Daniel Day-Lewis has long been one of my favorite actors, and I’m not alone. This year he’s sweeping the awards circuit and taking home every best actor prize (and will most likely take home the Oscar this Sunday) for his portrayal of the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln.
Day-Lewis becomes Abraham Lincoln on screen. We aren’t that familiar with what Lincoln was actually like because he wasn’t president in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Reporters didn’t blog about him, replay or even play sound bites from his speeches. He was the first president (along with the first family) to be widely photographed, though it was nothing like the White House Flickr page.
We know Lincoln led the country through a bitter, bloody Civil War (and the film pays tribute to the soldiers who fought, died and were wounded.) After Lincoln’s own personal beliefs about slavery in the United States progressed, he worked to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. Lincoln was known for his oratorical skills, despite having what some historians characterized as a reedy, high-pitched voice (or higher pitched than other grand speakers of his time), and an awkward gait. We leave what we don’t know from historical documents to our imaginations. After Day-Lewis’ portrayal, I don’t think people will imagine Lincoln in any other way.
Day-Lewis is no stranger to becoming and actually living as the characters he plays. He practices what’s called method acting — such an intense embodiment of the role that he doesn’t break character during the entire shooting of a film. If you are unlucky enough to play his character’s nemesis, you are Day-Lewis’ nemesis in line at the food truck. His Academy Award-winning portrayal of oil baron Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood was so impassioned that the first actor to play his antagonist in the film quit. In preparation for his role as Lincoln, Day-Lewis dove into historical writings, studied Lincoln’s own words, honed a unique voice for the president, and texted limericks (as Lincoln) to co-star Sally Field, who played Mary Todd.
I admire the integrity Day-Lewis brings to his craft and the way he lets the depths of his characters rise to the surface and take over as he acts. It reminds me of what the concepts of vocations and callings are all about.
Vocation is one of those things that can be difficult to identify and a source of much hemming and hawing (a.k.a. discernment) in one’s life. There is a vocation for each of us. God calls us — and our vocation is the way in which we live out that call. It’s our life’s game plan. We are all disciples. We might also be editors, accountants, parents, nuns, priests, students and actors, but our vocation — that way we live out the teachings of Jesus and show our love for God through service to others — is specific to each individual. You’re called to do something and do it well.
You deliver an Oscar-worthy performance in the sense when, like Day-Lewis, you listen and you learn about your role. And when you find the role of a lifetime, you don’t turn away (although you might discern for a bit); you step onstage and live your vocation fully, without hesitation and without holding anything back.
Day-Lewis let’s Lincoln shine through in his performance. And isn’t that what a vocation is all about? Letting others know God’s love through who we are and what we do? It’s not about us — or Day-Lewis in the case of Lincoln, Plainview, or any of the other characters he has played. He’s channeling the character, and we are channeling and being what God calls us to be in the world. Were we all to live our vocation with the dedication Day-Lewis displays, what influence could God have through us in the world?
If answered with the zeal and devotion that Day-Lewis brings to his work, our own calls to discipleship, service, ordained ministry and everything in between would be Oscar-worthy. And when God invites you onstage for your acceptance speech you won’t need to look to the sky to give thanks — just give a bow and continue to live out your calling.