In one of the great ironies of this Oscar season, the best performance of 2002 came from an actor who insists he has no immediate plans to act again. Before Daniel Day-Lewis' triumphant return to the screen in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York – playing Bill the Butcher, the dandified, knife-throwing, mustachioed sociopath who ruled the mid-nineteenth-century slums of Lower Manhattan – the British actor hadn't been onscreen since 1997's The Boxer. Reports surfaced that he was in Italy, working as an apprentice to a cobbler Scorsese calls "one of the masters of Florence." Since Day-Lews is not only an actor but also an Oscar winner – for 1989's My Left Foot – many found it difficult to view that particular career move as lateral.
Day-Lewis has always had a reputation as an eccentric, especially when it comes to the level of dedication he brings to his craft. He taught himself to paint with his foot for My Left Foot; before filming The Last of the Mohicans, he spent months in the woods learning how to build canoes and fire muskets. To play Bill Cutting, the butcher who gouged his own eye out in a fit of rage at himself, Day-Lewis dressed and talked 1860s Noo Yawk. "I would have him over for dinner while we were shooting," recalls Scorsese, "and even though he'd be in modern clothes, it would still be very much like Bill might dress. Off-camera, or on the telephone, I'd always feel like I was talking to Bill, although he also has an override mechanism in which he can talk about the part."
Born in London, Day-Lewis, 45, is the son of Cecil Day-Lewis, the late poet laureate of England, and actress Jill Balcon. He is married to Rebecca Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and the writer-director of last year's acclaimed film Personal Velocity. They live in New York and in Ireland's County Wicklow, where they raise their two sons (Day-Lewis also has a son by French actress Isabelle Adjani). Having become an Irish citizen in 1987, he doesn't miss the twist of playing a bigot who wants the Irish immigrants he calls "micks" off his turf. "They may burn my house down," he says with a laugh.
Though the smart money is on Day-Lewis to pick up an Oscar for Gangs in March, he insists he is not in the hunt for other roles. "Occasionally someone reminds me that a few years have passed since I last acted," he says, "and I think, 'Mm-hmm. Yeah. So what?' "
I heard you listened to a lot of Eminem on the set.
Yes, every morning around five, especially the song "The Way I Am." I've admired him for a while. I'm always on the lookout for music that might be helpful to a role. It bypasses the intellect in a particular way. With this film, I realized I was listening to Eminem more than usual.
That's funny, I'm interviewing him tomorrow.
Are you! Will you, from this great distance, pay my respects? He won't know who the fuck I am, but I think he's very cool.
How much time do you spend preparing for a role?
It can be six or eight months. It has been longer. People talk, apparently on my behalf, about this torturous preparation period, but it misses the point, because for me it's sheer pleasure. Butchery wouldn't be my first choice. But anything that involves very particular skills – you watch a butcher sharpen a knife, and it's a thing of beauty.
On set, do you remain in character?
Well, the thing about it is . . . [sighs] People speak about these things because I guess they think it's strange. I don't know. It makes sense to me.
So would you be at a market or pumping gas as Bill the Butcher?
I don't remember specific things. Don't ask me! Don't ask me!
Would you discuss scenes beforehand with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz?
I have a limited tolerance for much talking. It's jolting to me because it demands you retrieve that objectivity you've been striving so hard to leave behind.
Jim Sheridan, the director of In the Name of the Father, said that six months after the film stopped shooting, you were still speaking in the Irish accent that you learned to play a Belfast man unfairly accused of terrorism.
Sad, really, isn't it? My life was emptier in those days. Yeah. That was a hard one to let go of. I loved that man.
Was Scorsese the main reason you did Gangs?
Yeah. But I would never have inflicted myself on him had I not also been wholly intrigued by this character.
Is it difficult for an actor of your stature to not actively be looking for work? Can't people find you?
Maybe they don't try that hard. Maybe I'm such a pain in the ass, they think, "Fuck him. I'll get Nicolas Cage instead."
With Gangs, there were stories of an elaborate courtship.
That was all gas.
Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax chief who produced Gangs, has said –
That was all Harvey's gas. He should take a pill for that stuff. What, the story about the dinner with all the gangsters?
Yeah, supposedly Scorsese took you to a Mafia restaurant –
What a ridiculous fucking thing.
He also said DiCaprio personally came to Ireland to plead with you.
No, no, no. I met him here in New York. I'd come to talk to Martin. I needed to take my time. I just didn't know if I had it in me. I really didn't.
You've mentioned Scorsese's vocation for filmmaking. Did you feel that way about acting?
Yes, in the sense that I had no alternative. It came out of a time when I wasn't particularly happy in my childhood. I had a great childhood, but there was a period, like with all kids, where things got difficult. In my case, it coincided with being sent away to boarding school.
Which you ran away from.
Sure. That was when I realized I wanted to be in the theater. All the misfits, in every part of the world, congregate in the art room. Art equals misfit equals freak equals ne'er-do-well equals petty criminal. Anyone, before they have their first jail time, stops in the art room. So I went to the art room, signed up for a play. It was a bit part in Cry, the Beloved Country, in which I played a little black kid. One of the things that delighted me hugely, I hated the matron of this school with a vengeance, and I had to black up for this part – tells you, doesn't it, that there weren't a lot of black kids at this school – and so I soiled my sheets every night, and I had a license to do it. Maybe it was that experience from which my vocation sprang! To be serious, it was the illumination of the theater, in the context of a place that was almost unbearably dark, that made me realize, "Well, that's my life, then." Until the age of fifteen, when I started to have doubts [laughs].
But there was that brief golden period from eleven to fifteen –
Yeah. I was also always interested in working with my hands. I loved making furniture, and there was a possibility I'd do that instead. I knew it was kind of a get-out, but that I'd also be denying some part of myself.
Your working as a cobbler has been written about as this crazy thing that's completely antithetical to acting. Do you see it as more like the furniture-making, another form of craftsmanship?
Yeah, it's an antidote to this other thing I do. Most particularly, perhaps, because you see this visible evidence, you have this tangible thing at the end, and if you fuck up, you can see it very clearly and do it again. It's not a matter of opinion. It's either good or it's bad.
Did seeing Gangs of New York excite you about acting again?
I got nervous before the premiere. I knew I'd also feel a sense of sadness. Now I have to accept that the film is complete and no longer has anything to do with me.
You never read a book and say, "I could do a good job with that"?
No. I'm like a horse. I move in a straight line. When I'm reading a book, it's a book. A lot of people, when they read a book, it's, "Well, have the options been bought?"
Were you ever like that earlier?
My ambition as a young man was to get a chance to do that thing you feel like you have to do. Then you get that chance if you're very lucky, which I am, and it's a great privilege. But it's also a curse, because then you have to adjust your ambitions. You can't live like that forever. It'd be absurd to. It'd be pitiful. My ambitions now are much gentler ones. Except when I'm working.
Then you're butchering pigs.
Then I get my knives out.
This story is from the March 6th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.