Oscar-nominated actor Daniel Day-Lewis discusses his first acting gig

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While being honored on Saturday night at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Daniel Day-Lewis -- who over the course of his career delivered some of cinema’s most memorable performances such as Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” and Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood” – talked about his first exposure to acting. And it seems that his penchant for improbable transformation started from the very beginning.

The normally reserved Day-Lewis, who is currently the front-runner for the Best Actor for his performance in “Lincoln,” sat down with The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg before an audience of hundreds in the Arlington Theater in downtown Santa Barbara and reflected on his career.

Born into an artistic middle-class family --his father Cecil Day-Lewis was a renowned poet – the multiple Oscar winner found himself enrolled in a boarding school, Sevenoaks School, at age twelve.

“That experience of going to boarding school was the formative experience of my life,” he told the audience. But the experience proved not to be a happy one. “I lasted a year and then I legged it. I knew instinctively that I would be crushed by this place.”

Yet it was there that he landed his first acting gig, a stage adaptation of the South African novel “Cry, the Beloved Country.” “To get an idea of what the school was like, I played a little black boy,” said Day-Lewis.

The audience erupted into a laughter and Day-Lewis, ever the consummate performer, expertly played the moment for laughs. “My costume was a pair of shorts and a little T-shirt so that involved an awful lot of makeup and a little wig.”

While the profoundly un-PC production won’t end up on the actor’s highlight reel, it ignited Day-Lewis’s passion for acting. “What delighted me was the discovery that this was an alternative universe and that’s what the theater is…the illumination of that proscenium arch was enormously important to me.”

Of course, his role in the play had additional, less lofty, benefit.

“We were assigned to houses where we lived during our time there,” he said. “The house that I was in, we had a matron who hated me. Every night I would come back and take a shower, knowing that even if I stood under that shower for an hour and a half, I would never get rid of all the makeup. So the sheets were filthy every single night and there was nothing she could do about it. That really pleased me a lot.”