Profile: The inner man takes on the great outdoors: Daniel Day-Lewis, a complex of parts

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It's what you call a walk-off part. Julia Roberts, the hottest young actress in the west, stamped her little feet and flew home from Pinewood 12 days ago, shutting down a film called Shakespeare in Love. Roberts was to play an actress pretending to be Romeo (it's a Tom Stoppard screenplay) and an uncast male lead was to play the Bard falling madly in love with her. Why the walk- out? The one man she insisted play Will decided he wouldn't. No Daniel Day- Lewis, no flick.

On Wednesday, at the Parkway Cinema in Camden Town, north London, you can see a movie Day-Lewis did do. The Last of the Mohicans, a bare-chested, romantic action pic, receives its British gala premiere, and its star will be there in person, raising cash to help save not only the Parkway but also vanishing tribes throughout the world. Should be a packed house, because things happen when Day-Lewis shows up: British Oscars, gawping audiences, broken hearts.

This Dan is disparate. When My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View opened on the same day in New York, critics couldn't believe that the south London gay punk and the Edwardian aesthete were the creations of the same man. Still in his twenties, he had the Method down pat, and looked like the most accomplished leading man to have emerged for years. Now he's 35 and laden with awards, not least for his portrayal of Christy Brown, the Irish artist with cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot. He has emerged as the leading home-grown actor of his generation, to the point where poor Julia Roberts could find no equal. His many friends adore him: a diamond geezer who hasn't changed, a sensitive soulmate, a gregarious drinking partner. Dull, dull, dull? Actually, no: beneath the success there lurks darkness, and an admission of an obsessive, creeping madness that holds the key to his success. We've had theatrical walk-outs, crises of identity, long quests for solitude and serious hang-ups over his late father. Good stuff. Keeps him razor-sharp.

When he was born, his father wrote a poem; his father was Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet laureate, so he knew what he was up to. His only son from his marriage to the actress Jill Balcon was a 'speck of clay' who would 'feed on hope' yet soon learn about betrayal and untruth - not exactly Oh Happy Day.

Daniel grew up in a privileged home in Greenwich, south London, but one tinged with inverted snobbery: his father, an Irish Communist, he sent his boy to the local state primary school, where he was teased about his posh accent. Cecil was a remote figure, 54 when Daniel was born, and seemingly unimpressed by his own creation. This attitude had its due aftershocks. 'I wasn't an awfully good son,' Daniel recalled two years ago. 'One of the things that constantly worries me is that I didn't do enough to please him. I bitterly regret not having achieved anything by the time he died.'

This may be over-harsh: Day- Lewis was a polite and cultured child, not at all the rebel (not until puberty at least). But he was desperately unhappy at his first public school, Sevenoaks, where he squared up against the usual claustrophobic confusions - sexuality, authority, loyalty. He recalls endless hours weeping in the toilets; a payoff came years later when he starred in Another Country, Julian Mitchell's stab at class and betrayal (and the formative years of Guy Burgess) in the private school system.

He moved to be with his older sister, Tamasin, at Bedales, a more progressive institution, and his life took off. 'He was hugely popular,' a contemporary remembers. 'Every girl was hopelessly in love with him.' But some thought he was a bit intense, and he was one of those people whom you never felt entirely at ease with. He could be very moody, says his contemporary: 'There were black days you just never went near him.'

He was gifted at sports, particularly football and cycling. He trained hard each year for 'Le Mans', the annual bike race around the school driveway. 'Very serious about it,' his contemporary says. 'As he was at football. Watched Millwall a lot, which is always a sign of dedication. His own game on the wing was very fast and gangly, the most right-footed player I've ever seen.'

'If he hadn't made it as an actor, he would have made a great cabinet maker,' says David Butcher, his woodwork teacher. 'He said nothing could give you as much pleasure as things you made with your hands. He believed that it was good for your soul.' When Mr Butcher celebrated his 25th anniversary at the school two years ago, his star pupil wrote a piece about him in the Bedales Chronicle. 'He wrote that it wasn't good enough to just talk about things, you actually had to create something, he says. 'I still see him when he comes down to his mother and we chat away as if he had just left school.'

His father died when he was 15, and the sullen and morose periods began to lengthen. He felt despair and some guilt - he had shamed his father over minor police run-ins for shoplifting and underage drinking. 'He always wore this red- spotted scarf that I think had some sentimental link to his dad,' a friend says. 'In the end he wore it so much that it just disintegrated.' His depression came to a head when an overdose of migraine pills necessitated hospitalisation when he was 16. He had to convince the doctors that he was sane enough to leave - 'my greatest acting performance ever'.

His early forays into acting were unspectacular. He fooled around at home with his own version of Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, appeared in school productions and spent a brief period with the National Youth Theatre, which almost repelled him from the stage for life: he found this world 'seedy and distasteful'. But he made it to the Bristol Old Vic and to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the usual young hip-thrusting stuff. His physicality matched his intellectual rigour, and he looked set for a stage career of impressive but conservative predictability.

Perhaps he sensed this: he made great efforts to convince Stephen Frears that he could play lowlife, but the resulting film, My Beautiful Laundrette, established his reputation for studied character immersion and sent his stock soaring. Day- Lewis was a reluctant star. 'He was always talking about wanting to give up acting and wanting to make his fucking furniture,' says Hanif Kureishi, who wrote My Beautiful Laundrette. 'We used to have great depressions.'

'He's obsessional,' says Richard Eyre, who directed him in the BBC film of Kafka's The Insurance Man and as a shaven- headed Mayakovsky in Dusty Hughes' Futurists at the National. 'In many ways he's better suited to film acting than stage work. He's more comfortable in deep disguise - tell him to body-build or tell him he's a paraplegic and he's in paradise. But if you ask him to look inside himself and self-analyse, he's much less comfortable.'

Richard Eyre's production of Hamlet at the Olivier provided the first public glimpse of a tortured soul. After seven months of rep, the ghost of Hamlet's father appeared to grip his soul. He hung a photograph of his own father in his dressing room and tried to confront the parallels head on, but he failed: early on in a performance in September 1989 he walked off the stage and never returned. 'In retrospect, Hamlet was the last part I should have asked him to play,' Eyre says. 'It was like asking him to stand centre-stage and do archaeology on himself.'

He escaped to Somerset, into the arms of his sister, a television producer. In fact, he had a vast choice of refuge. Seemingly uncorrupted by celebrity, he keeps in touch with many protective pre- Oscar chums, all of whom talk of him lovingly. In long breaks from work he can be spotted at private views and fashion shows, often with the actress Isabelle Adjani, with whom he has what has been described as 'the most on-off relationship in the world'.

'He's very thoughtful, very passionate, not at all self-centred,' says Paul Smith, the menswear designer, who became friends with Day-Lewis after meeting him at a Royal Academy dinner several years ago. 'Everyone there was a lot older, and over dinner we found that we had a common interest. Everyone was talking about perspective or texture or whatever and we were talking about bikes.' Day-Lewis has since become a regular Paul Smith customer. Tellingly, 'he's interested in my work from a work-load point of view,' Smith says. 'Interested in the conveyor- belt aspect of it - the fact that there's no respite from one collection to the other; he wants to know how I cope with that.'

How does Day-Lewis confront his own pressure? He escapes, often by himself. He will go to Ireland, the scene of many family holidays, or slum it in Europe. But most often he will escape into work, into a foreign character. There's not much of the actor's own experience in his roles as a misplaced art expert in Stars and Bars or the bloodless and repressed suitor Cecil in A Room with a View, but there is a hell of a lot of hungry soul.

The Last of the Mohicans, which has topped the American box office and sent his star higher still, is another one of those brilliant technical submersions that began with Day-Lewis on some sort of survivalist nightmare - sculpting his own canoes, skinning his own beavers - for weeks before shooting began. Set against the 18th-century conflict for the American colonies, Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, an English frontiersman raised by American Indians. A slightly elusive performance in fact, but hey, the locks flow and the muskets boom and it's just like rainy Saturdays used to be.

Next year another alchemical transformation goes on show with the release of The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese's version of the Edith Wharton novel. The film has been delayed in post-production, not always a good sign. But all the omens for Daniel Day-Lewis's own performance are positive, not least because he checked into his New York hotel as Newland Archer, the character he was playing. Madness in his method.

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