NEW YORK - As Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis wears skyscraping stovepipe hats, long coats and patterned vests and waistcoats. The wardrobe makes the already lanky actor look as if he walks at carriage height.
Set in the brutal Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan between 1846 and 1863, the movie presents a gang-war vision of New York City history. Scorsese renames the real-life Bill Poole "Bill Cutting" and makes him the leader of the "Nativists" (native-born Americans) who warred on Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher strolls like a self-made monarch through mean streets made safe only for his own gang.
When he plunges his knife into a pig to demonstrate his craft to his protege and antagonist, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio), he displays total authority in butchery. On the stage of a Chinese theater/nightclub where he conducts an annual celebration of his triumph over the Irish, he tosses knives around the head of beautiful pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) with a gasp-provoking swiftness and sureness.
But don't ask Day-Lewis about the hours he spent butchering or blade-throwing. Once his acting process is complete he wants to talk about his role as a finished creation and the brilliance of the movie as a whole. "I think if I try to describe the process [of acting], it would appear very pedestrian and maybe even sort of incomprehensible," he told me in a 1987 interview. "There are a number of ways in which I consciously go about the task, but also, during the period of time before the film begins, a number of accidents happen as well. I don't want to reduce it to a system. It's really best to let the thing speak for itself."
If that makes Day-Lewis a difficult interview, it also makes him the best kind of director's actor. He delivers great performances and eloquent testimony to a movie's worth.
Caught off-screen earlier this month in a suite in Manhattan's Essex House, he has shaved off Bill the Butcher's greasy dark locks and reduced his mane to gray stubble. Of course, he's also freed himself of Bill's bad eye (a contact lens with an American eagle emblazoned across it) and dropped Bill's flat, assertive accent for his characteristic sensitive British tones. His wardrobe, too, has reverted to serious-actor's drab (a nondescript pullover). Only his intense intelligence and sensitivity betray his wholehearted creative embrace of his Gangs of New York villain.
"It's all cumulative with Daniel," says screenwriter Jay Cocks, who brainstormed with Scorsese on the project for roughly 30 years and shares script credit with Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. "It's like a writing process with him. One day Marty [Scorsese] was with a Miramax executive watching the rushes of a scene where there's a close-up of Daniel with a knife talking to Leo. And the executive says, Jeez, Marty, you're going to have to re-shoot this - there's something wrong with the track. And Marty says there's nothing wrong with the track - that's the sound of a knife hitting glass. Daniel has stayed up three or four nights teaching himself how to clink his prosthetic eye with a knife-blade without blinking. That's what you get with Daniel on a bad day: about 187 percent."
Awarded the best actor Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990, Day-Lewis has become a legendary performer who awes his fellow actors and routinely wins rave reviews and global prizes. But he appears remarkably unchanged from the British critics' favorite I interviewed in Berkeley in 1987, when he re-recorded the dialogue for his international-breakthrough film, Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Day-Lewis had already caused art-house sensations with his streetwise gay lover in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and his fop in James Ivory's A Room With a View (1986). On the London stage, he'd also played the avant-garde Soviet poet Mayakovsky in the 1986 National Theatre production of The Futurists. Day-Lewis described Mayakovsky to me then as "this tremendously powerful, physical, dangerous man. His lips, as he or someone else has said, were always ready for cigarettes and chocolates - constant oral gratification, but in a sort of childish way." These days, he recalls, "It was a very interesting time, a very happy time, working on that play, The Futurists. Mayakovsky was a wonderful character to think about. He was the original rap artist! I loved the play for that - he was a wild man."
When Kaufman caught Day-Lewis plugging The Futurists on a breakfast chat show in London, the director found his Tomas for Unbearable. A series of milestones followed. Day-Lewis began his partnership with Irish director Jim Sheridan on My Left Foot and went on to do more formidable work with Sheridan as the star of both In the Name of the Father and The Boxer. He gave a heroic (and big box-office) performance as Hawkeye in Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans and made his initial collaboration with Scorsese in The Age of Innocence.
Gangs of New York marks his first screen appearance since The Boxer in 1997, but Day-Lewis denies he was in retirement. He's simply true to his professional tenets. "If I took a job I didn't believe in," he told me 15 years ago, "it would gradually eat into my resources of enthusiasm. Performing is such a strange business that one is constantly questioning whether there's any reason to carry on doing it. One has to do everything within one's power to see that the foundation of one's faith remains solid."
As for the extraordinary transformations he undergoes from role to role, he said, "When I'm working in films and theater, it's because I'm interested in other people and the way they behave. That's what engages me. If each film were just a more incisive form of self-exploration, I'd find that immeasurably boring, and sort of unfair on the audience to use them as surrogate analysts. Some performers exploit performing as a means of exploring their own neuroses. I think one should trust the fact that that will happen anyway. It's wonderful if someone says 'I didn't recognize you,' because that means one has done the job."
No contrast is more striking than the gap between his back-to-back fighters, Danny Flynn in The Boxer, a noble fellow who becomes a champion of peace in Northern Ireland, and Bill Cutting in Gangs of New York, who continually foments carnage. "The Boxer was about playing by the rules," says Day-Lewis. "Bill Cutting seems to be about no rules. That's the prevailing sense you have about him and the other 'savages' around him: Anything goes. But underneath they're living by a very particular and carefully laid down code of ethics."
With the sympathetic imagination that allows him to inhabit characters as different as the Don Juan in Unbearable and the tormented Puritan hero of The Crucible, Day-Lewis thought and felt his way into a gang leader's version of honor. "Judging the gangs from where we are now, it seems as if these men are savages. But I don't see them that way at all," he says. "'No rules' sounds like today's 'ultimate fighting,' both titillating and horrifying. But they all had a sort of warrior's code. Bill is not a fearless man; I don't think any man is. But his one fear is a fear that's easy for most guys to comprehend: It's the fear of fear. It's the shame of shying away from the moment."
Day-Lewis absorbed the pages concerning Bill the Butcher in Herbert Asbury's 1928 Gangs of New York (the pastiche of urban history, tabloid mythology and folklore that served as the main source for the script). He also read Luc Sante's Lower East Side history, Low Life, and collections of the 19th-century proto-tabloid the Police Gazette.
"I don't think the original Bill was ever bested as a street fighter," Day-Lewis says. "He was assassinated by the cronies of a rival, John Morrissey. They say Bill threw a knife in an attempt to fell his assassins, and it stuck into a doorjamb! Who knows what actually happened?"
Getting back into Bill's fanatic spirit, Day-Lewis declaims Bill's death line in both the script and in Asbury's book: "I die a true American!" Then the actor waxes philosophic. "All sources are finally starting points. And depending on how rich that source is, the starting point will either give you some impetus toward what you're looking for or literally just provide the seed that you have to grow yourself. In this case, there was more the seed of an idea."
What Day-Lewis found captivating about Bill were suggestions of black comedy in his character. "Had you just read these suggestions in the script," he says, "you might think they were something that [screenwriter] Jay Cocks had tailor-made for Martin Scorsese. After all, Martin has had a particular fascination for the co-existence of rage and humor. But it quite evidently existed in the original man. I actually stole a line of Bill Poole's for Bill Cutting - at one point, when he's about to dismember some hapless victim, he says, 'I'm just going to trim the ears and nose off that head; make a nice pot of soup of that head.' I thought, 'I've got to have that.'"
How did Bill retain his humor while surviving - and perpetrating - a series of atrocities? Day-Lewis says, "I think it put him in a very good mood, these scenes of mayhem and violence. I think they aroused in him a sense of joyfulness, if that's possible. I know that sounds perverse to say. But I think it's something to do with a more general feeling. A lot of people who have been in fearful situations, like war, feel alive in a way they do in no other situation. Bill never feels more alive than in man-to-man combat. And it somehow produces this good humor!"
For Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York is no distant period piece but a universal epic that provides parallels for today's street life. "Of course," he says, "It presents a fight over turf, and we discover right at the beginning a stand-off between interlopers and natives. But it's also about guys wanting to prove themselves. The streets of Five Points are a proving ground, just like the soccer fields in southeast London and all over England are proving grounds for young men like fighting cocks who want to make their mark and a name for themselves. It's still the same."
Day-Lewis denies that Bill could be interpreted as a simple sadist. "The complication with our Bill, in the movie, is that he's achieved his position of authority through the violence of his own hand. He understands the nature of his power, and that only through fear and intimidation can he maintain that power. Therefore he becomes sadistic. It unleashes in him a gratuitous cruelty which might not necessarily have been part of the original man."
Still, the question remains: What emotion fuels Bill's volcanic core? "It is anger. But I had to go behind that: It's part of my job to understand how he became what he is. I had to try to imagine the Five Points of that period: fantastically over-populated, rife with disease and uncontrollable crime - until it became controlled crime under the auspices of Bill and his mob. It's almost unthinkable, the poverty and squalor of the conditions in which they lived, especially if you take for example the Old Brewery, a building we use in the film. Once vacated by the company, the empty space immediately filled with families - a family in every room. Eating, sleeping, copulating, defecating in that same room - there were no facilities whatsoever. Slaughtering animals in that room. Families daring not even to leave the space in case it will be filled by some other interloper - and then when that space is taken up and completely overwhelmed, they start scooping up the earth and making caves for themselves.
"Bill is part of the working-class elite. But he sees that New York is a vessel into which everything is being poured. He's watched his space grow smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. And he believes he is an American; he is a patriot; he is born in this country; he has a right to a decent life in this country. All he sees are these immigrants, coming to take all that way from him. And he feels pure rage."
Michael Sragow interviews Jay Cocks, author of the screen story and one of the screenwriters for Gangs of New York in this Sunday's Arts and Society section.