Acting Up:
Daniel Day-Lewis, the acclaimed star of "My Left Foot," is loaded with talent and attitude

Hillary DeVries
Rolling Stone, 2/8/90

He leans forward - the jeans requisitely shredded, the raven hair ponytailed - and, in the queen's English, jerks your chain. "Is that machine working?" he asks. The miniaturized bit of Japanese electronics is whirring away, recordmg his every word. "I'm panicking you," he says, recoiling with a cool smile.

Daniel Day Lewis, the actor who can play anything - the stripe-haired punk in My Beautiful Laundrette, the monocled Victorian prig in A Room With a View, the silky Casanova surgeon in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, even the Prince Charles manque in Stars and Bars - is playing the temperamental interviewee. And playing it very well.

Notorious for his Garbo-like privacy, Day Lewis is allowing his Byronic visage to grace the printed page in behalf of My Left Foot , a screen adaptation of the autobiography of Christy Brown, the celebrated Irish writer, painter and cerebral-palsy victim whom Day Lewis plays with shocking, spittled verisimilitude. For eight weeks, the actor prepared for the role in a clinic near Dublin. He learned to paint and type with his left foot, since Brown's movements were restricted to that extremity. During the six-week shoot, Day Lewis spent each day sitting twisted in a wheelchair, speaking in strangled tones, being fed and cared for by other cast members.

Even for this chameleonic actor, who added Hamlet to his resume last year - at London's National Theater, no less - this is a breakthrough performance. So much so that Day Lewis recendy won the Best Actor Award from both the New York and the Los Angeles film-critic associations, despite competition from Born on the Forth of July's Tom Cruise, a highly-touted, home-grown actor also playing a wheelchair-bound character. And there's another Day Lewis film, Eversmile, New Jersey, shot in Argentina last summer, that will soon be released. But for the present, Day Lewis is under a doctor's care for exhaustion (he withdrew from Hamlet in August), taking pills at regular intervals and avoiding coffee and alcohol.

In Manhatten for the premiere of My Left Foot, Day Lewis is doing his chilly best to beat the drum for the film. Gaunt enough to cause concern, lanky enough to be folded into his chair several times, the actor is stiffly en pointe. "Begin wherever you like," he says warily.

Considering Day Lewis's Garboesque history, his Hamletian brooding, his doctor's excuse, I try an easy pitch, high and outside. "Where do you find your characters' realities initially?" I ask. "In the text? In the physicalization?"

There is a very long pause.

"If I were to try and answer that question, it would be a reinvention of the truth," Day Lewis says "It's not an objective search for reality. It's either perceived by the audience or not. It's not something you can go in search of. I don't think, anyway. It may be that the composite of what you find achieves a kind of reality. But it's not so coldblooded a process. It's a more chaotic, more unknowing, more innocent process"

Not that innocent. Like all Day Lewis performances, this one is charged with subtext. There's quite a gap between the surface amiability and the you-think-I'm-going-to-tell-you-anything attitude simmering beneath. No wonder the guy wins awards. Besides, it's a fascinating real-life take on his film roles. All of Day Lewis's characters have been boy-men hiding behind their psychological plumage. What Day Lewis does is make that emotional remoteness immediate, give it a depth, a passion, a reasonability. He lets you know what's not being said.

"It's his spiritual quality" says Jim Sheridan, the Irish director and screenwriter of My Left Foot, who cast Day Lewis as Brown after seeing his mute but powerful entrance in My Beautiful Laundrette. "Other actors have a physical presence, but Dan could play a saint. Or the opposite." Indeed, playing Brown- another boy-man struggling to overcome isolation - is less a departure from Day Lewis's earlier roles than a logical progression.

"No, it strikes me that the roles seem like unrelated incidents," says Day Lewis, prickling at any attempt to pigeonhole his work "The only common denominator is that I've done them."

Take the repressed Cecil in A Room With a View. "He was a human being who deserves one's compassion;' Day Lewis says. "I don't recognize Cecil in myself, but he represented a kind of dimension which I occasionally occupy, when communication seems very difficult. His humanity was buried very deep. But it was there."

Well, isn't this similar to the surgeon in Unbearable Lightness? To Christy Brown? "No - yes," Day Lewis says. "I know what you mean, this thing of communication. I am much more touched by people who have difficulties with that. To varying degrees, we're all incapable of communicating. It's the thing that causes us the most distress, which forces us to confront our isolation, our aloneness, and that's inescapable. It's something we shouldn't have to be fearful of, something we should understand as inevitable. But it's something that frightens us a lot. And the less able we are to communicate in a conventional way, the more aware we are of that isolation. In my nightmares, I occupy that same dimension. Do you understand what I mean? Would you hate it if I smoked a cigarette?"

Even the actor's smoke is tightly controlled, coiling above the head of this darkly handsome boy-man, who in person looks far younger than his thirty-two years, far more boyish than any of his film roles. Never mind the chic off-duty-actor's get-up, the leather jacket, the scuffed boots, the insouciant sweep of black locks. Day Lewis is the moody, brilliant school-boy possessed of a rapierlike tongue and a devastating wit. One is suddenly envious of his friends, the lads with whom he plays football every Sunday in Hyde Park.

"Everyone always thinks of him as having this Hamletian aura, all that dark brooding," says one of Day Lewis's fellow cast members from Hamlet. "But he's terribly funny, a brilliant comedian"

Yet there are few flickers of this subterranean spiritedness during the interview. The occasional bursts of laughter that do erupt seem to involve intensely private jokes. Day Lewis is maddeningly out of reach, like his onscreen personae, and he knows it. Questions about his personal life (he is of Irish and Jewish heritage, the son of the former British poet laureate C. Day Lewis) he scoffs at as "old news." Probes into his acting technique are met with even less tolerance. "I hate the way method is used to describe some performances and not others," he says. "It's such a load of shit" Yet just when you think you've lost him, he dances close. What kind of article are you going to write? What did you think of him as Christy Brown? As Hamlet?

But mostly the conversation is made up of long, intimidating silences followed by torrential nonanswers. "I do like to talk about things when I think I have something to say," Day Lewis says. "But there is a whole world of huge, wasted words, and I don't like to contribute to it."

Even his London agents are reluctant to broach certain subjects with their client, such as the time Day Lewis apparently spent two weeks in a hospital recovering from an overdose of migraine tablets. Director Sheridan, who is a close friend of the actor's, apologizes over the phone from Ireland for Day Lewis's apparent rudeness. "He's just afraid of saying the wrong thing, of becoming facile," says Sheridan. "I suppose from the outside it appears strange, but it's not. He's really a great guy." Fellow actors, such as Fiona Shaw, who plays Dr. Eileen Cole, Brown's physical therapist in My Left Foot, characterize Day Lewis as "a terribly generous actor." His Hamlet costar concurs, saying, "Onstage he uses everyone and everything around him. He has no ego problem in that department He's just in the play-it's a great quality." Indeed, one of the few ropics that doesn't make Day Lewis bristle is the various characters that he's played, particularly Christy Brown. "Yes, let's talk about him," he says with sudden warmth.

As the story goes, the script of My Left Foot came in over the transom, literally dropped through the mailbox of Day Lewis's London home last year. He was tempted to ignore it. It was only after reading the producer's name on the cover sheet - Noel Pearson, an Irish theater producer and a longtime friend of Christy Brown's - that Day Lewis connected the script with an almost-forgotten conversation he had had at a party several weeks before, when a bespectacled Dubliner, Pearson, had bent the actor's ear with the story of Christy Brown. Although the film's financing was still dicey, Day Lewis met with Pearson and Sheridan, a theater director turned screenwriter and film director. The chemistry seems to have been automatc. Day Lewis wormed a six-week hole in his schedule and signed on.

"All I knew is that I found Christy irresistably attractive," says Day Lewis, who carries an Irish passport. "I didn't even think the film would be made. There was no financing. Noel had never produced a film before; Jim had never directed a film before. We were quite a threesome."

Sheridan insists that Day Lewis's eight-week residence in Dublin's Sandymount clinic for the disabled and the intensity of his work (rnany of the paintings seen in the film were painted by the actor) were the actor's ideas. "Was it difficult to learn to write with my foot - was it difficult?" Day Lewis asks with an incredulity somewhere between mock horror and actual disdain. "What do you think? You're an intelligent woman, don't demean yourself by asking those kinds of questions. I could say it was difficult or at the same time that's the easiest stuff. Anyone can learn to paint with their foot. But not everyone has to learn to paint with their foot"

Day Lewis's insistence on remaining in character throughout filming, however, proved somewhat problematic. One day, the actor inadvertently met Brown's relatives on the set, an encounter during which he never broke character or rose out of the wheelchair but spoke to them as the mangled Brown. "I became grossly inconvenient;' he says without elaboration. "You imagine that you're beginning to clutter up the landscpe with your frail, unappealing body. And sometimes I did cause a lot of trouble. Christy gave me great license to say what I really thought. People have such firmly rooted fears of disability, of confronting something that offends our sense of order and aesthetic beauty. It's only the disabled people themselves that force us to confront that, and Christy was one of the pioneers."

Day Lewis speaks repeatedly of "the terrible tension between the anchorage of [Brown's] body and the flight of imagination. I think he wanted desperately to normalize himseiŁ That's the fascinating thing about Christy. In a very intense way, he lived out the things we do. He had to discover his sexuality and try and fulfill it. He fought with his father and had to come to terms with a very close relationship with his mother. In this very intense way, he had to come to terms with everything we do."

It's a description that could fit the actor's own life very well. The only son of famous parents (his mother, actress Jill Balcon, is the daughter of Sir Michael Balcon, the former head of Ealing Studios), Day Lewis led an idyllic childhood - for a time. There was the vast Georgian house in Greenwich, the progressive socialist parents who sent their son to a ratty local school that he loved. Later it all began to unraveL His father fell ill (C. Day Lewis would die when his son was barely fifteen years old), and Day Lewis was packed off to the Sevenoaks boarding school. It was a time that the actor recalls with loathing. "The tremendous cruelty involved, the premature severing of the cord [to the family]," he says. "Not that I had anything against my parents - I loved them dearly - but I couldn't understand when I was so plausibly miserable why I had to keep going there."

Day Lewis didn't. He eventually ran away and joined his sister, with whom he is still very close, at another private school. The history gets murky here, and Day Lewis isn't about to help. "It's old news, it's old news," he says in protest "I've gone on and on about my f---ing education. You don't care about that in the States. Only in England does anybody care. Hanif Kureishi [the screenwriter of My Beautiful Laundrette] is going to hate this article. He gives me such a hard time whenever I'm encouraged to speak about my father, which inevitably I am. He says, "I'm sick of hearing about your f---ing father, your grandfather, your mother. What is it with you?"'

Despite his reluctance to revisit the past, Day Lewis admits that school provided his first brush with acting. "It wasn't acting, it was just f---ing about," he says. One of his first memorable roles was a minor part in a school production of Cry, the Beloved Country. "I played a little black boy, and loved the fact that I could never get all the makeup off, that it made my sheets filthy every night, that I had a license to sully the sheets." Later came his admission to the National Youth Theater. Did this please his father, the poet laureate? The answer is chilling and telling: "I think he was dead. Yes, he was dead. So I'll never kmow."

The youth theater's prestigious acting program did help Day Lewis regain his equilibrium. "It was a really diverse group of kids bedding down on floors, making some kind of theater," he says. "It was very, very exciting."

Day Lewis's rise to professional prominence began a few years later, when he replaced one of the lead actors in Another County, a West End hit about British public-school life. Playing Johnny, the cockney racist thug and homosexual lover inMy Beautiful Laundrette, came soon after, followed by A Room With a View, in which Day Lewis played the upper-class Cecil. Critics and audiences were astonished by the contrast between the two characters. To this day, the antipathy toward class structure and the need to define himself outside of society's normal strictures remain a driving force in Day Lewis's work.

"The thing about performance, even if it's only an illusion, is that it is a celebration of the fact that we do contain within ourselves infinite possibilities;' Day Lewis says heatedly. "It's an admission of that fact that we contain within us other lives, that we don't have to live by rigid beliefs that one thing is right and one thing is wrong. It's not to say that we live immorally, but principles are also very often why people do murder each other. There is something wonderfully irresponsible and unprincipled about performing."

Yet for Day Lewis, acting also exacts a toll. "I can't stand the thought of displaying myself in public," he says softly, "but I need to do it, need to do it. I hate the thought of it, the thought of it appalls me. And if the thought of the compulsion is a distressing one, then the compulsion itself must be pretty bizarre. Maybe I just want to be punished for the rest of my life."

Later, cocooned in a black limousine snaking its way downtown to a photographer's studio, Day Lewis seems to relax. For a moment there is laughter as the actor recalls a scene between himself and actor Harry Dean Stanton in Stars and Bars . "I didn't think Harry would get the words out," he says, pressing his slender fingers to his eyelids in a vain attempt to forestall a series of giggles.

"I love Harry Dean Stanton," he adds, his shoulders shaking. "He is an angel. He's from another planet." There is a pause while Day Lewis regains his composure. "Wherever that planet is," he says, staring through the smoked glass, "I want to go there."