People Interview - 1988
by: David Hutchings
Sizzling Movie Lover
They say Daniel Day-Lewis can play anything, but few who have seen him onscreen would ever have expected him to become a sex symbol. In 1986 the 30-year-old Britisher gave smashing back-to-back performances as a gay street punk in My Beautiful Laundrette and as a Victorian prig in A Room With a View, earning critical hurrahs and a Best Supporting Actor award from the New York Film Critics. Good parts to display an actor's range, but not the kind to incite fans into pasting his photo on their bedroom walls. It took his latest role, as the lecherous Czech surgeon in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on Milan Kundera's acclaimed 1984 novel, to do that. Day-Lewis' performance as a man who chooses the "heaviness" of commitment over the "lightness" of freedom is the surprise of the year.
"Take off your clothes," Day-Lewis seductively orders each new conquest in the film. They readily comply. "I've heard women even find the back of his neck sexy," says director Philip Kaufman. Raves one magazine: he "performs as if his hormones were on fire."
Just now, parking his borrowed Harley-Davidson in the garage of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Day-Lewis' flame seems to have dimmed a bit. "I've got a bit of the lurgy," he apologizes, muffling his sneeze in a handkerchief. And though he looks dashing on his bike, he might have done his health a favor by taking a taxi. Not a bit, says Day-Lewis. "I like to ride in the wind to the ocean," he says, "to feel the power kept locked in but ready to go if needed."
Hmmm. Maybe the serious actor has got the hang of this hunk stuff, after all. His outfit is exactly right: tattered jeans, old boots held together by tape, a faded bandanna around his neck. But the look doesn't go with his upperclass accent or unassuming manner. He is mortified about shedding his clothes onscreen ("The idea of all those people seeing me nude!"), shocked that people identify him with his character ("I didn't go around bedding chambermaids") and disquieted that the press would ask for details of his reported affair with Juliette Binoche, the French beauty who plays his wife in the film. "Of course she is special to me," he allows, as if conceding the greatest intimacy.
There you have it. His secret is out. Daniel Day-Lewis is a gentleman. Not only that, but to the manner born as the son of the late C. Day-Lewis, poet laureate of England, and actress Jill Balcon, whose father, Sir Michael Balcon, produced the early Hitchcock films. Daniel and his sister, Tamasin, 34, a BBC producer-director, were reared in a large Georgian house in London. Since Daniel's father, a class-conscious Socialist, didn't want his son to have an elitist education, the boy was enrolled in a state school he called "the local flea pit. I adored it."
This experiment in egalitarianism ended when Daniel was 11. He was packed off to an all-male boarding school, which made him feel scholastically inferior. "I started fighting, drinking, smoking, even shoplifting. I broke things to get attention." He found some solace when he began acting in school plays, which led to parts with London's National Youth Theatre.
When Daniel was 15 and in the middle of his rebellious years, his father died of cancer. "It's a source of great sadness to me that my father died without having seen me do anything worthwhile," Daniel says. "He was constantly having to make excuses for me. I loved him and miss him very much."
After studying acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Day-Lewis hooked up with the Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare companies. In 1981 he made his London stage debut in Another Country, playing a British defector to the U.S.S.R. Minor film roles followed in Gandhi (1982) and The Bounty (1984).
Daniel says he was greedy for work. "I'm a warrior when it comes to pursuing roles," he says. He fought hardest to play the street tough in My Beautiful Laundrette. "Everyone thought because I come from a polite way of life I couldn't do that kind of part. So I sent director Stephen Frears a letter full of dirty language and expletives, hoping to shock him," says Daniel. "I told him I'd break his legs if he didn't cast me." Frears was convinced.
Since then it's been nonstop work. Daniel has another film due out this spring called Stars and Bars, in which he plays a high-strung art dealer. All this activity, of course, leaves him little time to spend at home in London. He recently stepped out of character to buy a four-story town house. He now regrets it. "I hate the domestic life," he says. "I ask myself why I have this stupid house. All I have is a table and chairs and I sleep on the floor."
Sharing those digs with someone on a permanent basis also seems to hold no allure. "Marriage has no meaning to me," says Daniel. "I think I'd be a dreadful father." Sister Tamasin disagrees: "My two children [ages 5 and 3] dote on him," she says. "He writes them mad letters and climbs to the tops of 30-foot trees to please them."
Tamasin also praises her brother for keeping fit. "He is not one to abuse his body," she says. He runs five to eight miles each morning, though staying trim has nothing to do with his newfound sex symbol image. He knows that role will shortly be replaced by another. He would play a monster if he liked the script, and therein lies Day-Lewis' biggest worry. "I'm in danger," he says, "of being typecast as a chameleon."