For Day-Lewis, it's serious business

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Daniel Day-Lewis is moving in.

At least that's how it seems.

On this weekday morning he is rearranging the furniture in a New York hotel suite.

The actor who earned the unofficial title "Sexiest Man in the Movies" after running around in a buckskin loincloth in "The Last of the Mohicans" bends down to lift a coffee table and move it out of the way.

Then he excuses himself and hauls in a chair from another room.

The impulse to play furniture moving man struck moments ago when, to his dismay, Mr. Day-Lewis realized his interviewer was sitting on the one chair in the room and he was sequestered on the couch.

"I feel rather lonely on a couch by myself," he says.

A maid hovering nearby nearly drops her towels.

Looking warm in his black leather jacket, Mr. Day-Lewis pushes the couch back a couple of inches and sits down in his new chair.

"Now we both have chairs," he says with a smile. "It's equal. And I don't feel like I'm on a couch alone, like this is an inquisition."

The interview hasn't even begun and he already seems to be taking things a bit seriously.

But that is not surprising. Mr. Day-Lewis has a reputation for taking everything seriously.

"He completely immerses himself in any situation," says director Jim Sheridan, who directed his friend in 1989's "My Left Foot" and the just released "In the Name of the Father."

In the name of completely living the experience, Mr. Day-Lewis threw himself -- body and soul -- into "Father."

He plays Belfast youth Gerry Conlon who, along with friends and family members, was wrongly convicted by the British government in 1975 for the terrorist bombing of two pubs in a London suburb.

Mr. Conlon spent 15 years in jail. He shared prison time with his father, Giuseppe, who was also wrongly convicted of IRA activities.

For the 36-year-old Mr. Day-Lewis, spending his days in a closed-down Belfast prison was part of the charm of the ordeal.

"We filmed every day in this gloomy, depressing place. Many of the windows were broken, and it was freezing cold inside," he says.

"This really fueled the imagination. I didn't want it to be a pleasant experience. I wanted to feel the pain of being locked up."

On other sets where things are dreary, actors tend to crack jokes to break the tension.

Not Mr. Day-Lewis.

"He never cracked a smile," says English actor Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Giuseppe Conlon. "Daniel was always completely in character."

Sometimes this total immersion worried Mr. Sheridan.

At one point the director shot a crowd scene in which Mr. Day-Lewis' character throws himself into an angry mob.

"I didn't want Dan to get hurt," Mr. Sheridan says, "so I told him to just hang back around the fringes of the mob."

No deal. Mr. Day-Lewis got lost in the sea of people.

"Oh, I threw myself into the screaming gathering," he says, laughing.

"Literally. I flung my body into the mob and people caught me. Jim said he was worried because he was behind the camera and couldn't even see me. And I didn't emerge for quite a while."

Is Mr. Day-Lewis obsessive? One of the new Method actors?

He turns suddenly steely when asked about his technique, as if giving it away might break the spell he has cast on audiences.

"I can't really talk about the way I prepare to get into someone else's head," he says, almost apologetically. "I wouldn't know what to say, so I dare not even try.

"In a general sense I can say that no one is prepared to spend 15 years in jail like Gerry did. I was very serious in the jail because I was trying so hard to understand the shock and confusion of being captured in this place.

"I feel like I have to stimulate my imagination by delving very deep into these things."

Mr. Day-Lewis has delved deep before.

While making "Last of the Mohicans" (1992), he lived in the woods of North Carolina for days and insisted on learning how to start fires with two pieces of wood.

"They did not have matches," he has joked.

For "My Left Foot," in which he played the crippled Christy Brown, Mr. Day-Lewis was so in character that when he met Brown's family, he insisted on doing so in a wheelchair.

"It's my job to understand the pain of my character," Mr. Day-Lewis says.

Though the set of "In the Name of the Father" was pretty gloomy, there were some light moments.

Gerry Conlon was an original hippie, so Mr. Day-Lewis got to don bell-bottoms and platform shoes.

"I didn't wear my bell-bottoms today, although I still have them," he says, looking sleek in black jeans, a black T-shirt and a black motorcycle jacket.

Mr. Day-Lewis' costumes for the film reminded him of his own youth. Though he wasn't exactly a hippie, he did have long hair in the '70s.

"It went to the middle of my back. It was quite attractive," he says, laughing.

He is equally animated when recalling how he got "drawn" into making "In the Name of the Father."

"I had just finished 'Age of Innocence' and I was exhausted," he says. "I went to Jim Sheridan's house to crash for a few days. I was very tired and had no intention of working again for a while.

"Jim came down for a day and started telling me this story. I said, 'Oh no! Please don't tell me this story. . . . What happened next?'

"I realized I was being drawn to this thing that I needed like a hole in the head. There was no way I could avoid it."

Mr. Day-Lewis has felt that way before.

The son of Cecil Day-Lewis, England's poet laureate during the 1950s, he grew up in London. His mother, actress Jill Balcon, and his grandfather Michael Balcon, head of a movie studio, introduced him to the idea of acting.

At the time, he felt it was absurd.

"I was just this young man blissfully happy at boarding school without many cares," Mr. Day-Lewis says. "I actually planned on becoming a furniture craftsman."

Then tragedy struck. When he was 15, his father died after a bout with cancer. Mr. Day-Lewis suddenly felt very alone at school and without direction.

Soon he found himself drawn to the theater.

"I wasn't getting along well at school," he explains. "The theater and the art rooms were two sources of light in a place where you had 800 boys dressed identically with the same straw hats.

"There was something wrong with that conformity. I felt this rage. The individual needed to be released, and the art room was something else. It was my little pocket of rebellion."

He began his professional career at the Bristol Old Vic theater. In 1982, he replaced Rupert Everett in the stage production of "Another Country" and later toured England in "Romeo and Juliet."

After starring in Stephen Frears' "My Beautiful Laundrette" in 1985, Mr. Day-Lewis went on to roles in "A Room With a View" (1985), "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1988), "Stars and Bars" (1988) and "My Left Foot," for which he won an Academy Award.

As pathfinder Nathaniel Poe in "The Last of the Mohicans," Mr. Day-Lewis was established as a new hunk.

He finds this idea appalling.

"It's something . . . " he says, his voice trailing off. "Wellll . . . I jus don't know what to say."

Madeleine Stowe, his "Mohicans" co-star, says she is a bit tired of being asked about Mr. Day-Lewis' sex appeal.

"All I hear from women is, 'Is Daniel really that handsome? What is he like? Does he have a girlfriend?' "

Well, he did date Julia Roberts briefly. At least that's what the tabloids have reported.

Mr. Day-Lewis prefers to smile charmingly and say nothing about his personal life.

He also prefers not to talk much about the upcoming movie version of Anne Rice's book "Interview With the Vampire."

Many of the book's fans feel Mr. Day-Lewis would have made a better vampire than Tom Cruise, the actor who won the film's starring role.

"It's horrendous," Mr. Day-Lewis says of the controversy. "These people are trying to make a movie. To have my name thrown into the mix really isn't fair to anyone."

So don't expect to see Mr. Day-Lewis in "Vampire" -- or in any other film in the near future. He has decided to take a much-needed break.

"I plan to do nothing. I'm going into hiding. Indefinitely," he says.

His next move is rather simple. He takes his chair back into the other room.

Mr. Day-Lewis is moving out. Of the room, for one thing. And the limelight.

"I need to just relax," he says, smiling.

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