Earlier this year, Daniel Day-Lewis pronounced that he was retiring from the profession that had made him one of the most famous men in the world: Acting. This isn't the first time Day-Lewis has taken a break from Hollywood — in the '90s, he moved to Italy and trained to be a cobbler. Unless he changes his mind and returns to acting (please, Daniel!), Day-Lewis' last role will be playing Reynolds Woodcock, a couture dress designer in 1950s London, in the movie The Phantom Thread (in theaters December 25).
Since Day-Lewis frequently plays characters based on real people, it's fair to assume that The Phantom Thread, then, is also based on a true story. But there's just one issue: Day-Lewis' character's name is Reynolds Woodcock, which is almost a dead giveaway that The Phantom Thread can't possibly be based on a person who once existed. Who would name someone Reynolds Woodcock?
Director P.T. Anderson wasn't completely satisfied with the character's initial name, Arthur Dapple, Jr. In an interview with Vulture, Anderson recalled that he and Day-Lewis "[texted] each other back and forth like teenagers" in order to find the perfect moniker.
"[Arthur Dapple Jr.] was lingering around but not quite right, and then the text from Daniel came through: 'Reynolds Woodcock.' And on two simultaneous coasts, we both started laughing so deeply and so hard that I suddenly had tears pouring down my face. I thought, We can’t do that, right? Of course we can’t. But...we have to do that! I remember calling him, and he was laughing as much as I was, and I said, “We’ve got to do this. Let me write it into the script and we’ll live with it. We’ll try it on for size.”
The name stuck. Rather than being a complete fabrication, Reynolds Woodcock is more an amalgamation of actual British designers of the post-war era. According to a Times article, Anderson incorporated specific nods to those designers within Woodcock's character. For example, Woodcock's sister, Cyril, runs his salon — and so did the sisters of real-life designers Victor Stiebel and Norman Hartnell. Woodcock also embroiders messages into his clothing, perhaps an homage to the time Alexander McQueen allegedly embroidered profanities inside a jacket for Prince Charles.
The Times article claims that Reynolds Woodcock bears the greatest similarity to the English-American designer Charles James. A brilliant designer, James was also known for his eccentric behavior — in 1939, James modeled his own ball gowns for Andrew Goodman of the department store Bergdorf Goodman because he was unsatisfied with his own model. Woodcock's relationship to his muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), resembles the relationship James had with his wife, Nancy Lee Gregory. Their artistic sensibilities are also aligned. Like James, Woodcock designs dresses that resemble sculptures in their complexity and shape.
To prepare for the role, Day-Lewis studied designers like James, as well as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Edward Molyneux, and John Cavanaugh. Ultimately, though, Day-Lewis and Anderson decided not to base Woodcock too heavily on any one person — not even Charles James. “As fascinating as his life was, it was not the life we wanted to explore," Day-Lewis told Vanity Fair.
In fact, Day-Lewis doesn't consider couture a fundamental feature of The Phantom Thread. Woodcock could have been any kind of artist. “The couture is an important part of the story. But it could have been anything in the creative world. The work itself is kind of immaterial. It’s a daft thing to say because we worked hard to make it real, but it was up for grabs.”
More than anything, The Phantom Thread is about an artist's creative process. In that way, Woodcock can be compared to any artist, not just to designers providing elaborate ball gowns for London's post-war society set.