He's spent the last five years chopping trees, making shoes and not making movies. But then Martin Scorsese made him an offer he couldn't refuse. In a rare interview, Daniel Day-Lewis tells Burhan Wazir why he's back in front of the cameras
Sunday December 8, 2002
Over the course of a drizzly afternoon, in a room in Dublin's Clarence Hotel, Daniel Day-Lewis leaves his chair on only four occasions. He briefly visits the bathroom; orders a tomato sandwich; opens the door to room service; and answers the telephone. In all, the stoppages take no more than five minutes.
But for most of the afternoon, Day-Lewis, dressed simply in a dark pullover, black trousers and combat boots, displays unending reserves of quiet steeliness. His head is cleanly shaven; his muscular features lend him the appearance of a boxer preparing for a bout. His dark, deep-set eyes look ever attentive. They flash wildly when, occasionally, he laughs. His concentration never drops below an unnerving intensity. And by the end of our three hours together, I am astounded by his composure and single-mindedness.
It's all too easy to forget that Day-Lewis is one of the most prodigiously talented actors of his generation. He remains easy to overlook since he is notoriously work-shy: he has only managed 15 movies in 20 years of professional acting. His last big-budget role was eight years ago in The Age of Innocence. And since then, apart from his split with the French actress Isabelle Adjani, and his subsequent marriage to Rebecca Miller, the daughter of American playwright Arthur Miller, whom he met while filming The Crucible, he has kept himself out of the press and shielded himself from the film industry. His stage career ended 12 years ago when during his performance of Hamlet he walked off the stage claiming to have seen an apparition of his father, the late poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis. He is an acting enigma: someone who won a Best Actor Oscar, and has seemingly never recovered from the experience.
Day-Lewis, 45, who won the Oscar in 1989's My Left Foot, is giving a rare interview to promote his first film in more than five years. A method actor - a technique also used by Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman - Day-Lewis is regarded as perhaps the finest of his generation. He avoids all contact with the press; this interview has been months in the arranging.
This afternoon, however, he has left his home in County Wicklow, Ireland, to discuss Martin Scorsese's much-delayed and much-troubled period piece, Gangs of New York. For Scorsese, the lavish $97.5m venture, based on Herbert Asbury's acclaimed 1927 book, Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, has taken a decade to bring to the screen. Throughout its protracted making, there were rumours of bust-ups and difficulties on set, and so far the movie hasn't been screened to the press - a sign of the distributor's nervousness about its critical reception. But while Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein - the garrulous and larger-than-life boss of Miramax films - and the film's financier Graham King have been doing some light firefighting, Day-Lewis has been keeping himself to himself, enjoying the Irish countryside.
'The filmmakers have me over a barrel,' Day-Lewis laughs. 'I feel sorry for the other actors in the film. Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Liam Neeson. They'll have to take the brunt of the questioning. I can pretty much get away with just doing a few things. Although I do realise that the interest in this film will go on for some time.'
Does he enjoy any part of the film industry?
'Not really, no,' he admits. 'I know this is part of what we have to do. But I really have to be forced. I just want people to go and see the film. And I hope that they like it. I have done my part. And once I'm finished, I always feel a little empty inside. "Is that all there was to it?" I always think. So, to be honest, I'm not sure it's something I'd like to do again in the near future. I certainly have no plans to work in a film at any point soon. I've managed to avoid it for the past five years.'
A five-year break from acting would be considered career suicide by most actors. Day-Lewis, however, has shown a selfish approach to his natural talent for most of his professional life. His last film was The Boxer, directed by Jim Sheridan in 1997. After that film's box-office failure, Day-Lewis - then deemed a talent at the height of his acting powers - abruptly threw in the towel, despite a long run of critically acclaimed performances in My Beautiful Laundrette, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Last of the Mohicans and My Left Foot. As an actor, he specialises in roles of tortured intensity - outsiders and outcasts. But after The Boxer, he abandoned it all and moved to Florence with his then new wife, Rebecca Miller. Stories emerged of him spending his days cobbling. While he never admitted he'd retired, Day-Lewis showed few intentions of returning to the film industry.
When not in Italy, he spent his days chopping down trees near his other house in Ireland. 'I didn't really want to be involved with films,' he says now. 'I just wanted some time away from it all. I need that quite often. And I have felt like that ever since I got into acting. When I was younger, I made some decisions that I shouldn't have. And, in hindsight, I've almost always been wrong when I haven't listened to myself. I have quite a strong feeling about when I should work and when I shouldn't.'
There were, of course, offers of work. He was touted for roles in Philadelphia, The Lord of the Rings and Steven Soderbergh's upcoming Solaris. But Day-Lewis wasn't looking for suitable scripts. He says that he would have waited another 10 years to find the right acting vehicle. 'Part of this is that as an actor you learn, you learn, you learn; you shoot and shoot for a long time; and then you're dog meat. And then you realise that you learnt nothing. And that's a difficult thing to live with. That is the prevailing sensation of films. You just feel scooped out, having given everything. I'm not sure you learn anything on film sets.'
This kind of agonising is typical of Day-Lewis. He picks and chooses his words with care, and is often deliberately obtuse.
He was, however, eventually coaxed back in front of the camera last year by Scorsese and Weinstein. Weinstein's initial overture has been widely retold in the press. According to the legend, he and DiCaprio journeyed to Ireland and begged him for his participation in the film, only to be told to 'Fuck off!' 'That's Harvey's hogwash,' exclaims Day-Lewis. 'Nothing like that happened. Harvey just likes to spin the press.'
The truth, says Day-Lewis, was that Scorsese and he had worked successfully together before, on The Age of Innocence. The opportunity of a new collaboration with the director was immediately tempting. 'Marty is just such a great storyteller,' he says. 'He is it; an outstanding filmmaker and artist. And as a person you have to travel the world to avoid him. So when he started to tell me this great story about the gangs that ran New York in the 19th century - well, I was hooked.'
Filming, on the mile-long set that brought 19th-century New York to Rome's Cinecittą studio, was beset with problems from the start. As the budget spiralled out of control, Scorsese and the backers were forced to give defensive interviews explaining the delays. Gangs of New York was initially to be delivered to cinemas last Christmas. And the situation was further aggravated by the initial edit: Scorsese was eventually persuaded by the studio to trim the story down to two hours and 45 minutes.
Day-Lewis's character, Bill the Butcher, is based on the life of Bill Poole - a mid-19th century meat cutter, fighter and notorious gang leader from Lower Manhattan's violent Five Points district. Day-Lewis's performance - judging by the 20 minutes of footage I have had access to - provides the menacing core of Scorsese's ambitious history of New York. He gives a particularly distinguished demonstration of coiled fury.
'Martin's sets are places where you want to be,' says Day-Lewis. 'This was something he wanted to do. And that makes a big difference to the nature of the set. The atmosphere was like a work place - there's something sacred about his sets. I like it when the workplace is treated as a sacred thing.'
But after such a long absence from the screen, he was plagued by doubts. And for the first time in his life he had a family in tow - his wife and child (she has since given birth to a second son) - lived with him. 'And that means your priorities change,' he says. 'So you start to have doubts. I suppose those come to everyone. Because you see them lurking in the shadows on the set. It's not an even keel. That causes you to question everything in your whole life. Because it's a life in miniature. You keep thinking, "I'm not up to this." So you try and immerse yourself in the details.'
Day-Lewis's attempts to take on the physical and emotional aspects of his characters knows few limitations. As Christy Brown in My Left Foot, the actor remained in a wheelchair off the set, teaching himself how paint with a knife between his toes. Preparing for The Last of the Mohicans, he spent weeks hunting, tracking and skinning animals. He slept with his rifle, which he could eventually load and fire while running. And two months before filming began on The Crucible, Day-Lewis built the house in which his character would live.
In Gangs of New York, he says he was drawn to the character's infinite capacity for violence. According to Asbury's text, Poole was an irresistible blend of violence and black humour. 'He makes no apologies for what he is,' says Day-Lewis. 'In a broader sense, it's not about anger: it's about an ulcerating resentment. Something cancerous. He hates the people who are arriving in his land. I thought that was at his core. And betrayal. I felt no doubts about playing him. I thought he was someone I'd like to live with for a while.'
The book depicts Poole as an expert knife-thrower, a 'champion fighter and eye-gouger'. In his preparation, before filming, Day-Lewis went to extremes to research the role. He employed two circus performers to travel to his home in Wicklow to teach him how to throw the thin, sharp daggers his character uses. The actor also went to work in a butcher's shop for several weeks: learning how to meticulously incise and gut carcasses.
'With all those things, though, you're trying to learn them sufficiently well enough to make as if you've known them for a lifetime,' says Day-Lewis. 'It's not a blind search - you do have some signposts. It's like raking stuff off the shelves. Or like those people who get five minutes in a supermarket when they win a game show. They try and grab everything. But the way I do it, eventually you lose all the rubbish. And you distil the character all down to an essence.'
Most other actors, of course, would find such a long, drawn-out and deliberate metamorphosis exhausting. And during the afternoon, as he reveals his dedicated approach to preparing for a film role, I find myself increasingly worried by his methodology. His roles have forced him, time and time again, to put himself through traumatic physical and psychological changes. And he admits that the character of Bill the Butcher hasn't completely left him. 'I got into some scrapes in parking spots - short-fuse stuff,' he laughs. 'I'm sure my wife is rather concerned. She probably finds it all very odd. I suppose there is something quite shocking in somebody discovering that they have a capacity for great violence. I hope that is never put to the test.'
As a young actor, training at the Old Vic in Bristol, he built his reputation by his astounding preparation for roles. 'I don't torture myself,' he says, rather unconvincingly. 'And I do the work because of the pleasure involved. I'm satisfying a compulsion I find nigh-on irresistible. It's not necessarily because of the work itself. I just feel the need for a period of regeneration afterwards. Like leaving a field fallow when you've grazed too much on it. I feel depleted.'
'Daniel has an ability to concentrate on a role like nobody else,' director Jim Sheridan tells me. 'Normally, Daniel never says more than two words. And the second one is usually "off".'
Sheridan, the director of the forthcoming film Coming to America, has worked with Day-Lewis on three pictures: My Left Foot, In The Name Of The Father and The Boxer. 'Daniel is just incredibly reserved,' he says, laughing. 'Jesus, if the man even drops a hint, you take it as something concrete. I'm a chaotic director. That's the way I work; I try to manage the chaos. Daniel is the extreme opposite of that. He likes everything to be controlled. He reminds me of De Niro. But where De Niro has an almost lion-in-the-wild quality, Daniel is more refined and graceful - like a panther. And part of that comes down to his meticulous preparation for his role. It takes over everything.'
He talks about how Day-Lewis set about perfecting Gerry Conlon's accent for his role in In The Name of The Father. 'Daniel wanted to know everything that Conlon had been through. So he spent a few nights sleeping in a prison cell. By the time he turned up on the set, he was, literally, a man on the verge of a breakdown. And I was worried about him. But here's the interesting thing. We stopped filming. But even six months later, Daniel was still speaking in Conlon's accent. He hadn't come back to being Daniel yet. It was as if he couldn't let it go. Imagine how exhausting that can be. You simply can't do that too many times.'
Throughout the afternoon, Day-Lewis sits opposite me, rapt in his own words. At one point, he says, 'It must be hard interviewing actors.' And while he is pleasantly candid, there is, I sense, an impenetrable shield to his character. He has faithfully guarded his privacy over the years. Day-Lewis doesn't own a mobile phone, has never used the internet and has no email address. He says little of what he discovered about himself in self-imposed exile from the screen - only that 'the months seemed to go by quite quickly', and 'I love outdoor work'.
Before filming began on Gangs of New York, Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly told him: 'I look up to you. I want to work with somebody I respect.' What lessons, I wonder, would the young actor have gleaned from his experience with Day-Lewis?
'I don't know,' he says. 'I'm not even sure about what I learnt from this film. Or any film before it. Probably one of the reasons why I stay away from it, for long periods of time, is because I am still idealistic about acting - even though I have seen all the filth and the trash around it. I sometimes think it's potentially noble. But the truth is most things can be noble if you want them to be. After a while, you can pretty much convince yourself of anything. So I guess it's just me being stubborn.' He laughs and then adds, 'On the other hand, if you think something's noble, I guess you've lost already.'
Day-Lewis grows silent, perhaps defeated and thinking to himself. Perhaps he is mulling over the past five years. Certainly, the spells between movie making are getting longer and longer. Is he looking for the on-set perfection that still eludes him? His father, Cecil Day Lewis, died when Daniel was 15 years old. And while he never talks about him in interviews, his memory, according to Jim Sheridan, overshadows everything he does.
'What I learnt from my father was dignity,' he says, 'and the ability to be true to myself. I look at his example and I remember that I shouldn't ever waste my talent. If that means I don't work too often, then so be it.'
He warms to the theme and slowly opens up, rolling himself a cigarette. This man of few words, this wrapped-up presence, is consumed by troubling doubts about his own abilities. It explains the extraordinary lengths he often goes to as an actor in his research for a role. And why he is agonising over those decisions now.
'Actor? I don't know if I ever was one,' he says. 'I have always had a problem with that word. I've always asked myself that question, ever since I went to college. There was a time when I was quite proud of the tag. It gave a sense of identity. But I was young then. And then there was another time when I thought it was quite pejorative.'
He looks relieved as I go downstairs with him. In the lift, he holds a current copy of a music monthly - Keith Richards on the cover. 'I love the Stones,' he says. 'Keith is my favourite.' He offers me a lift back to my hotel and expresses delight when I tell him I'm hoping to meet Jim Sheridan. 'Jim! He's a great guy. You'll love talking to him. He's hard to grab a hold of though; you might have difficulty pinning him down. He lives quite a chaotic lifestyle.'
And with that, he climbs into his car. 'Hopefully we'll catch up soon,' he says, shaking my hand. Later that evening, Sheridan asks me how my interview went. 'I'd say that I found him complicated,' I admit. He laughs: 'Christ, that was only after three hours. You should try making a film with him.