Following the lead of such esteemed stage directors as Nicholas Hytner and Sam Mendes, Stephen Daldry made his name in the British theater world before he moved to films, succeeding on his first cinematic foray with Billy Elliot (2000).
U.K. native Daldry began his stage career early in life, doing youth theater and spending time as a circus clown. After attending university at Sheffield, Daldry headed to London, where he began to draw attention for his work at the fringe theater the Gate. Daldry went on to direct over 100 plays, including the long-running, 1992 Tony Award-winning revival of An Inspector Calls and David Hare's one-man show Via Dolorosa, and was appointed the director of the Royal Court Theatre at age 32.
During his stint at the Royal Court, the British film production company Working Title began to groom Daldry for a movie career, starting with the short film Eight (1998). Taking a leave of absence from the theater, Daldry subsequently helmed his first feature, Dancer, retitled Billy Elliot so as not to be confused with fellow Cannes Film Festival entrant Dancer in the Dark (2000). Set in northern England, against the gritty backdrop of the 1984 coal miner strikes, Billy Elliot's story of a boy's desire to be a ballet dancer was praised and damned for its sentimentality, with critics declaring it either a moving story of nonconformity triumphant, or "emotional pornography." Regardless, Billy Elliot became a local and international smash, earning raves for young acting neophyte Jamie Bell's performance as the titular boy and Oscar nominations for screenwriter Lee Hall, supporting actress Julie Walters, and director Daldry. Daldry followed his freshman triumph by directing Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, and Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2001). Adapted by playwright David Hare from Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours gracefully interweaves three stories about a critical day in the lives of Kidman's Virginia Woolf as she struggles to write her esteemed 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, Moore's unhappy 1950s housewife who finds solace in Woolf's book, and Streep's 2001 incarnation of Clarissa "Dalloway." Finding visual analogues for the novel's challenging interiority and deftly juggling the scenarios' thematic echoes concerning the women's search for meaning in their lives, Daldry and Hare earned kudos for adapting an "unadaptable" book, while Streep, Moore and Kidman's superb performances garnered further raves for Daldry's direction. Bolstering the film's pre-Oscar buzz, The Hours won the Best Picture prize from the National Board of Review and appeared on the American Film Institute's 2002 Ten Best Films list. When the Academy Award nominations were announced in February of 2003, few were surprised that The Hours earned nine nominations in all, including one for Best Director.
In 2008, Daldry returned with his third film, an adaptation of the international best-selling novel The Reader. The movie had a somewhat troubled production, thanks in large part to a disagreement between producers Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin, but the film proved to be very popular with Academy voters. They bestowed five nominations on the work, including nods for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Daldry himself garnered a best director nomination, making him the first director to earn nominations for each of his first three features. He would henceforth remain a respected force as a director, helming films like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.