Hard work makes Day-Lewis an actor as well as a star

September 28, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK — When Sir John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in "Hamlet" three decades ago, he paused after one of Burton's monologues and asked, "Which do you want to be, dear boy -- an actor or a movie star?" To which Burton, then in his rafter-shaking prime, replied, "Both!"

Daniel Day-Lewis has reached the same crossroads at 35. He won the Oscar, a prize that eluded Burton, for a bravura performance as handicapped author Christy Brown in "My Left Foot." As soon as audiences see him charging through the North Carolina woods in "The Last of the Mohicans," which opened last weekend, his chest bare and shoulder-length hair caressed by the wind, he may be stuck with stardom as well.

Mr. Day-Lewis is even more visually compelling in person than he is as Hawkeye, though he seems as slight as a dogwood sapling. Dressed in blue jeans, a gray T-shirt and brown boots that might have come from his London production of "Hamlet," he extends a hand so thin that a firm shake would probably snap bones.

His triangular face has 5 o'clock shadow at 11:30 a.m., eyes so pale you can hardly decide whether they're green or blue, and a permanent vertical line from his pallid brow to the bridge of his bumpy nose. It comes from the frown of concentration that accompanies each answer; his sudden smiles are startling as cymbal crashes at the end of a quiet piece of music.

"I don't seem to get used to this process," he says, lips wrapped around a Camel in the interview lounge of the Mark Hotel in Manhattan. "I accept the necessity of interviews, but I'm revealing more than I want to reveal. The time [in which] I get ready to make a film is very private. There's a danger to revealing too much of the process, because you give people a chance to puncture the illusions.

"I don't even know whether I'm telling the truth all the time. I couldn't tell you anything about 'A Room With a View' now, because so much has happened since then. I'd be re-inventing."

Let's save him the trouble. He made the most dazzling star debut of the decade on March 7, 1986, when two of his films opened simultaneously: "View," in which he played a priggish but sweet-hearted suitor doomed to failure, and "My Beautiful Laundrette," where he abandoned his upper-class accent to play a gay street punk in love with a Pakistani.

Until then, he'd been a stage actor with impeccable genes. His father, Cecil Day-Lewis, was poet laureate of England but died while Daniel was still a restless schoolboy torn between acting and cabinetmaking. His mother was actress Jill Balcon; her father, Sir Michael Balcon, was head of Ealing Studios and cranked out films from "The 39 Steps" to "Tom Jones."

Their connections had gotten 13-year-old Daniel a small part as a car-smashing hood in "Sunday Bloody Sunday." He didn't make another movie for 15 years, but he trained himself with diverse stage work: An albino Dracula in London, "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

When "My Left Foot" came along in 1989, he was a world-class actor ready to upset Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman for the best actor Oscar. He was also ready for a nervous breakdown.

It came during Act One of "Hamlet," seven performances shy of the end of a 1989 run in London. Faced with the ghost of his father, Hamlet doubts his sanity. Mr. Day-Lewis, nerves strung taut and body wracked with exhaustion, left the stage and did not return. Perhaps he was wrestling with the ghost of his own demanding, cuttingly witty father, who seems to have loved and prodded his son in equal measure.

Except for a role in "Eversmile New Jersey," a film about a dentist that went straight to video, he took two years off. He relaxed in Ireland, a country he adopted before becoming a citizen five years ago, and with companion Isabelle Adjani ("Camille Claudel") in France. When Michael Mann approached him with a script of "Mohicans," he turned the part down. Then he read it again.

"Acting is a celebration of the fact that, within our personalities, we contain a number of personalities that go unacknowledged," he says. "We accept limitations, by choice or necessity, and it's wonderful to make a sharp left and do something completely different."

Hawkeye qualified on that count. With obsession approaching directorMann's, Mr. Day-Lewis lived the part of the frontier fur trapper: rolling cigarettes, learning to skin animals and live in the woods, carrying his long rifle with him to Christmas dinner. By the time shooting started in June 1991, Mr. Day-Lewis could nail a bull's-eye.

He barred press and visitors from the set so he could remain in character. At least he was ambulatory: When shooting "My Left Foot," he stayed in a wheelchair and required crew members to lift him in and out for feedings.

"Daniel doesn't work like American actors," says "Mohicans" co-star Madeleine Stowe. "He never tries to change what a director wants in order to suit his image. He's remarkably disciplined.

"Not that he can't be wild. My driver and I used to stage races with Daniel and his driver. I had [a stuntwoman] behind the wheel, so we beat them day after day; I'd climb through the

sunroof and pelt them with moldy food. Finally, Daniel staged an accident to get even: We went around a curve and saw his driver lying in the road, covered with fake blood and dirt. We stopped, and Daniel drove off laughing. He doesn't like to lose."

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