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Day-Lewis thrives away from movie business

Actor prefers to take long breaks between filmings

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If Daniel Day-Lewis is nominated for an Oscar for "Gangs of New York," he won't have to rent shoes from the tux shop. He can make his own.

Since his starring turn in "The Boxer" five years ago, he spent a year or so working as an apprentice in a Italian shoemaking shop. It's not that he couldn't get an acting gig, mind you. Most directors would give their right arm — or left foot — to cast the Oscar-winning actor.

The hiatus was entirely Day-Lewis' doing. After wrapping up a film, the last place he wants to be is on another set.

"In the process of making a film, you scoop yourself out," he said during a phone call to discuss the opening of "Gangs of New York." "I feel hollowed out when I'm done. I need to replenish myself, and a film set is not the best place to do it. In fact, it's among the worst."

So he takes breaks. It was three years between his Academy Award-winning turn in "My Left Foot" and his starring role in "The Last of the Mohicans." He followed that a year later with "The Age of Innocence" and an Oscar nomination for "In the Name of the Father." Then came another three-year gap before "The Crucible" and "The Boxer" came out in quick succession.

Unlike many actors, who use their down time to work on their golf game, Day-Lewis goes looking for an education.

"I love to learn," he said. "I think most people agree that the most enjoyable times in their lives were when they were learning."

He ended up in "Gangs," not because he was looking for work, but because he was looking for money. His wife, writer-director Rebecca Miller, was trying to put together financing for the film "Personal Velocity" (which finally opened in November). So Day-Lewis called Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax Films.

"I was trying to gouge some money out of Harvey," Day-Lewis said with a chuckle. "He didn't give me any, but he did pass on the message that Martin wanted to talk to me."

Martin was Martin Scorsese, who had directed Day-Lewis in "The Age of Innocence." There have been rumors on the Internet that Scorsese tricked the actor into having lunch with him on false pretenses and then, right before dessert, plopped the script on the table. Not so, Day-Lewis said.

"Martin would not have to trick me into doing anything," he said. "The mere fact that he thought I was able to do this thing he asked of me was all the incentive I needed." But his period of learning wasn't over. Day-Lewis is famous for his in-depth preparation, and this assignment was no different. His character, a gang leader, also is a butcher. So Day-Lewis hung up his shoemaking tools and enrolled in meat-cutting school. When the character is working with meat, "it's supposed to seem as if it's been my life's work," he said. "I'm not good enough at it that I could fool a real butcher, but anything I can do to look competent helps. All those skills you learn, it's another piece of the puzzle."

Day-Lewis also is known for his myopic focus on the set. While other actors kick back between shots, he rarely comes out of character.

"Once I enter that tunnel, I stay in it," he conceded. "But I don't take if off the set with me."

That was confirmed by John C. Reilly, who plays a supporting role as a crooked cop who takes his orders from Day-Lewis' character.

"He has such focus on the set," Reilly said. "He inhabited that guy. But I spent some time with him off the set; he was a different person. He was a kind and gentle man."

That's certainly the impression one gets of Day-Lewis, 45, during a telephone conversation. The son of the late Cecil Day-Lewis, England's former poet laureate, and grandson of movie mogul Michael Balcon, who once ran Ealing Studios, he's soft-spoken, polite and serious. He comes off as intelligent but doesn't flaunt it.

"He's not at all pretentious," Reilly agreed. "He's the high-water mark for actors."

One reason the break between Day-Lewis' films jumped to five years from an average of three was that this movie was supposed to be released a year ago. Scorsese didn't make his deadline, however, and rumors soon were flying about everything from feuds among cast members to Weinstein being so displeased with Scorsese's original cut that he had ordered a complete re-edit.

None of that is true, both Day-Lewis and Reilly said. They got behind schedule, but only slightly. The movie could have been released in January or February, but the studio decided to hold it a year and stick to its original plan of making it part of a year-end Oscar push.

There are more than 100 speaking roles, and the filming took 137 days; both figures are about three times those of a typical feature film.

"I think because we were (filming) in Rome, so far away from Hollywood, the people in Hollywood started to wonder if something was going wrong," Reilly said Day-Lewis agreed that reality wasn't nearly as exciting as the speculation. "So much was written about the conflict between Martin and Harvey, and it was vastly overblown," he said. "The film we see is the film Martin wanted to make."