Now you see him ...

Oscar-nominated 'Gangs of New York' star Daniel Day-Lewis just might stay in the spotlight awhile

By Glenn Whipp
Staff Writer

First he was known for disappearing into his roles. Then he became known for disappearing altogether. So when Daniel Day-Lewis revealed he was going to follow up his Oscar-nominated turn in "Gangs of New York" by working on wife Rebecca Miller's new movie - this year! - the reaction was divided equally between shock and appreciation.

Day-Lewis, who won the Screen Actors Guild award for best actor Sunday, has made but five movies in the past decade. (By comparison, Robert De Niro racked up 23.)

His incendiary turn as Bill the Butcher, the knife-wielding crime dandy in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs," was Day-Lewis' first film in five years, and the 45-year-old actor told reporters in December that he could well wait another five before making another one. After watching his astonishing performance, it was easy to begrudge him such stinginess.

But then, Day-Lewis has always marched to his own beat. He is the ultimate Method man, legendary for deeply burrowing into his roles and erasing the line between actor and character. You've seen him do it time and time again in movies like "My Left Foot" (for which he won an Oscar), "The Last of the Mohicans" and "In the Name of the Father."

"You give him a lot of room when you work with him," says Jim Sheridan, who directed Day-Lewis in "Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father." "What you get in return is an effort so extraordinary that it's almost beyond your imagination."

Day-Lewis spent the past five years pursuing a wide variety of interests: He married Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and director of the accomplished "Personal Velocity." He apprenticed with a master cobbler in Florence. He gave himself to the gentle pleasures of being a father to two sons: Ronan, 4, and 8-month-old Cashel. He relaxed on his farm in rural Ireland.

In person, Day-Lewis is not the intense brooder you might expect. He's actually breezy, quick to laugh, open, reflective and thoughtful enough to order a pot of coffee when told that I had a newborn at home.

"I'm not saying you need it," Day-Lewis says. "But having been there myself recently, the caffeine could prove handy."

Q: You once told me you had a hard time accepting compliments. The last couple of months must have been hell for you then.

A: (Laughs) Did I say that? Oh, believe me, I'm delighted, if only secretly. It's not that I don't like compliments. I'm just shy in the face of them. But I can take them away and digest them in a corner. Very often, I'll call Rebecca and say, "Guess who I spoke with tonight and they said something nice?" And she'll ask, "What did they say?" And I won't be able to remember. I've been carrying that little prize home that I wanted to digest in private, and I've already forgotten it.

Q: How do you feel about carrying another little prize home in a couple of weeks at the Oscars?

A: It would be a delight. I wouldn't pretend not to be thrilled about it, but more than anything, my fingers are crossed for Martin. I don't know if it will happen this year, but that would give me as much pleasure as anything.

Q: Some people who have seen a rough cut of "Gangs" say Scorsese compromised the final version to please (Miramax chieftain) Harvey Weinstein and make it more commercial. Did you ever see the rough cut?

A: I did. This is one of those rumors that become half-truths that become facts. I have no doubt that it will always be something that people will believe to be true, even though it absolutely wasn't. Had Martin had a longer period to shoot the film, I think he may have made a longer version. What he was trying to do, beneath this smoke screen of hot air and hogwash that was hovering over the whole process, was just trying to find the film in the form that pleased him within the footage that he had. And this is what he came up with. This is it. Of course, there are compromises. Compromises were made during the period of shooting, because there has to be a framework. There has to be a limit.

Q: You were there eight months after all.

A: (Laughs) Yes I was! And it's hard to keep focused for that long. It always feels as if that particular demand during a long shoot is just - it's part of your job, but in some ways it seems like a waste of very valuable energy, having to maintain your concentration purely for the purpose of getting through those slower times.

Q: So now you're making "Rose and the Snake" with your wife, a woman who shot her last film in three weeks.

A: For me, that will be a switch. It's a way of working I can still remember from starting out - before I knew any better - that seemed to be a good way to work, to always just be wondering whether you could keep abreast of things.

Q: Wasn't it just a couple of months ago when you were saying it might be another five years before you worked again?

A: I wasn't being coy about it. It seemed to me that it could be five years, it could be two, three, four, five, who knows, maybe more. But I also understood that it might be less as well. In the past, there have been moments when I undoubtedly needed that time away for regeneration. But it was not so much the need to get away from filmmaking as it was a much more positive need to do other things for a while, to satisfy my curiosity about other things. And I've always felt over the years that those two things were part of the same life - and they weren't somehow exclusive or separate from each other. It was that time that allowed me to do this work. It never felt as if it was such a severance as it seems to have appeared to be to other people. (Laughs)

Q: In other words, you're not as crazy as the news clippings would seem to indicate.

A: (Laughs) Certainly in England I think they prefer to believe that I'm stone mad. That's how they account for all my eccentric behavior. But I always feel as if that has been largely misrepresented, the details that have been singled out.

Q: Like building canoes to prepare for "The Last of the Mohicans"?

A: Or locking myself in a jail cell. ("In the Name of the Father")

Q: Or teaching yourself to paint with your foot. ("My Left Foot")

A: People are fascinated by the peripheral details. But that's not where the principal work takes place, obviously. That takes place either inside you, or it doesn't happen at all. It's your own life that breathes itself into and through the character. But people prefer to dwell on the stuff that appears on the face of it to be some form of self-flagellation. And for me, everything is part of the joy of discovering this life - that one is trying to inform as well as satisfying an irresistible curiosity. So it's the pleasure in learning that has always been the prevailing feeling for me. And yet consistently it's represented as this tortured thing.

Q: Could you work any other way?

A: It seems to me as if this is it. I don't know any other way. But more than anything, it's the way I wish to work. It's the way I enjoy working.

Q: Does Rebecca know what she's getting herself into?

A: (Laughs) We'll see. But it's too late. I've thrown my lot in with her. The thing we had to think about is the children. We hadn't imagined a situation where there wouldn't be at least one of us able to entirely concentrate on the kids. So we had to think about that very carefully. That and all the other risks involved in doing that work together. But what the hell - I think we have it sorted out.

Q: Didn't you write a comedy together?

A: Who told you that? (Laughs) Yes, we worked on a screenplay very gleefully for a period of time, and we thought we finished it. And then we realized when we put it all together that it was a very slim script. But it felt as if we had lived through a whole lifetime of experiences with this central character, so we were surprised and disappointed to see how meager it was. But we certainly enjoyed the time spent doing it. I don't know if it will ever come to anything. It made us laugh; I don't think it made anyone else laugh though. (Laughs)

Q: It has been a long time since you've played a comedic character.

A: Though Bill (the Butcher) certainly has his moments.

Q: Yes, he does. Usually at the expense of the Irish.

A: Yes, I've been expecting the vandals to strike my house at any time now.

Q: What makes you laugh?

A: I have a very childish sense of humor. Something I've just discovered recently, a television series made in England called "The Office" - that really makes me laugh. Also I have to admit, I know he made himself quite unpopular over here (laughs), but Ali G. He's an outrageous English comic in the style of a sort of hip-hop Jamaican yardie. And my kids make me laugh a lot. Rebecca makes me laugh a lot. So I'm in heaven.

Q: "Gangs" was the first film you've made since you became a dad. Did that change the experience for you?

A: I'm fairly single-minded about whatever I happen to be doing; so it was a new experience of working and then coming home to a whole different set of expectations and demands, most of which I was only too willing to be distracted by.

Q: The Butcher's knives stayed at the office?

A: Except for Sunday dinners. They came in handy then.