DASHING DANIEL He can play it all, from Hamlet to Hawkeye. For Daniel Day-Lewis, acting is a very serious game.

By RICHARD CORLISS Reported by Carrie Ross Welch/Dublin
It is an actor's passion to observe the world. It is his art to become what he observes. And finally it is his job to let the world observe him. It's hard work, reconciling the natures of voyeur and exhibitionist. And when stardom falls on an actor, it is tougher to play the role demanded by the press and public: himself.

It is a role Daniel Day-Lewis would rather avoid. "I love to sit and watch people. I love to sit and listen to people. And I do bitterly resent that it's not always possible now, because I'm an object of scrutiny. When the cloak which allows you to observe is stripped from you, then the most useful and indeed fascinating tool of your work is taken with it."

Yet the world watches Day-Lewis. And with good reason. At 36, he is arguably the most accomplished film actor of his generation: handsome and wily, fierce and delicate, bold enough to submerge himself in a role, strong enough for his charismatic intelligence to shine through. He knows the camera is anX ray, a polygraph, searching his face for hints of lies and evasion. He had better not just act his character but also be it. That is Day-Lewis' goal and gift: to be so true to his characters that they need never be sentimentalized, made to seem finer, grander, wickeder or more appealing.

Some actors have depth but not breadth. You won't see Robert De Niro or Gerard Depardieu (two actors Day-Lewis greatly admires) play Edwardian dandies. But you will see Daniel Day-Lewis play English goons, Irish louts and American woodsmen. In 1986, in the early bloom of his career, his first two major English movies opened back to back in the U.S. He was a purring snob in A Room with a View, an ex-fascist gay punk in My Beautiful Laundrette. Just like that, a chameleonic star was born.

The Day-Lewis gallery grew. He earned an Oscar for best actor as Christy Brown, the Irish painter and writer crippled by cerebral palsy, in the 1989 My Left Foot. He reached dreamboat status as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). And in his last two films, another rep-company parlay. He is Newland Archer, the sensitive 1870s New York City lawyer, in Martin Scorsese's rapturously sedate The Age of Innocence. He is Irish hell-raiser Gerry Conlon, framed and imprisoned with his saintly dad (Oscar nominee Pete Postlethwaite) for an I.R.A. bombing, in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father. They are an amazing pair, Newland and Gerry, two men in their own prisons - one surrendering his passion to Old New York civility, the other maturing from Belfast bad boy to crusading son.

Newland represents perhaps the most pristine, focused work of Day-Lewis' career. In the Name of the Father, a triumph of sustained and shaded rage, earned Day-Lewis an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He probably won't win; Tom Hanks is considered a lock for his role as an AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia. But even if that happens, it will be a tribute to Day-Lewis' Hollywood clout because he was offered and declined the Hanks role - as he did the role of Lestat, now taken by Tom Cruise, in Interview with the Vampire.

In Day-Lewis, who was reared in England yet carries an Irish passport, there is a strong streak of Eire: the tale-spinning, the mordant thoughtfulness, the smile in his soft voice that lightens his remarks with a puckish irony. His father Cecil was the Irish-born poet laureate of England. His mother is actress Jill Balcon, whose Baltic Jewish father, Sir Michael Balcon, ran Ealing Studios, Britain's renowned comedy factory. Daniel's sister Tamasin, four years older, is a documentary filmmaker and writer on food.

Daniel grew up in the middle-class London suburb of Greenwich. Home life was akin to A Room with a View; street life was My Beautiful Laundrette, a jumble of good times and hard prejudices. "In my case," he says in his gently urgent, upper-class voice, "they could have chosen any one of a number of insults, since I was Irish and Jewish, and from a different class to most of the kids. They knew that because of my voice. But children are very adaptable. They're great performers: they perform for their parents all the time, to find out how to get what they want." And so Daniel, from the posh side of town, took on his first role and accent: that of the working-class lad. "To me, it was absolutely unconscious. It was raw survival."

Survival proved harder when he was sent to Sevenoaks School in Kent. "The place was alien and unattractive in every single one of its millions of details. A feeling of nausea stayed with me from the moment I got there until the moment I left. And there was the code of honor, so you never talk about your suffering. So you have to do it in silence. Or find a place where you can be on your own and scream." This is the voice of the actor-dramatist, who can both live in the moment of that schoolboy misery and glance back in amused, ironic perspective. Day-Lewis knows Sevenoaks was no dead end; it was where he found his two vocations: cabinetmaking and acting.

His first acting role, in a Sevenoaks production of Cry, the Beloved Country, was, typically, a cue for school rebellion."I was playing a little black boy. I had to cover myself in black makeup, and what gave me the greatest pleasure was that I could never wash all of it off. Every night it sullied the sheets. For once I could be a legally disruptive influence." Soon after, he made his fleeting film debut, as a young vandal in Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

In the Sevenoaks workshop, 12-year-old Daniel "demanded to make a Ping-Pong table, which to their credit they let me do. All my life's ambition went into this table. I took it home; we used it for years." That first experience working with wood "was the start of what became one of my greatest abiding loves."

He has no regrets about Bedales, the liberal school where Tamasin was already boarding. Students worked in the loom house, the pottery barn, the woodwork shop. "I had the happiest days of my life there," he says. "After I left, I struggled for a year and a half in a fog of gloom from the sheer loss of that place."

Out of the fog and into the footlights: at 20 Daniel joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he understudied Postlethwaite. Watching the young actor, Postlethwaite recalls, "We all saw all this extraordinary pyrotechnic work going on, and we thought, "Oh, no, not another one of these! Can't we lose him somewhere?' " Not a chance. Day-Lewis joined the West End hit Another Country, then played Romeo for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1986 he appeared in the National Theatre staging of The Futurists, directed by Richard Eyre. Three years later, he again teamed with Eyre for a notorious Hamlet.

Day-Lewis' was a melodramatic Dane - an agitated youth who raced across his world of a stage as if late for a date with doom. It was a reckless, bravura turn that could sap any star's strength. In the middle of a performance toward the end of the run, Day-Lewis left the stage and did not return. The theater pages were full of rumors that he had seen his father as the ghost and was driven daft. "I have no bad feelings about my father, my father's ghost, the ghost of Hamlet, Hamlet, Shakespeare, Richard Eyre or the National Theatre. But I am continually encouraged to have bad feelings by those who want to perpetuate this idea because, in a moment of exhaustion, I left the stage and didn't go back again."

Day-Lewis has long had a love-hate relationship with theater. And these days, you can hold the love. He says he is infuriated at the traditional notion "that film is the Faustian sellout. I personally think there are works in cinema history which have as much to say to us as any great piece of theater. It's never been an overriding ambition of mine to become what they call in Britain a classical actor. It's been a number of people's ambition on my behalf - but that's just because of my nose. I was given a nose they couldn't wait to put into various costumes and move around the stage."

The beginning of Day-Lewis' adult work in films was a bit part in the 1982 Gandhi. Soon he was in the South Seas shooting The Bounty, where he skulks and sulks handsomely as the craven first mate of Anthony Hopkins' Captain Bligh. It was the first of many roles in which he cast himself against heroic type. Believing that acting was a nonstop education in the spectrum of personality, he went for characters at odds with his own: the cynical surgeon in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a wimpy art appraiser in Stars and Bars, a missionary dentist in Eversmile, New Jersey.

Day-Lewis' preparation for each film is a challenge of heroic proportions and minute detail. While making My Left Foot, he stayed in his wheelchair even when not on camera and taught himself to paint with his foot. For The Last of the Mohicans he learned how to skin animals and shoot muskets. In New York for The Age of Innocence, he checked into his Victorian-style hotel as Newland Archer and wandered the city dressed in 1870 clothes. For In the Name of the Father, he lost a substantial amount of weight. In preparation for the scene where his character is battered into making a confession, he stayed awake for three nights, during which director Sheridan arranged to have him mock-interrogated by actual policemen.

"It's in these months before the camera starts to turn," Day-Lewis says, "when you have this other life, and you can take any avenue toward it. The game is that you learn enough to stimulate the imagination into believing in the reality. Acting is always an imaginative piece of work. That is the beginning and the end of it."

It must be tremendously debilitating, this training for a movie marathon of emotional exertions. "Actually, I'm a lazy bastard. I'm terribly happy doing nothing at all," Day-Lewis says. He has gone for two years without making a film - during which time he read, traveled, visited friends and rode his beloved Triumph motorbike.

Just now, he is at liberty. No definite movie roles in his future. "Maybe there'll be a time when I'll bitterly regret not having made better use of my time. But that's unlikely because I know I can only be true to the impulses I have. And those impulses come very rarely."

He has this humbling and sacred idea: that acting deserves as much craft, sweat and devotion as, say, cabinetmaking. "Acting is a vocation," he insists.

"It has to be respected as such. But what tends to happen is that people go on contributing way beyond the time when they have anything within themselves to offer. By that time, usually it's all you know. It's a job, and you have to pay the bills. I find that sad. I'd rather pay the bills with any other means on God's earth than by performing. I think as soon as the work ceases to be vocational, you have a responsibility to get out."

Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn't mind getting out right now, we guess, on a bike that takes him to no particular place at all. Where he can observe without being stared at, converse without being quoted. Where a consummate actor does not have to act. Where he can just be.