Daniel Day-Lewis for “Gangs of New York”

After a five-year absence from the screen, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis returns to the screen as a powerful native New Yorker whose hatred of immigrants leads to a ferocious violence. While Day-Lewis remains vague about what he’s been up to, he pulls no punches when it comes to his attitudes towards the British press. Day-Lewis talked candidly to PAUL Fischer in New York.

Much has been written about the often-peculiar antics of Daniel Day-Lewis. One of the most respected and acclaimed actors of his generation, his obsessive attention to detail in approaching a role is legendary, not to mention his sudden desire to disappear from the profession for five years, have labelled him a bit mad by the British press. Mad or not, Day-Lewis, his head shaved and wearing an oversized green knitted sweater and jeans, laughs at the label. At the same time, Day-Lewis happily believes that “because once they [the British media] decide something, that’s it. Falsehood becomes rumour becomes fact in the time it takes to spit it out in that place”, he says with a hint of disdain. “I’m from that country so it’s not like I don’t know what the game is, but who does like that who isn’t involved in it directly? It’s hateful and just very misleading. I probably gave a few interviews early on when I didn’t know any better and talked about some of the crazy things I did as a kid, but who didn’t? So that’s the beginning, and then I leave the stage during Hamlet and all of a sudden you become a crazy person.”

The actor has consistently refused to divulge what he has been up to during his lengthy hiatus. Even on recent talk shows, he avoided dealing with the question. “I’m an expert on evasion”, Day-Lewis says laughingly.

But it was Martin Scorsese who ultimately persuaded the actor to return to acting in the role of a leader of Native Americans gang, in the director’s often ferocious epic drama Gangs of New York. “Martin just talked to me”, Day-Lewis explains when asked how the director persuaded the actor to return from his self-imposed exile from the screen. Of course, Scorsese had to find him first. “I had called Harvey [Weinstein] about trying to get some money from him to help finance my wife’s film and he mentioned Marty was looking for me.” That simple. Harvey didn’t end up giving him the money, but ended up starring in Scorsese’s latest opus “so it turned out ok in the end.”

Scorsese’s epic drama set in mid-nineteenth century New York revolves around the racially fuelled battles between the so-called native New Yorkers and the Irish immigrants who were flooding the city at the time. Day-Lewis felt strongly about seeing this story unfold on the screen, “because personally, I found it fascinating and appealed to me in a particular way.” He says it was for “personal and selfish reasons” that the actor was ultimately drawn to this material. “If audiences are able to get a broader meaning from it other than the sheer pleasure of seeing a good film, then that’s wonderful. Day-Lewis is an actor with a reputation for total immersion in a role, and this latest character is no exception. But try and get the actor to reveal more about his process and he does his best to skirt the subject. In approaching this character, Day-Lewis merely admits, “That I go through things in my usual dogged way which I think is the same in every case,” Day-Lewis says. “What you’re looking for is always different but finally it’s something inside of yourself. The details are neither here nor there of the skills that you learn along the way but it’s always the same thing, which is to create, for yourself, by whatever means, the illusion that you’re experiencing the world through a different sensibility or pair of eyes.”

Even in trying to get the actor to talk about the accent for this role, which plays such a dominant role in the exploration of his character, proves futile. “It’s all part of the same thing; I’m loath to dismember the corpse, because it’s part of the illusion. Obviously it’s something you have to work on, and mostly you’re working on it in relative isolation and just trying to find something which feels to me, as if it’s emerging from the entirety of the thing that you’re doing, otherwise all those details become ‘stuff’ that you’re sticking on.” The actor says that he also hates talking about the methodical preparation he undergoes when taking on a role, “because the venture we’re involved with is a venture of insanity and trying to make a film is a kind of madness. The work that I do, to try and convince somebody that I’m someone else, is a strange thing to do, right? So what possible preparation could be stranger than the thing itself, to arrive at that? Lying in a trailer making phone calls to your business manager would seem crazy to me, not pretending you’re somebody else,” says Day-Lewis.

Asked what it was about this character that the actor found fascinating to put himself through such a complex process, Day Lewis says “everything”. Which aspects, one insists? “NO aspects. It’s the full complexity of something which always makes it interesting rather than isolated details”, Day-Lewis explains. Yet his preparation to immerse himself into this character was often overshadowed by the enormity of the film, coupled with dealing with his own performance. It is surprising to note that even an actor of Day-Lewis’ prominence, is often plagued with self-doubt, “because even though you KNOW what you are trying to achieve, when you’re in the middle of something, you’re all involved in the same madness, and certainly in MY position, you have to be completely unobjective about it. That means you don’t know whether you’re getting there, if what’s happening is right or wrong; it’s very hard to have a sense of that.”

Five years returning to the craft he had temporarily left behind, left the actor both energised as well as feeling he had never left, he says. “I think it was energising because of the time I was able to take off and it was also as if I’d never left, in both the good and the bad sense”, laughs the actor. Day-Lewis won’t confirm whether he would allow another five years to pass before we see him on screen again. “I can’t say that I wouldn’t but I never originally set out to let five years pass but I never set out to do that originally. I’ve only been reminded constantly in the last few days that HAD been away”, admits the actor. “I don’t want to seem obtuse about it, because I was just too happy to be involved in other things. I didn’t set out to let five years pass but rather to indulge my curiosity in other things, not just to get away from THIS work.” Day-Lewis steadfastly refuses to elaborate. “Different things” is how he says he whiled away the time.

Aside from acting, he takes pleasure in doing “many things”. That does include acting, despite the odd absence. The actor, who has appeared in some of the most diverse films of the past two decades, is not one to look back at his own work, but admits that everything he has done holds a place in his heart. “I feel a great deal of affection in different ways for ALL the work that I’ve been involved in, because each ‘thing’ is a life unto itself and an important part of your life.”