Asked if he plans to let another five years go by before he again appears in a film, the "Gangs of New York" villain admitted to United Press International: "I didn't set out to let five years pass. I've only been reminded in the last few days constantly that I've let five years pass. I'm not being deliberately obtuse about it, but I wasn't aware of that time passing. I was quite happily engaged in other things. I set out to indulge my curiosity in other things, not just to get away from this work."
The married father of three reportedly was apprenticing as a cobbler in Italy when director Martin Scorsese approached him about appearing in the epic. The British star of "In the Name of the Father" and "My Left Foot," who lives in Ireland, was last seen in Jim Sheridan's 1997 drama, "The Boxer."
Pressed to discuss the role that coaxed him out of semi-retirement, Day-Lewis revealed only that Bill the Butcher, one of America's first gang leaders, was simply too complex and fascinating a role to pass up.
"Gangs of New York" is set in the long-buried neighborhood of Five Points, a legendary landscape of crowded tenements and cobblestone streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which Herbert Asbury refers to in his 1928 book of the same name as the "Cradle of the Gangs." During the mid-1800s, hundreds of new Irish immigrants flooded the nearby docks daily in search of the American dream. What greeted them, however, was more boiling cauldron than melting pot. The Irish were largely shunned, particularly by the anti-immigrant "Native Americans," and viewed as outsiders who stole American land and jobs.
The film focuses on a chain of events sparked by an 1846 battle between the Irish immigrants and the Native Americans over control of the Five Points.
During the fight, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson,) the noble chief of the Irish Dead Rabbits gang, is slain by a brutal Nativist named Bill the Butcher in front of Vallon's young son, Amsterdam. With Vallon out of the way, Bill runs the neighborhood's criminal underground, employing many of Vallon's followers, and allies himself with the infamously corrupt politician Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (Jim Broadbent). Fast-forward 16 years. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is released from an orphanage and returns to the Five Points to avenge his father's death. The city is even more crime-ridden and corrupt than he remembers and he goes to work for Bill the Butcher until he can figure out a way to kill him. When Bill discovers his true identity, he wages war against the son of his former foe and any who would stand up with him.
Confessing he tends to have "personal, rather selfish reasons for doing the work," Day-Lewis said he was intrigued by these historical events as an actor, but admits he doesn't have any expectations the film will do anything other than entertain people.
"It's because it appeals to me in a particular way," he commented. "I don't set out with any greater hope for the thing and if people are able to get a broader meaning from it than the sheer pleasure of seeing a good film, if it turns out to be one, then wonderful, but I think it is dangerous to set out with those intentions."
Evasive, yet ever so soft-spoken and charming, the handsome 45-year-old dodged questions about his legendary intense preparation for his roles.
"I am so loath to talk about the preparation," Day-Lewis explained. "It's my logic, it may not be (anyone else's), but the venture that we're involved with is a venture of insanity. We're trying to make a film. It's a kind of madness. We're all involved in the same thing. The work that I do to try and convince people that I am somebody else -- it's a strange thing to do, right? So, what possible preparation could be stranger than the thing itself?"
Speaking with a thick 19th century New York accent, Day-Lewis is barely recognizable in the film in garish period costume, complete with top hat and plaid trousers. His chiseled features are hidden by a gigantic handle-bar moustache, while one of his beautiful green eyes, peering out from a mop of greasy hair, is replaced by a glass orb baring the image of an eagle.
"I just go about things my dogged way," he remarked. "What you're looking for is always different and that primarily is something inside of yourself, that goes without saying. The details are neither here nor there. It really is always the same thing -- to create for yourself by whatever means the illusion that you're seeing and experiencing the word through a different sensibility and a different pair of eyes."
Asked how aware he was of this little spoken about period of Irish history in America, Day-Lewis, noted: "I was certainly aware of the period during which the coffin ships as they called them were disgorging boatloads of howling, disenfranchised people into Lower Manhattan, but beyond that I knew nothing of this history. Nothing."
So, did it bother Day-Lewis to play the American villain, who murders an Irish hero (Neeson) and oppresses his Catholic followers, the Dead Rabbits? The actor says, no, it was all "in the spirit of diversity."
"There was some kind of a glee," he recalled. "It was a liberating thing. I have been very firmly rooted in my sense of identification with Ireland and the people of that country for many years, but it's a kind of a liberating thing to cross the border line and turn around and look at it from the opposite point of view."
"Gangs of New York" opens Dec. 20.