Daniel Day-Lewis coulda been a contender. At least that's what Barry McGuigan says, and he ought to know. McGuigan, a former WBA featherweight champion from Ireland, served as technical consultant on The Boxer, a new film from writer-director Sheridan in which Day-Lewis plays Danny Boy Flynn, a once-promising fighter returning to his old Belfast neighborhood after 14 years in prison for IRA activities. "I would have no hesitation putting Daniel in with any of the top 15 middleweights in Britain," says McGuigan, 36, who also works as a television boxing commentator and remains one of Ireland's most popular sports figures.
"Ah, well, Barry's very encouraging," says Day-Lewis, "but I don't know about that."
It's clear, though, from the first frames of The Boxer, in which the hooded figure of Flynn shadowboxes in a prison courtyard, that Day-Lewis has taken McGuigan's lessons to heart. The actor—whose career has included roles ranging from the foppish suitor in A Room with a View to an Oscar-winning turn as the wheelchair-bound Irish artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot—has become the boxer. Bobbing, circling, snapping jabs, he moves with the economic rhythm that comes only with years in the gym.
Day-Lewis put in the time, making even Robert DeNiro's fabled preparation for Raging Bull seem like an improv exercise. He started training more than three years before filming began and continued to work with McGuigan two hours a day throughout production, sparring 300 rounds with amateurs and pros in a Dublin gym. "He got his eyes blacked, his nose bloodied," says McGuigan. "I said, 'Daniel, it doesn't have to be this tough! We can take it easier.' But he wanted to go all out."
"I wanted to understand the sport on every level," says Day-Lewis. "I had to know what it's like to get hit."
Relying on handheld cameras and a blend of unscripted sparring and choreographed action sequences, Sheridan has produced a gritty, startlingly realistic fight film that avoids the usual Hollywood excesses. In the end, though, it was Day-Lewis's willingness to go the distance that guaranteed there would be no bull, raging or otherwise, in The Boxer.