DAY LEWIS, DANIEL: GANGS OF NEW YORK
RAGE AT CLOSE RANGE
Acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis explored rage at close range for his starring role as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorseseís epic drama, Gangs of New York, and found a perverse sort of pleasure in it, he admits to Jenny Cooney Carrillo.
Is your character in Gangs of New York based on a real person?
Yes, he is based on a very colorful character called Bill Poole who was also known as Bill the Butcher. He was a notorious street fighter, a no-rules street fighter, a mayhem artist, a bigot, a racist, and a patriot in his own eyes, a man who believed it was his God-given duty to repel every single face that got off the boats [arriving in New York]. He was also a man of great good humor, a very generous man, flamboyant man and something of a hero to his own people. It was recorded and remembered for generations afterwards that his dying words were ďThank God I die a true American.Ē There was something of the essence of that man that undoubtedly fed into my version of him.
Your character is an expert knife thrower. How long did you have to train to handle those knives in the film?
I began working on that probably about six or eight months before we started shooting. But it was only a small part of what I was doing; I try to work in such a way that rather than dismembering this thing [the character] before itís even revealed itself for what it is, I try and work on everything at the same time. I mean, I wasnít a big knife thrower before we started. Iíd thrown a few here and there but I had a great teacher. He was an expert knife thrower. I worked with him every day.
Can you talk about the physical and emotional toll this role took on you and how you dealt with the rage and anger you portray?
Thatís a good question, but itís not one Iím able to answer because part of my job - at quite an early stage, in fact, of the preparation period - is to leave aside the objectivity that would allow me to speak about it and answer that question. Undoubtedly, if part of what you have to do is to locate and then unleash emotions in you such as the one you mentioned, rage for instance, that is an unsettling thing to live with even for a brief period of time. But having said that, this was part of my fascination for this work, to discover for myself something which had hitherto remained mysterious to me. I know this sounds perverse, but it gives me pleasure to explore those things. Thereís something strangely liberating about it.†
What does it do to you to stay in character for the duration of the shoot?
I work in the way I work because over the years Iíve found for myself what seemed right for what I wanted to try and do - and itís a pleasure for me to play the game in that way. Itís a game. I mean, we can talk about it in a way that it sounds incredibly pretentious and lend it an air of mystery - and perhaps there is some mystery to whether it works or whether it doesnít work - but for me itís quite simply the playing of a game in the way I enjoy playing it.
Is your particular way of working the reason you make so few movies?
It may well be. I donít know. I can choose. Iím fairly certain that I have worked over the years at the pace at which I was able to. And in a way part of the reason why I take these periods of time away from it is so that Iím better able to thoroughly enjoy the experience of working when I am working, because if youíre not enjoying it, it would be easy to think of this whole thing as a torture.
You said learning to throw knives was only a small part of your research. What else did you have to do to find this character?
The principal work is to try and locate the resources that you feel you need. Only time will tell but to locate and unleash and embrace those parts of yourself that you feel will help to bring life to this other person and I think itís an imaginative work no matter what source material you begin with. No matter what archival footage is available. Essentially itís an imaginative work that involves creating for yourself primarily, and then for the audience, the illusion that you are experiencing the world through a different pair of eyes. The rest is details.†
The central theme of the movie is a power struggle between two groups. What is your own relationship to power?
I donít know so much about power but ambition Iím more familiar with, and certainly as a kid I had the ambition of a young man to make a mark in the world and my ambition is entirely different now. My ambition now is to indulge my curiosity in any way that it seems to lead me.
You are an Irish citizen. How strange was it to play a character who wants to get rid of the Irish gangs in America?
Iím an Irish citizen. I have a right to be and Iíve adopted that right but Iím an Englishman, Iím a Jew, Iím an Anglo-Irishman, Iím a European. I mean who the hell knows what I am! I suppose by education and culture Iím more English than Iím anything else. I have identified very strongly with the Irish, with the country and the people and the history because of my father and Iím very glad to have been a part of this experience that tells that aspect of the Irish country, the emigration and unthinkably horrible experiences that they had when they first arrived in this country during the famine years. But it was no part of my thinking when I was doing it. As for playing Bill, Iím sure Iíll have a lot of explaining to do when I go back to Ireland!†
What do you think will resonate most with audiences watching this film?
I suppose the most obvious thing to single out in the story is the experience of a stranger in a country thatís alien to him.†
Is it true you actually became an apprentice cobbler in Italy during your hiatus from movie-making?
Iíve never chosen to speak about that. Whatís happened is that a number of people spoke about it on my behalf and Iíve never contributed to that because it always seemed to me that it was a period of my life that I had a right to without any intervention of that kind.
What was the toughest aspect of making this movie?
That I canít remember. Everybody during the course of that time had days and probably weeks that seemed as if they would never end. Physically it was tough and I suppose it demanded of all of us that we stayed in there for as long as it took. In saying that, it always sounds as if itís kind of a veiled complaint somehow but almost invariably the problems are part of the pleasure. In other words, you encounter a thousand problems a day in this kind of work and itís the overcoming of those problems by whatever means that provides the greatest pleasure in the work.
Published February 13, 2003
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Daniel Day Lewis
MARTIN SCORSESE INTERVIEW