Jim Sheridan: Daniel's Director

The unknown Jim Sheridan directed the not-yet-a-movie-star Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and changed both their careers forever. Now the director and actor have teamed up again, and the surprise is that their film, In the Name of the Father, is not a megaproduction, but a small, personal film not unlike My Left Foot.

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With his very first film, Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan seemed to arrive out of nowhere armed with a mastery of emotional shadings, a point of view, and an edge of contradiction. My Left Foot, the heroic and unlikely story of cerebral palsy-ridden Irish writer Christy Brown, won Sheridan a Best Director Oscar nomination and won the film's star Daniel Day-Lewis the Best Actor Oscar itself. Little wonder, then, that Hollywood went courting Sheridan, and that his agency, CAA, bombarded him with big-budget projects. But Sheridan chose instead to make The Field, another small, personal film with an Irish setting, which went on to win a Best Actor nomination for Richard Harris.

Once again Hollywood courted. Once again, Sheridan, having signed a lucrative deal with Universal that left him with a good amount of creative freedom, chose to make yet another personal film set in Ireland, In the Name of the Father. And, as if the whole sequence of events had been designed to illustrate the beauty of poetic symmetry, Daniel Day-Lewis--hot off the success of The Last of the Mohicans and courted for such roles as the vampire Lestat in Interview With the Vampire and Julia Roberts's lover in Shakespeare in Love--passed on Hollywood's offers and chose instead to take on In the Name of the Father's lead role, that of real-life Irish political activist Gerry Conlon.

I happen to have seen a lengthy, extraordinary sequence from In the Name of the Father. As Conlon, a man unjustly imprisoned for an IRA bombing, Day-Lewis throws off sparks with mutedly spectacular acting. Sheridan, who found visual analogs for the ungovernable, crazed, proud spirit of his countrymen without even mentioning politics in My Left Foot, here puts his taut, life-is-a-prison, agitprop sensibilities right out there. There's a renegade symbiosis between Sheridan and Day-Lewis that strikes me as so rich, and so dark, that they seem already as inevitable a collaboration as Scorsese and De Niro.

Heading west on Sunset toward the Chateau Marmont, where Sheridan is staying while he puts the finishing touches on In the Name of the Father, I recall how the anarchic ferocity of My Left Foot reminded me of the Irish sector of the Eastern seaboard city where I grew up. Tenements and churches hemming in ruddy rogues who stared hard at alien passersby outside taverns, kids playing grudge-match stickball, the whole neighborhood redolent of cabbage, whiskey and transatlantic dislocation. I don't pretend to understand the Irish; I just find them interesting. And when I meet Sheridan, a compact, disheveled man with wildness in his eyes, he seems unlikely to disappoint me.

Sheridan rubs his eyes, slouches in a chair next to a stack of scripts, stares out at a sky of orange sludge, laughs and observes, "Hollywood is like being at a party where, while I'm telling you a story, you're looking over my shoulder. People here are always playing to somebody else out there--a mass, a consensus. Even actors here don't talk to the person in the scene with them--they want the mass endorsement as their validation."

When I note that exposure to Hollywood seems to have done nothing to undercut the intrinsic Irishness of his movies, Sheridan, who was born into a family of seven in Dublin's toughest section, says, "Irish writers have been the mainstay of English theater for so long, but it's all verbose, all hyperbole. It's James Joyce, Synge, Dylan Thomas, O'Casey, O'Neill--beautiful, poetic, yeah, but it's not getting things done, not changing things, is it? When we use language in this way, we hide. So, in the world's mind, Ireland is a Saint Patrick's Day parade. And what is a parade but a display of something that you're afraid may no longer exist? Irish people today must define what is Irish, because we're not a whole county, but one in which we have had to define ourselves in opposition to England. When you have to do that for so long, it becomes tiresome, childlike. Everyone wants us to be like leprechauns--which, people aren't aware of, is equivalent to saying 'midget'--or people wearing green coats and high hats. You know, playing the circus clown."

Few who experience Sheridan's ragged intensity in life or on-screen could possibly accuse him of spreading emerald-green pixie dust. After all, My Left Foot centered on a brilliant artist struggling with the actual and existential challenges of cerebral palsy. In The Field, an obsessive farmer wreaks havoc after losing the land he had worked for decades. In the Name of the Father is about a man who is jailed along with his equally innocent father. If Sheridan's movies, which are praised for bristly acting and visual snap, lose points for anything, it's for dour, hermetic earnestness.

"I'm totally aware that sometimes a lack of humor in a movie gives you the feeling that you're trapped in a bar with a guy who's ranting on and on while you're going, 'Jesus, take a breath so I can go to the toilet,'" says Sheridan. "It comes out of an urgency to tell a story. I am kind of extreme. But there's so many people in the film world being so well-rewarded for always giving audiences what they want.

"There's richness, power, humor even," Sheridan continues, not too convincingly, "in something like the great Irish play in which a father kills all his children at the end because they're starving. One thing that will come out of In the Name of the Father is that Daniel Day-Lewis does have a bit more humor to him--even a great humorous side--as do I."

Sheridan explains that he conceptualizes his new movie as a kind of companion piece to his first film. "My Left Foot was simply about a boy relating to the mother figure in himself," he observes. "My mother-in-law, my mother, all the women I knew so loved it that my relationship with them, with many Irish women I know, changed overnight. Very odd. After it, I wanted to do a movie about a good father, but I couldn't find one outside of James Joyce in all Irish literature. That lack is a product of writers living and working in a subjugated society. I feel there is intrinsic good in the Irish family which is never seen because of the English-Irish situation. I found in In the Name of the Father the good father in the most obvious place--the father whom the kid thinks is weak and broken, but whose apparent lack of strength, his kid comes to see, is his strongest quality. With a father and son in jail, captive, it was perfect, because there was one thing for certain: they were trapped--they had to talk to each other. Which doesn't happen in Ireland. Fathers and sons never talk."

Talk the film has, and judging from the script, much of it is riveting. Particularly, one suspects, when it will be heard emanating from Emma Thompson, who plays a lawyer, and from Day-Lewis. Some of Day-Lewis's post-_Mohicans_ fans may be perplexed that he would do a small, intense movie like In the Name rather than, say, Interview With the Vampire, which the Hollywood trade papers suggested he was going to do. "Dan has a great advantage over us all because his grandfather ran a studio for 40 years," says Sheridan. "He not only knows all about this 'star' business, he also probably knows more about this industry than any director. So, his annoyance with stories that he would star in this or that would be that he would never give his word and then go back on it. This work is spiritual to Daniel."

Yet, the movie business rarely understands men on a holy mission, and Sheridan concedes that it took Day-Lewis's bare-chested box-office success to get In the Name of the Father off the ground. "Daniel's wanting to do it made it a bit easier," Sheridan recalls. "Once Mohicans was a big hit and everybody loved him, that made it easier still. No matter what the talk was, I knew I could depend on Dan, knew that he would focus on this. That's his great quality: the ability to focus. He commits. He's inspired. If somebody's just acting, I ask them to stop, because you can't actually act in a film. It's too obvious if you do. Daniel isn't capable of acting like that. He told me that he did a dance when he read the script for My Left Foot, and that he had to stop reading it often because he recognized that he and I are dealing with the same things in our lives, things that have a lot to do with family."

Would Sheridan care to elaborate on what things? Insisting that he "cannot speak for Dan," he goes on to explain, "It's about the internal mother and father. We don't mother ourselves, don't love ourselves enough. We don't father ourselves enough because we're not disciplined enough with ourselves. What you have to do is believe you were conceived in love, to celebrate the love of parents, rather than the ego of the day of your birth. If that sounds mad, well ... I've never thought of it before."

After a moment Sheridan adds, "Seeing Daniel, I always think about how we all came from the jungle and, in that jungle, there's a wild boar running at you. Now, there's only one place to hit the boar with a dart to stop it dead in its tracks. The person throwing the dart must have a huge adrenaline rush and yet be cool as a cucumber. Daniel has that weird, strong ability. If I write something and he does it, it's exactly what I intended. I never have to say, 'Try it this way,' especially if it's the high points, the dramatic points. It is a kind of symbiotic thing. It's almost as if I'm writing Daniel."

There's a lot to what Sheridan says. As good as Day-Lewis is in The Last of the Mohicans or The Age of Innocence, he seems less on it, less free than in his work with Sheridan. "I really look upon Daniel as a kind of inspiration. I get a lot of help just thinking of him playing the part. With him, it's almost like I could write it for acting it myself. I could sort of know what would be almost impossible for somebody to do--except Daniel. I don't think I combed the depths of what he can do in either My Left Foot or In the Name of the Father."

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