Daniel Day-Lewis is not someone you’d normally think of as a singer belting out lively numbers in a movie. Which is why the normally more introspective star came really close to a full blown case of stage fright in the screen musical, Nine. An unofficial followup of sorts to the late legendary Federico Fellini’s vintage classic, 8 1/2 and directed by Chicago musical maven, Rob Marshall, Nine continues the apparently less than fulfilling erotic misadventures of famed Italian filmmaker Guido, played by Day-Lewis. Here the actor talks his combo affliction of writer’s block and midlife crisis in the movie, surviving a dream gig surrounded by an huge list of gorgeous co-stars, and how screen anxiety can be an aphrodisiac.
How did you feel doing those musical numbers?
DD: Nervous as hell! Like everyone.
What lured you in?
DD: I didn’t really ask myself initially, why I was drawn so much to it. But the script was so beautiful, and I was drawn into the world he was describing.
But I suppose that anyone who does any kind of creative work some time in their life – especially as you grow into middle age! – you come to a time where you really question more and more frequently, whether you have anything else to offer.
And at its worst, you feel utterly bereft of whatever creative force it takes to do that work. And I suppose I was interested in that dilemma. For a man who is about to shoot a film in five days! And he’s living in a wasteland of his own making.
Wasn’t it ten days?
DD: Okay, ten. But it felt like five!
Can you talk about the singing, and how nervous were you?
DD: No, I can’t talk about that! As nervous as anybody else. I think!
Did you learn Italian for the movie?
DD: I didn’t learn Italian for the movie. I’ve learned some Italian over the years. But a couple of people have said to me, oh you’re a fluent Italian speaker! But no, I’m not. I wish I was. I do understand a lot.
How about the singing?
DD: Well yes, we all had to work. You know, Rob convinced me, really against my better judgement, that I would be able to do this thing! I really tried to think of every excuse I could, not to. Because I felt he needed somebody else. I gave him a few names, actually! And he said no, I think you can sing.
And I said, well let’s put it to the test. And the musical director came over to where I was staying, and I tried to stagger through the songs with him. And quite clearly, I was incapable of singing them. And Rob still managed to convince me that it would be okay!
So I really, rather like Judi [Dench] – even though I knew a little bit more than Judi did about the demands, I sort of took it on blind trust. But had severe doubts about it. I knew I would enjoy the work.
But I had no idea what the result of the work would be. Apart from that, I was a choir boy in the local church when I was a schoolboy. But other than that, I hadn’t done any singing to speak of.
Has there ever been a role for you that made you question your own beliefs?, like your character Guido does?
DD: Only every one! Every single one. Yeah, yeah…
Well what about the anxiety actors have, that they won’t be able to pull off a role?
DD: Yeah, but that anxiety is an aphrodisiac!
What was it like being surrounded in this movie by a sea of strong women, and did that replicate what was in this story itself for you?
DD: Um…It helped! It really helped a lot. I mean, one of the things was the rehearsal period. And I don’t like to rehearse. And I couldn’t understand how you could go through eight weeks of rehearsal, without exhausting every possibility. To the point where, you know, you would just lie gasping on the floor!
And yet little by little, I realized that the demands of the music were such, that there was no possible way of achieving that thing at all, if you don’t go about it with that kind of discipline. That’s just the only way it works.
And the rehearsal period was indeed a period of time, when – and it’s like what I’ve most loved about the theater rehearsal process – it wasn’t the exploring of the text. Because in the theater you’re exploring the text through six months of performance. So it was really in the bond of trust that is formed, between a group of strangers.
And although I knew and admired each of the people that I would be working with – Judi I worked with once before – And I sent her a note saying, I promise not to run out on you this time! But it was really that period of time, during the period of rehearsals, where I felt that work was done. Not just with the music and the discipline of doing the music – and in the girls’ case the dancing as well.
But really, just forming those bonds of trust you need to have, so you can then live close to the edge of anarchy. Which is where most creative work happens. But the other thing about rehearsing as well, I have to say that the first musical number I remember listening to, was in Italian.
And in the early stages of rehearsal I just thought, we might as well just go home now. Because it was so magnificent. And we still had six weeks of rehearsal left. And the thing about rehearsals, and in relation to the business of trust, is that you make complete fools of yourselves during that process. And you have to.
You have to be able to do that, and be allowed to do that. And it was very early on in the period of time, that we had to do things as unselfconsciously as possible. Which we knew was going to be difficult. And in front of each other. And once you’ve done that, it sort of clears the way a little bit. And it doesn’t really matter anymore whether you’re a fool or not. And you have to be able to be a fool.
So what is it like working with Judi?
DD: She’s naughty. She’s very naughty. She’s a very, very naughty girl!
How about Sophia Loren?
DD: Oh, she’s a mighty woman. One of the great joys, one of the great joys of working on this film, for all of us. She is such a sublimely gifted actress. And you can have a great laugh with Sophia. She’s naughty too!
What do you do to stay in character?
DD: I don’t know. I just, I’m interested in the world we’re trying to create, like everyone else. And it takes time and energy to enter into an unknown world, an unknown culture. And to see the world through different eyes.
So just from my point of view, it makes better sense, I suppose for me, having once entered into that world, to stay there. Because I like it, that’s all. And there’s nothing mysterious about it.
What was it like being a kind of bad guy in this story?
DD: I don’t mind what people call me! Within reason! I’m only too happy if they choose to. It’s just that everyone has a way of working. And my way is individual to me.
And all you can ever do, is just be true to your own way of working. But that can only be of any use in a company situation, when you’re not making demands on the people that you’re working with. It’s got nothing to do with that.
Well, that was just a joke.
DD: Oh I see. It was a little threadbare, that joke! Sorry it didn’t get a laugh!