A villain who fits the bill
He was so good at being bad in Gangs Of New York that Leonardo DiCaprio was said to have been terrified of him. And it's no wonder, for Daniel Day-Lewis throws himself into his roles
By Ong Soh Chin
ON A WINTER'S day, Daniel Day-Lewis strides into a roomful of journalists at a New York hotel, sporting a beaming smile that is enough to melt the snow outside the window.
It is a disarmingly warm gesture. After all, the man, infamously intense, is known for being somewhat cagey and withdrawn with journalists.
But here he is in the flesh, getting comfy in his chair and shedding a shockingly colourful patchwork jacket that drowns out the drab blacks and greys of everybody else's predictable December wardrobe.
His head is shaven, with a hint of growth peeking out. His liquid eyes are heart-stoppingly expressive. When he smiles, the eyes twinkle.
He is here to talk about Gangs Of New York. His performance in Martin Scorsese's epic - as the villain Bill The Butcher - is so vibrant and powerful, it practically leaps out from the screen and grabs you by the throat.
He has already picked up Best Actor awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle Prize for the role.
There is also talk that he could pick up a Best Actor Oscar. If he does, it will be his second, after winning for 1990's My Left Foot.
Unlike some of his peers who approach acting with a cold workman-like attitude, churning out cringeworthy commercial stuff as well as serious movies (Ralph Fiennes comes to mind), Day-Lewis has never been known to be a dilettante or a mercenary.
As proof, it has been five years since audiences last saw him onscreen, in The Boxer, prompting one to ask why he took so long to come back and to agree to be in Scorsese's picture.
'I needed to feel or understand that I would be able to make a contribution to Martin and that took a while to be sure of,' he says in measured tones, offering each word carefully like a thoughtfully polished jewel.
'I mean you can't ever be sure, but if you don't go into something wholeheartedly, there's no chance you're going to sustain yourself or anybody else through that period of time.'
This wholeheartedness is, indeed, a Day-Lewis trademark.
Sometimes called the British Robert De Niro, the 45-year-old is known for his intense dedication to a role, which usually makes him stay in character in between takes and off the set.
To prepare for his role in Gangs, he spent some time working in a butcher shop in London, learning how to cut meat.
Previously, he had locked himself in a tin hut for hours in order to portray a prisoner in In The Name Of The Father. He then had people bang on the outside with iron bars in order to adopt a prisoner's frame of mind.
The larger-than-life villain he plays in Gangs apparently spilled over off the set as well. Co-star Leonardo DiCaprio was rumoured to have been terrified of him and Day-Lewis apparently apologised to the Titanic star for his behaviour at the film's wrap party.
During the eight months of shooting at Rome's famous Cinecitta studios, where a 1.5-sq mile set of old New York was recreated, Day-Lewis stayed away from the Italian capital because it had nothing to do with his role.
He says: 'Rome was the most magnificent irrelevance to what we were doing. It's a strange thing, but you have to close off your perception of everything that isn't immediately useful or a part of your role, so you try to shut Rome out.'
Finding a place to stay during filming also posed an interesting challenge.
'I couldn't have lived in the city. I would have found it too unsettling. So if I can't find a place to stay that's directly connected to what I'm doing, then I try to find a place that's neutral. And so that's what I ended up doing. I never really discovered Rome,' he adds, laughing.
He stayed instead in a little town called Divino Amore, near Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome.
When asked how he managed to go home to the 'irrelevancies' of his wife, actress-director Rebecca Miller, and their two young sons, at the end of a work day, he smiles.
'It's funny because there's a fellow next door who kept harping on about it, almost to the point where he was accusing me of victimising my family,' he says, good-naturedly.
'Undoubtedly, it's something I'm still learning because it's still a relatively new experience for me not to go back to an empty house at the end of shoot.
'It's not easy and yet at the same time, thanks be to God that there is something outside of that tunnel that you can just give yourself over to for those brief moments.
'I think my attitude to my work has changed. It has the same importance for me when I'm doing it, but much less importance when I'm not doing it.'
Miller, 40, whom he wed in 1996, is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller.
They have two sons - Ronan, four, and Cashel Blake, seven months. Day-Lewis also has another son, Gabriel Kane, seven, from his previous relationship with French actress Isabelle Adjani.
While his erstwhile love affairs, with Adjani as well as other famous names like Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder, generated much tabloid buzz, he seems to have found solitude and peace with Miller. They met when he was filming The Crucible, based on her father's play, in 1995.
Like her, he grew up in an artistic family - his father, Cecil Day-Lewis, was a Poet Laureate and his mother, Jill Balcon, was an actress. His maternal grandfather was Sir Michael Balcon, who once headed Britain's famous Ealing Studios.
During the interview, he slips in a plug for Miller's latest film, Personal Velocity.
'Have you seen it? It's quite wonderful,' he asks, adding that he had been very closely involved during the editing process although he had stayed away from the set.
He also will not rule out the possibility of working with her on a project in future, 'but it would have to be very carefully considered because of the particular demands that would be made on us'.
Understandably, he has a tremendous affinity for those who understand and tolerate the artistic process, which probably explains why he chose to work again with Scorsese.
The two had collaborated together previously in 1993, on The Age Of Innocence.
Unlike the rest of the Gangs cast, who call the director 'Marty', Day-Lewis prefers 'Martin', almost as if it were the more respectful thing to say.
On the Gangs set, the two allegedly had a kind of spiritual shorthand where each understood what the other wanted, without any need for words.
'I think that's a good sign,' says Day-Lewis. 'Obviously, we had spoken about numerous things, relating not just to me but to the film in general in the period before we started to shoot.
'But if you can get rid of all that stuff before you start the shoot, it's a good thing - a very good thing. I think all the best working relationships are like that.'
At the end of the day, he is all about the craft, which leads him to be extremely critical of his own work. He admits that he finds it difficult to watch most of his films again.
'I can't think of any examples in which I ever was happily surprised by my performance,' he confesses.
'It's an imperfect art. I can see the stuff I would have done differently. But then I had no control at the time, or not much; and so I can only save myself by saying that's what I evidently needed to do at the time, and that's what I did. There's always a sense of disappointment,' he adds.
Now, with Gangs behind him, he has no idea what his next project will be, nor is he eager to embark on one.
He could disappear again. Perhaps to apprentice as a shoemaker in Florence, Italy? That was apparently how he spent his last five-year break, according to the grapevine.
At the mention of this, Day-Lewis clams up.
'I've never spoken about that,' he says. 'I've done a number of different things over the years.'
And what were they?
'I've never spoken about them,' he says, chuckling uncomfortably. 'And I don't really see the purpose of it.'
The infamously private and press-shy Daniel Day-Lewis has surfaced finally.
He puts on his coat, smiles at the room and says goodbye.
· Gangs Of New York sneaks this weekend and opens on Jan 1.
THINGS YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN ABOUT DANIEL DAY-LEWIS
· HIS full name is Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis, and he was born in London on April 29, 1957
· He is 1.87m tall
· His older sister, Lydia Tamasin, is a documentary film-maker
· He turned down the role of Aragorn in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. It went to Viggo Mortensen eventually
· He assumed Irish citizenship and moved to County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1993
· In 1990, he was chosen by People magazine as one of its 50 Most Beautiful People in the world
· Including Gangs, he has acted in 17 movies, like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Room With A View (1986), The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988), My Left Foot (1989), The Last Of The Mohicans (above, 1992), In The Name Of The Father (1993) and The Age Of Innocence (1993)
· His first role was uncredited: He played a child vandal in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) which starred Glenda Jackson.