Jan. 13 issue — Daniel Day-Lewis leans forward. “Let me ask you something,” he says. I lean backward. I have just seen him play Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” in which he looms over a would-be assassin and bellows, “You see this knife? I’m going to teach you to speak English with this f—king knife!”
IN PERSON, fortunately, Day-Lewis is much, much nicer than that. “Why do you think it is,” he asks, “that actors are encouraged to talk about how they prepare for roles? Probably the most common question you come up against is, ‘How did you prepare? Did you put on weight? Did you take off weight?’ Who gives a ...” He delivers the F word under his breath, almost apologetically. This is a touchy subject because stories about his intensity have been recounted for years, often with awe, occasionally with eye-rolling. It’s been said that he confined himself to a wheelchair and learned to paint with his toes for “My Left Foot,” tracked and skinned animals for “The Last of the Mohicans,” strolled around Manhattan in Victorian garb for “The Age of Innocence.” Day-Lewis sits back in his chair. He waits for an answer.
OK, the truth. Actors are encouraged to talk about how they
get into character because actors hate talking about their personal lives—and
they’ve got to talk about something. Also, it’s one of the few tangible
parts of a craft that’s largely mysterious, at least to those of us not on the
screen, but merely tilting our heads up at it. In any case, people’s appetite
for trade secrets will never change. “No, it won’t change,” Day-Lewis says.
“Especially in my case. For whatever reason, some people just assume
that—because of what they think they know about the way I work—I must be mad.”
What really matters, of course, is the intensity of what’s on screen—not how it got there—and virtually every one of Day-Lewis’s performances has been like a forest on fire. Bill the Butcher is both a vicious gang lord and a demented dandy with an explosive New Yawk accent and a handle-bar mustache. The part could easily have been an outsize caricature—this is a guy who has gouged his own eye out to teach himself a lesson. What’s astonishing about Day-Lewis’s work here is that he locates a human-size heart. Although “Gangs of New York” has an uncertain future at the box office, the actor has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar. Not bad for a man who hadn’t made a movie for five years.
Why, by the way, didn’t he make a movie for five years? To understand that you have to understand that Daniel Day-Lewis has never loved Daniel Day-Lewis movies. “I’ve always felt a great sense of disappointment, and it’s taken me longer and longer to overcome it,” he says. “A general sense of having fallen short. It’s just, ‘Is that all it was? I thought it was bigger than that . ’ It always seems terribly small to me.” He admits to being not much good at accepting compliments. I tell him—not just as an experiment but because I mean it—that whatever he’s doing in “Gangs of New York” is beyond acting. He smiles and blushes. “Well, that’s probably ...” He pauses. “That’s probably ...” He pauses again. “If ever I were to enjoy a compliment, that’d be the kind of compliment I’d enjoy.”
Day-Lewis grew up in London, his mother an actress, his father Britain’s poet laureate. After a miserable stint at a posh school, where he was a rebel and an outcast, he landed at the idyllic Bedales in Hampshire, and began to weigh two careers: one as an actor, the other as a cabinetmaker. “I felt a sense of vocation,” he says of acting. “But at the same time, I ... I doubted myself very severely. I didn’t know if I’d survive. I’d gone through periods of diminishment in my life. I’d felt humiliated for different reasons, and I didn’t want that to happen again. When I was in school, I was a troublemaker and I was made to pay for it. I don’t mean by the law—by the other kids, the teachers. And some part of me decided without knowing it that I would never be treated like that again. As an actor, the first thing you do is you open yourself. That was a huge obstacle I had to overcome. It was weird to go to theater school and say, ‘OK, I’m a fool. Treat me like a fool’.”
Day-Lewis became a leading man with 1988’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” He became a Oscar winner with 1989’s “My Left Foot.” And, of course, he became a sex symbol with 1992’s “Last of the Mohicans,” though he insists that hunk status was the last thing on his mind when he donned the deerskin. (He never thought, “God, I look sexy running through the woods”? “No.” He never said to the director, “Hey, can I please look a little more sexy?” He laughs. ”No!“) How did Day-Lewis respond to a new kind of fame? “I’m very good at shutting out the din if I have to,” he says. “That’s part of the problem that actors encounter when they suddenly find themselves in the full glare of the light. They have no idea what that voice is saying to them, the voice that you should listen to—the one that takes you from place to place in your life. Suddenly you can’t hear it because you’re surrounded by a f—king cacophony of nonsense.” The year after “Mohicans,” Day-Lewis gave an Oscar-nominated performance in what is arguably his most indelible movie, the brutal, cathartic IRA story “In the Name of the Father.” But he never courted big, shiny, obvious Hollywood star vehicles. The studios must have been disappointed, I say. They must have thought, “Here was a guy who ...” Day-Lewis finishes my sentence so I can hear how silly it sounds. “Who could have had it all?”
After 1997’s “The Boxer,” Day-Lewis stopped making movies. The actor, who previously had had a son with Isabelle Adjani, had married Rebecca Miller, author of the book of stories “Personal Velocity,” director of the raw, deeply affecting new film of the same name and daughter of playwright Arthur Miller. (“When I got married,” Day-Lewis says, “someone made the scurrilous suggestion in one of those rags that I was somehow marrying Rebecca’s dad.” Rebecca’s prettier, I say. “Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to share a bed with Arthur—not every night, anyway.”) For years, he and Miller—who now have two boys—did the shocking, non-Hollywood thing of just living their lives. Day-Lewis even spent a year apprenticed to a shoemaker whom Scorsese refers to as “one of the masters of Florence.” Day-Lewis will not discuss shoemaking, but he doesn’t really need to explain. This is someone, remember, who is obsessed with digging into other lives—and who’d considered a career as a cabinetmaker. “Exactly, exactly,” says Scorsese. “It gives you a certain satisfaction and sense of completion to create something like that.” Day-Lewis has said that he’s still trying to figure out if making movies actually means anything—but that just seems like a polite way of saying he already has.
Asked if Rebecca encourages him to act more or to act less, Day-Lewis says that she does neither. “We’d just gotten married while I was in training for ‘The Boxer’,” he recalls, “and she came to Ireland and spent a winter there. I was out a lot because I was training, and six months went by and I thought, ‘Jeez, we’ve only been out twice—and both times it was to boxing matches’.” He pauses. “I mean, she’s seen ... She’s seen what it does for me, and she’s seen what it does to me. She knows what I go through. She knows what the stakes are. She wouldn’t encourage me to do it lightly.” As if he could.