The new film Nine is a tricky thing to describe: It's a big-screen adaptation of a Tony Award-winning stage show, which was inspired by Federico Fellini's '60s movie 8 1/2 — which itself is based on a particular period in the iconic filmmaker's life.
Throw in a plot involving a midlife crisis, an unfinished picture and several demanding women, and it all adds up to a complicated role for actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays the lead, film director Guido Contini.
But for Day-Lewis, the most remarkable thing about Nine isn't the movie's singular provenance — it's the singing. That's right: Nine is Day-Lewis' first onscreen musical performance.
"It was brief," the actor says, wryly, of his life as a song-and-dance man. "But highly enjoyable."
It was also hard work.
"For the first eight weeks, and in fact before we even started to rehearse, I had a good bit of time to work with our musical director, Paul Bogaev," the actor tells NPR's Robert Siegel. Day-Lewis still doesn't seem to want to describe himself as a singer. But Bogaev, he says, "tried to help me find a voice that I could use."
As for the dancing: Well, that's perhaps too strong a word.
"I kind of climb in time to the music," Day-Lewis laughs. "That luckily was something that Rob [Marshall, the film's director] didn't try and convince either himself or me of — that he'd found a dancer. So he worked around that, in my case. ... I was quite relieved that I could concentrate on the music."
"And I had the great pleasure," Day-Lewis says, of "watching day by day the rehearsals ... of the girls."
"The girls" are the driving force of Nine — the eight muses and lovers that haunt Contini during his crisis. They're quite a lineup: Nicole Kidman as his film's star, Marion Cotillard as his wife, Penelope Cruz as his mistress, Kate Hudson as a journalist, Fergie as a prostitute from his younger years and Judi Dench as an acerbic costume designer.
And Sophia Loren as ... well, let Day-Lewis explain: "I have to say, my mum was so particularly delighted when I told her that Sophia Loren was playing my mother in this film," he says.
Sadly, his mother died before Day-Lewis could make the introduction.
"I think they'd have got along well," he says.
A Reunion, With Another Bit Of Back Story
Dench and Day-Lewis haven't acted together since Day-Lewis made what he can now refer to, self-deprecatingly, as "an unscheduled departure" from a production of Hamlet 20 years ago. It was at the National Theatre in London, and back then it was Dench playing his mother. Their final performance together — Day-Lewis walked off stage in the middle of it, and didn't return — wasn't an occasion most people involved remember happily.
"Well, I had a lot of happy moments," Day-Lewis says. "But I suppose people who have spoken on my behalf about that experience, as many people have done, tend to have dwelt upon other aspects of it."
"I did send Judi a note when we started working on Nine," he says, "saying 'I promise not to run out on you this time.' "
That 1989 Hamlet was Day-Lewis' last adventure in live theater.
"I didn't see it as such [at the time], and in a strange way I still don't," he says. "I feel rather that, for whatever reason, the work that has most appealed to me over the years since then has been in film."
Perspiration, Preparation And Stories That Might Sometimes Be True
Day-Lewis has developed a reputation as the Method actor's Method actor. For his role as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, he studied at a school for children with disabilities, to learn more about life with cerebral palsy. A few months later, he was caught running through a field like a warrior, preparing for his role as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans.
For Nine, some published reports had Day-Lewis studying Italian for the part of Guido Contini.
"Yes, I read that, too," he says dryly. "The most extravagant rumors seem to develop out of almost every piece of work that I ever take on — and although some of them might have some basis in truth, they're very often unrecognizable to me. I wish I could claim that I had; I'm so tempted to lie about it."
For the record: He speaks a bit of Italian, and understands a bit more. But he did not feel it necessary to become a Dante scholar to play this latest part.
Although: "I would have loved nothing more, if I'd had five years to prepare."
As for his immersive way of preparation: "I work that way because that's my pleasure," he says. "It's not a science, obviously. ... I think I avoid talking about it because I never yet found a way of describing that strange process that made any sense to me — so I couldn't expect it to make sense to anybody else."
All actors, Day-Lewis says, have their own idiosyncratic ways into a character. But the end they have in mind is usually the same.
"I think all my colleagues would say the same thing: No matter what way we approach the work, it's ostensibly in the hope of just freeing our imaginations."
And if one actor's way of getting ready for a role seems odd or eccentric or counterintuitive, Day-Lewis argues, consider this:
"Is there any preparation that's stranger than the thing itself — than the actual work? If you step aside from it, and cast a cold eye on that work, it seems utterly absurd that we should spend our lifetimes imagining ourselves into the lives of others and into worlds that aren't ours.
"A good healthy dose of denial helps," he continues, chuckling a little bit at the prospect. "And I don't really think any form of preparation is bizarre, that being the case."