With his sexy smile, piercing blue-grey eyes, handsome chiselled features and tall, lean frame, Daniel Day-Lewis exudes a raw animal magnetism, both in person and on screen in films like The Last Of The Mohicans and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
No wonder Madeleine Stowe's knees weakened when her character felt the bare-chested, buckskin-clad hero of Mohicans starring at her intently with undisguised lust. But Daniel does the same thing to Michelle Pfeiffer in Martin Scorsese's The Age of lnnocence. The actor stars as Newland Archer, a high-placed member of stuffy New York society in the 1870s, who, although recently married to May Welland (Winona Ryder), falls passionately in love with her cousin, the countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer). The film, with its backdrop of high society and tortuous etiquette, might seem a million miles away from the raw passion of Mohicans, but Daniel doesn't see it that way.
"These people are savages - in dinner jackets and corsets," he points out. "You could just as well put a leopard in a dinner jacket, you know, and I think that must have been one of the fascinations for Martin. His work is always about people he understands and he understands these people. It's a violent society, a brutal society, and much more so because that brutality is so insidious."
Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis was a chameleon in a former life. Of course, all actors like to dress up and pretend to be other people, but few are as obsessively intense about their craft and changing their persona. So when the star first went to meet Scorsese in his Paris hotel suite to discuss playing the role of Newland Archer, he naturally turned up in costume.
"I decided to go through every day being very careful about the way I tied my tie and the way my suit was pressed", he admits.
And once he had the part, he completely immersed himself in the character. First, he checked into an old-fashioned hotel in New york which reminded him of a grand mansion from the 19th century.
And then he disappeared. Except that he never checked out. Instead, he re-registered as Newland Archer, and continued to live and dress as his character during the film's rehearsal period.
There's an intensity in his art that is mirrored by the often traumatic events in his life. By his whole demeanour - his looks, his clothes, his bearing he seems the epitome of the impoverished, struggling actor. But, in actual fact (an expression he loves to use) he is the scion of one of England's great families, born literally with a silver (screen) spoon in his mouth.
His mother was the graceful Jill Balcon who never considered nepotism a bad word. She appeared in a number of her father's films, notably Nicholas Nickleby. His father was the British poet, Cecil Day Lewis, Poet Laureate of England.
His grandfather was Sir Michael Balcon, the distinguished producer who at one time or another ran almost all the British studios, but is remembered for the Ealing comedies Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Daniel was born on April 29, 1957, and although he grew up in Greenwich, South London, his most vivid childhood memories seem to be of family trips to Ireland, where his father was born.
"We'd go to Connemera and then County Mayo, and there were these horse races on the beach at low tide," he recalls. "There'd be two poles stuck in the sand and tinkers setting up illegal betting boothes. One year, my sister Tamasin rode in the race, and another year I fell in love with a girl from the town on a beautiful chestnut horse, with her black hair flying."
Back home, Daniel went to a state school until his parents, realising that his education was suffering, packed him off to join his sister at Bedales, the progressive boarding school in Hampshire. At Bedales, Daniel, who had already put on plays at home in London with Tamasin, joined the National Youth Theatre. But it left him with "bad thoughts about the theatre".
"Having been completely convinced that theatre was the only plausible life for me, I decided there was something intrinsically very seedy and distasteful about it."
Daniel was also very moody and a bit of a rebel.
"I was very spotty, quite morose, quite sullen, and I got into a lot of trouble", he confesses. "Just the usual stuff like shoplifting - that was the end of the world - and drinking and smoking and messing around with girls."
It's appropriate, then, that his film debut at the age of 12 in Sunday, Bloody Sunday was as a vandalising street punk.
"They were filming in South East London, where I grew up", he remembers, "and they needed a lot of hooligans to go and play football in the park. We were chosen by a man who ran the local fruit and vegetable shop. For some reason he was in charge of rounding up the suspects. John Schlesinger, the director, asked to see a group of us, and he chose the nastiest looking ones for this special job of scratching a row of very posh cars with broken glass. I was one of them. We'd have done it for nothing."
His teenage years didn't get any easier. At 16, not long after his father died in 1972, he nearly died from an overdose of migraine pills.
"I didn't know that I was messing with hallucinogenics, or that they had a cumulative effect, but I took enough to keep me hallucinating for a fortnight," he says. "They're probably still in my system," he smiles, and adds "but I haven't had a migraine since!"
Severely disturbed, Daniel was admitted to a mental hospital where he was treated as a heroin addict. "They locked me in a room with a nurse and just let me hallucinate," he says. "I had to give my greatest performance - of a sane man - to get out of there."
After that harrowing experience, Daniel applied to, and was accepted by, the Bristol Old Vic, where he studied theatre for three years. He then joined the ranks of the unemployed, ending up sharing a West London flat with other out-of-work actors and musicians, living on the dole and getting wrecked on intoxicating substances. Six months of life like this was enough to jolt him back to reality.
"One day I looked in the mirror, and saw myself. I looked just like a demon. So I got out my running shoes and started pounding the track."
The 6' 2" skinny actor says that running got him back into shape, both physically and mentally, and he still runs every day. After landing two more small roles, in The Bounty and Gandhi, Daniel got his first break showing just how versatile the young actor was. He played two diametrically opposed characters - the priggish, awkward Cecil in A Room With A View, and the gay punk Johnny in My Beautiful Launderette. But it was as the sensual, womanising doctor opposite the sultry Lena Olin in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that the actor first became a star.
"The first thing I understood about Tomas was his love for Tereza", he comments. "The other was his discovery that he doesn't care about relinquishing his life as a surgeon. I understood my own secret and deeply-rooted desire to wake up one morning and discover that I didn't need to do what I was doing."
The Unbearable Lightness of Being hit the screens in 1987. Since then, AIDS has become much more a part of all our lives, but Daniel's character in the film didn't seem to have heard of safer sex. "Obviously things have changed for reasons we all know," he says. "It changed out of fear more than anything else. But now people are asking themselves whether it's acceptable from a moral point of view rather than just a human point of view. Feople are beginning to wonder about the concept of promiscuity and what it can bring upon us. I don't think it necessarily dissuades people from having sex, but it makes lot of people think twice".
From his success as Tomas, Day-Lewis chose the most preposterous film imaginable in Stars And Bars, in which he seems to run round naked for the nearly the last hour. Playing opposite Harry Dean Stanton, he described it as a film which: "deserved a chance which it didn't get." Fortunately, perhaps, for him the film was not widely seen. After this, the actor did another of his now-famous disappearing acts. Carrying little more than change of clothes, his paintbox and running shoes, he took off and travelled incognito arour Europe for several months, hanging out with students and sleeping in the open outside the Palais des Papes in Avignon.
"Sometimes you need to go crazy, and it's easier to be crazy with strangers than with friends," he explains. "At that time, in London I had a sense of being pressed in on. I needed somewhere I could wander freely and be an idiot if I wanted to."
Eventually returning to his small house in Hammersmith, London, Daniel was in no hurry to work. But then he was given the script to My Left Foot and he recognised another kindred spirit.
"I felt I understood Christy, knew what he was about, the bloody-mindedness, the sense of being trapped," he notes.
With his obsessive attention to detail, the actor spent other two months with cerebralpalsy patients before embarking on the film which won him the 1989 Best Actor Academy Award. Ask him where he keeps his Oscar today, and Daniel's reply sums up his gypsy lifestyle and his approach to his art: "It's a friend's apartment because I don't have a place of my own at the moment."
Fresh from his Oscar success, the star promptly disappeared to Patagonia to appear in a movie about a dentist, Eversmile New Jersey, before taking on the daunting challenge of Hamlet at the National Theatre. But Daniel never completed the run. A week before the end, he walked offstage in the middle of a performance, and never returned. Many friends still believe that the classic role caused the star to suffer a nervous breakdown. He has never talked about what happened that night, except to say that during the first scene where he meets his father's ghost, he had "the strange sensation that I was talking to my own father, and what he said to me on that night seemed particularly hard to bear." Later, when asked if he was committed to doing any theatre in the near future, he replied: "I'm committed to staying as far away from the stage as possible in the foreseeable future."
Whatever demons Daniel wrestled with, they again kept him out of sight for the next two years. His sister has said that he stayed with her for a while, but then vanished again. When he reappeared, it was to take up a very different role, that of Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans - although the film makers had to twist his arm to accept the part.
"It wasn't that I actively didn't want the part, but I wasn't looking for it when it came my way. It didn't seem like something that I should take on, and I fought shy of it for a while," he admits. "I felt it was too far removed from my understanding for me to ever be able to get close to. But then that in itself was the fascination which drew me towards it. It was a challenge."
As Daniel notes, Hawkeye is his most straightforward positive portrayal to date. "I found the lack of neurosis fascinating, and to be able to be forward-looking and uncluttered by all those things that impede our decision-making process these days was wonderful. I looked on the role as being exotic and enviable. Maybe I wanted to borrow some of that for a while. It just seems to me at the moment that I'm most interested in people who are completely mysterious to me - and he was certainly one of them."
Many might say that the star's own private life is even more mysterious than those of the characters he plays on screen. Still unmarried and without children at the age of 36, Daniel has long been considered a ladies' man, although he refuses to divulge any secrets. For the last three or four years, he has been linked with beautiful French Actress Isabelle Adjani, who was previously linked with Warren Beatty. At the same time, however, he has reportedly been having torrid affairs with Winona Ryder, his co-star in The Age Of Innocence, Julia Roberts, Madonna and Sinead O' Connor.
Ladies' man or not, the enigmatic star, who has most recently appeared in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, in which he plays a man wrongly accused of being an IRA terrorist, ultimately seems to be a loner, quite content to step out of the limelight in between projects. But the limelight often refuses to leave him alone, as is the case with the recent controversial casting of Tom Cruise in the upcoming major film of the Anne Rice bestseller Interview With A Vampire. It seems that many people in Hollywood - including the author Anne Rice - felt that Day-Lewis would be a much better choice. But the star seems genuinely upset that his name has been bandied about in connection with the production.
"It's true director Neil Jordan and I spoke once or twice about it, but it hadn't been decided on either his part or mine. It was very foolish to print that I was involved, because it creates false expectations." He continues: "I think it does a great disservice to the people who are trying to get on with the job - which is hard enough at the best of times -of making a film."
Meanwhile, the star typically has no other new projects lined up. "I suppose it's because I have very quirky and inexplicable needs to do one thing as opposed to another," he sums up. "I never know when the need is going to arise, or where it's going to lead me. It's just a feeling of 'Here we go again."' He laughs.