He inhabits his characters completely. He is reclusive. He
doesn't necessarily like the press. He may be the greatest actor of his
Daniel Day-Lewis and poet Eileen Myles spent a morning at The Mercer,
comparing notes on poetry, performance, and addiction. In December 2002, he
appeared as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York ρ his
first role in five years.
EILEEN: The thing that everyone wants to know about actors is what
their real hair looks like. I almost laughed when you came to the door because
your shaved head is like a punch line, a kind of "fuck you."
DANIEL: For years I just left my hair alone. That way, I knew I'd at
least have enough for what was needed when I went to work. [laughs] So this
must be a "fuck you." Certainly, it happened the moment we finished
shooting in Rome. I had quite a lot of hair and I was glad to just get rid of
EILEEN: Were you shooting part of Gangs of New York there?
DANIEL: We shot the whole thing at Cinecittύ.
EILEEN: How was that?
DANIEL: There was a kind of magnificent irrelevancy to what we were
doing. We were trying to inhabit a different world and a different place.
There's no correlation between modern Rome and the Five Points neighborhood
of New York. Also in Rome, you're surrounded by distractions. So much of your
energy goes into ignoring the stuff that you don't need to see.
EILEEN: As in the hustle and bustle of Rome itself?
DANIEL: Yeah, all the peripherals. When I'm working I try to stay in
places where, if I can't be reminded of what it is that we're doing, at least
I'm not taken too far away from it. We found a place outside of the city
where you don't have to be overwhelmed by all that beauty. That helped.
Otherwise, it would have been impossible to make that daily transition.
EILEEN: I have a couple of myths about actors that I wanted to unload. One
thinks of actors as the abstemious or the excessive type. Like, Richard Gere
only drinks tea, or Richard Burton drinks so much he has a heart attack and
dies. What's your relation to excess?
DANIEL: I have, in the past, been very attracted to it. There were
long periods, years and years ago, living in places full of kids like me,
where that was all we thought about, all day long. But I've always been able
to read the danger signs in the nick of time I have a very strong will.
When the time comes to clean up, I know how to do it. I saw enough casualties
that I just knew I didn't want to take the experiment a bit further. But I
still get an inordinate amount of pleasure from those moments when I do allow
my will to bend. What about you?
EILEEN: I'm not so fortunate. I made the assessment in my thirties that I
was going to die from the way I lived, so I basically threw the whole lot of
it out the window. My drug intake has been reduced to the question of whether
I'm using caffeine or not. Which is not to say that my behavior or
personality or attitude can't be as excessive as any substance. Also, I'm
fifty-two once you're into your forties you can't really hold it the same
DANIEL: Probably about seven or eight years ago I thought, "I'd
like to see through relatively clear eyes now." I've seen through
various veils and I find it kind of depressing in the end. I just didn't want
to do it anymore. I have no interest in drugs. I started early too, when I
was a kid. It felt like it had been a long time. [laughs]
EILEEN: At least from my observation, when people are older, something
ugly happens it seems like the drug talks more than the person does.
DANIEL: Some people find that they need it for whatever work they're
trying to do. I never had any desire when I was working. That's when the
puritan reappeared telling me to start pounding the track and getting rid
of it all.
EILEEN: Did you feel that the work was the high?
DANIEL: I don't know if it was that, or because I wanted to do the
work very much and was single-minded about it and quite proud as well. I
suppose it was some sense of obligation.
EILEEN: For whom do you do the work?
DANIEL: It was never a selfless thing, and it still isn't. I'm not
sure that it could be. People say, "Oh, you haven't worked for a while,
don't you owe it to . . . " [laughs] I realized quite early on that this
slow-burning revolution this compulsion was not endlessly replenishing.
You have to recognize it when it's there and leave it well alone when it
isn't. That idea goes against everything that happens when you start to get
work. They fling it at you and it's tempting you never know when the next
thing is going to happen, and I didn't.
EILEEN: Was that intimidating?
DANIEL: I had some breaks early on. When a lot of my contemporaries
came out of college they were stopped in their tracks, they couldn't get a
bite anywhere. That was waiting for me further down the road. It was quite
shocking, just sitting around thinking, "What am I now? I'm apparently
useless to everybody."
EILEEN: Is it because you weren't getting a bite, or a bite you wanted?
DANIEL: Both. I had been lured into doing a job that I was of two
minds about, and it was disastrous. Not the result, but the feeling that it
left me with. I felt so demeaned in some way. Maybe it's just because I'm
very lazy, but I started to take long periods between things.
EILEEN: In some weird way, the spaces between the work are what's really
DANIEL: Definitely. That's obscured when you're young because your
drive is always leading you from one place to another. It's the resting
places or the periods of lying fallow where you do the real work.
EILEEN: The thing that's scary about not doing anything, or not doing what
people are inviting you to do, is you feel like you are facing death in a
DANIEL: Yeah, I think you're right. It's a little death and you have
lots of little practices. How do you work?
EILEEN: I started writing poems in my twenties. It got to be how I made a
map of the world. That's always happening, though it does stop sometimes. I
started writing fiction slowly in my thirties, then that became novels.
Making a living as a poet is a huge trick, so I stumbled into performance and
teaching, writing about art. I'll be very, very busy, but at the end of the
year, I'll think, "What did I do this year?"
DANIEL: There's so much movement, especially in this country. People
are traveling everywhere all the time, very much locked into the road that
they're on. We've been living in Connecticut for the last few months where
there is a stillness that really appeals to me. It's the same in Ireland.
It's not uncommon for actors to be strangely antisocial. A lot of actors that
I've worked with seem to feverishly enter into society for a time, and then
they retreat. I feel in my guts that I have to get away from all that frenzy.
EILEEN: As an actor, you're basically agreeing to do something that is
very mute in a certain way. It's already been determined what you say and
where you walk, yet you have to make that come alive.
DANIEL: That's the discipline within which you struggle, and if you're
lucky, find your own freedom. That's the game, and it's won long before you
ever come face to face with a camera.
EILEEN: Do you mean the preparation time before filming?
DANIEL: In those quiet months before you approach the dreaded beast,
you begin to enter into a world that isn't yours. People are always reading
some sort of craziness into that, but it seems logical to me. You just start
taking steps towards that other life. Of course, you never entirely give over
your own life or your own self. You never relinquish everything, rather,
there's an exchange that takes place at certain moments. You don't know how
it happens, or where. But you think you've traveled a vast distance you
felt that you were living in another place. That's where the joy of it is.
EILEEN: That's wild. I like how you talk about the scale of it.
DANIEL: Because acting is such a strange thing to do, most people find
it reassuring to imagine that you can just switch it off or switch it on.
"One minute he was just joking around, the next minute, wow, he was
somebody else." Some people can do that. Maybe they've done all the
interior work and they're confident that they can make the transition in an
instant. I take my hat off to them, but that seems strange to me.
EILEEN: Frightening, in fact.
DANIEL: Yet most people appear even more intimidated by the notion
that you might actually want to stay in that other world once you find it,
even if it's painful and intimidating. You might just want to stay in there
for a while and see what happens.
EILEEN: I'm thinking that performance is a weird combination of being very
vulnerable and very powerful. There were a lot of poet memorials at the
height of the AIDS thing. We would all get up and read our friend's work. It
was amazing because it was like putting on the bear's cloak and doing a
dance. You knew the guy, you listened to him, you hung out with him, you
heard him read his poems all the time, and then when you got up there, you
realized you were trying to put the guy's body on, and it was very awkward.
DANIEL: I used to go to quite a lot of poetry readings but I haven't
been for a long time. When I was a kid I really enjoyed them. We saw more
poets at that time, when my dad was alive. There would always be someone in
and out of the house. Philip Larkin, a guy called George Macbeth. I read the
piece you wrote about Jimmy Schuyler in index about the reading he gave. I
EILEEN: Thank you. That was one of the most incredible readings I've ever
been to. Jimmy was a great poet. Now, your dad was the Poet Laureate of Great
DANIEL: He was a very sweet man. He had been smothered by his own dad,
so he felt he had to give his children a little more space than they wanted.
I don't want my kids to have to miss me the way I miss my dad the way you
miss a person who was not really there.
EILEEN: Yeats famously ignored his own kids when he saw them on the
street. Was your dad busy or not there?
DANIEL: He was there, and he was preoccupied. The gist of it is that I
didn't discover him, and I miss not having had that chance.
EILEEN: Do you read any poetry? What are you reading now?
DANIEL: I'm reading a book about the relationship between Matisse and
Picasso at the moment. It's part interesting and part not so interesting. I'm
reading very slowly not devouring it like I would when I'm really onto
EILEEN: Are you dogged?
DANIEL: I am dogged but I kind of hate being that way. You should be
really into a book, and read something else if it's not working. But I come
back to it, page after page.
EILEEN: My girlfriend's name is Jordana. She just dives right in and find
what she wants. I'm like, "How can you do that?" I can't even skim
a paper. I really am very nervous about the Sunday Times.
DANIEL: [laughs] You don't want to get into it it's like a tunnel.
EILEEN: A tunnel of rage and irritation.
DANIEL: I was glad when somebody called recently and wanted advice
about a poem. I hadn't read any poetry for a while, so I started looking
through a few volumes to find something, and that was really nice. When you
pick up a volume of poetry, you can feel the weight of it. It has to be an
act of will for me to start, but when I do I'm always so grateful.
EILEEN: Do you believe in god?
DANIEL: I'm still not sure. I suppose I'm a die-hard agnostic. I don't
know. Do you?
EILEEN: I think I do, because I like the feeling of saying so. I grew up
very educated to believe Catholic School and all that. I bumped up against
religion again some years later, and took it on when I would take anything
on. Then I just started to think, "Maybe I do believe." I like
DANIEL: I never took the habit.
EILEEN: The habit of prayer or the habit of religion?
DANIEL: I certainly prayed from time to time, but it was not something
that I was brought up to do. We prayed at school, but I had no real religious
education. Most of my contemporaries in Ireland are ferocious lapsed
Catholics who exercise as much energy in despising the religion as they would
in staying with it it's a full-time job. I think I'm a pagan, probably. If
I ever took to religion it would probably be pre-Christian, but I'm quite
ritualistic about clothes.
EILEEN: How do you dress?
DANIEL: I tend to wear the same thing over and over. I find uniforms.
I don't know what they mean or what the intention is, but I find things that
I wear until they fall apart.
EILEEN: You just drive it into the ground.
DANIEL: Yeah, and then there are clothes I don't wear at all. I've
always been fascinated by suits. I think that has something to do with my
father and my grandfather, who both dressed rather beautifully in thick,
EILEEN: Do you possess suits like that, or in fact theirs?
DANIEL: No, I don't have theirs. I have one or two of my own. I had a
pair of my father's boots, they were called Campus Leaders. He toured the
States, spent six or eight months here when I was very young. He came back
with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and a pair of boots, which actually look like
the boots that Dylan is wearing on the album cover. I still have that record.
My dad, who was already in his sixties, said, "You've got to hear this
guy, he's a real poet." He just took to him. After my dad died, I
started to wear those boots, and I wore them and wore them and wore them. I
was heartbroken when they just couldn't be repaired anymore.
EILEEN: That's really great, wearing your father's shoes into the ground.
As an actor, you get completely immersed in a reality that you are forced to
abandon. Does any of it stay with you?
DANIEL: I think it does in a certain way. You recognize a quality that
isn't yours and you explore it. It could be a certain metabolism or some
lightness of spirit or nobility, or some psychotic rage. Maybe there is
something altering in that. As much as it is like a fucking corset around
you, it's sad because it doesn't belong to you. There's something that you
borrowed for that time that is tremendously liberating.