Lewis says, is the “seed of failure in all utopias.”

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