Daniel Day-Lewis can play any variety of character, but playing himself seems to be his hardest part

”Very often there’s this misapprehension about actors being people that need to display themselves, to reveal themselves in public,” says Daniel Day-Lewis. ”The paradox is that very often it’s the sense of losing yourself in that public situation which is the drug.”

Day-Lewis is holding a mug of tea and looking down at a spot somewhere between the eyes of his questioner and the flames licking efficiently in the fireplace of the sitting room of director and friend Jim Sheridan’s handsome Dublin town house. He has just made the 30-mile trip from his Wicklow country home by motorcycle, and he’s sheathed for the journey in fierce boots, black trousers, a nubby gray-green sweater, and a padded black jacket. His dark hair is a short, rumpled thatch. His narrow face shows a weedy growth of beard. He’s 6′ 2” and as thin and pale as the light in the streaky Irish winter sky. He wears tough clothes, but his presence is soft, almost blurred.

He is revealing about as much of himself as a visitor with a tape recorder is going to hear. ”More tea?” asks Sheridan, helpfully.

As Gerry Conlon in Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, the 36-year-old British-born actor metamorphoses with long, lank hair and Irish accent into a sullen Belfast layabout locked in a British cell for a terrorist act he didn’t commit. It’s a big, passionate performance in the kind of role that Oscar nominators like. As Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, he metamorphoses with a well-bred, turn-of-the-century New York accent into a gentleman of manicured bearing, fighting the forces of his own desires that threaten to wreck the genteel society to which he is bound. It’s a subtle, passionate performance in the kind of role that Oscar nominators like. (Those who worry about Oscar voting indeed worry that his two strong showings will cancel each other out.)

It is only as himself that Day-Lewis falters and seals over, withholding the intensity and clarity that have come to define his acting strengths. Exposed to the camera, he’s one of the most compelling film actors working today, projecting a startling magnetism that has marked his work since he first came to notice eight years ago in two dramatically different roles: as a young, gay, bleached-blond working-class punk in Stephen Frears’ offbeat film My Beautiful Laundrette, and as a priggish Edwardian suitor in the Merchant Ivory production of A Room With a View. (In New York, the two films opened on the same day in 1986.) For his tour de force performance as Christy Brown, the Irish artist with cerebral palsy in Sheridan’s 1989 film, My Left Foot, he won an Oscar; for his virile portrayal of Hawkeye, the white man raised native in Michael Mann’s 1992 authenticity-obsessed adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, he shored up his sex-symbol status, a quality he first acquired in 1988 when he appeared as a Czech lothario in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A measure of the star’s audience-grabbing power: He was a leading contender to play the AIDS-stricken lawyer in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia but passed on the role.

It’s when he’s in the public eye that Day-Lewis is least at home in his skin. The result is that he has been portrayed by the press as mysterious, eccentric, hermetic, idiosyncratic, dark. And here he is, being so very opaque: an obscure character who shines only when he assumes the characters of others. ”The problem is,” he says, circumventing most questions and his questioner’s eyes by focusing on the coffee table, or perhaps it’s on a piece of lint, ”people are always trying to talk about things on your behalf, and I’d always rather keep my mouth shut. Then again, every now and then you’re put in the position where you have to sort of put it back in the place where it was instead of spreading out all over different things.” You see. The fact is, there is nothing else besides impressions of Daniel Day-Lewis to seize upon: What is the core of an artist who specializes in completely replacing his core?

Hence this meeting at the house of a friend, designed to warm the subject up and thaw him out. The host does his part, clattering around the airy kitchen boiling water, buttering toast. The phone rings. It’s Sinead O’Connor, anxious about the Father music video of the song cowritten by U2’s Bono, ”You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart,” which she sings and which Sheridan is set to direct that afternoon.

Daniel Day-Lewis is known for his need for privacy, and for his ability—his requirement, in fact—to submerge himself in roles through a process of rigorous preparation (like locking himself in a cell to play Conlon) and sustained acquisition of character (being carried around even off camera when he was playing Christy Brown, for instance). He is also known for the grave good manners with which he keeps an intrusive world at bay. ”He did go around with his walking stick off camera, talking like Newland,” recalls Martin Scorsese, ”and we made some fun of that. But, actually, the polite way Newland speaks is not far from the polite way Dan speaks.”

What did Day-Lewis think of working with Martin Scorsese? How was it to costar with Michelle Pfeiffer? What does it feel like to fill oneself with fictional personalities? ”I’d prefer not to answer that question,” Day-Lewis says time and again, in the most modulated of English accents.

”James Joyce said of writing that the only thing you couldn’t take away from him was courage,” says Sheridan. ”And Daniel’s got courage—it’s nerves of steel. More tea?”

This is what one knows about the man: that he is the son of the late Cecil Day-Lewis, who was poet laureate of England from 1968 until his death in 1972, and Jill Balcon, an actress whose father was head of England’s Ealing Studios from 1937 to 1959. That he and his older sister, Tamasin, a documentary filmmaker, were raised in a household that combined high aesthetics and comfortable surroundings with socialist political inclinations. That the father died when the son was 15. That Daniel thought seriously of becoming a furniture maker.

”His mother is a friend of mine,” recalls Miriam Margolyes, who sparkled in the role of the formidable socialite Mrs. Manson Mingott in The Age of Innocence. ”When I knew him, he was a very good-looking young man who wasn’t sure whether he should be a woodworker or an actor.” The young man’s chosen profession, she thinks, suits him. ”He’s a very private, thoughtful person whose inner life looms unusually large.”

”The one thing that I appear to have been given,” Day-Lewis assesses, ”bearing in mind that I am capable of being very, very scatty and extremely lazy, is the ability to concentrate on something I choose to give my time to.” He sits impressively still; he barely shifts in his seat. ”That would apply to making furniture as well. I could probably continue working on a piece of furniture for five days and forget to eat.” He analyzes his ultimate choice of careers: ”I suppose I have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion, so it’s no problem for me to believe that I’m somebody else!” Here he smiles, then laughs. He’s got a lovely, shy hiccup of a laugh.

This is what one reads in early magazine articles: that the death of the father haunts the son, who, in his newest film, plays a young lout who comes to terms with filial love only after sharing a jail cell with his dad for four years of his 15-year ordeal. That the tormented Daniel once drank too much migraine medicine. That, grappling with the ghost of his father, he once walked off the stage midway through a 1989 performance as Hamlet, never to return for the run of the production.

Perhaps these stories are what come about from an accretion of replies that include the refrain, ”I would rather not talk about it.” On this blustery January day, the explanation goes like so: ”In a way, it’s an unfortunate coincidence that Sea (Day-Lewis calls Jim Sheridan Sea-pronounced ”Shay”—short for Seamus, the Irish for James) and I decided to do this film. Because I have always felt that after a few remarks I made in the past, my own relationship with my father has always been grotesquely overemphasized and distorted.

”Various connections have been made which are entirely specious between my missing my father, my getting in trouble, me ending up inadvertently taking some pills because I was having a good time, which actually happened years later and had nothing to do with my father whatsoever. And then this sort of incident with Hamlet added to this list of apparently ghoulish coincidences. I had no problem. I still relate to my father very much. I mean, I talk to him in a certain way, as we do talk to the dead. But I don’t feel I’ve any problem there. And, of course, working with Sea on this film would seem as if there’s some resolution we’re looking for through the father and son coming to understand each other.”

He looks in the direction of Sheridan, who is draped on a white couch, rumpled as a pal in a pub listening to a familiar tale. ”I suppose,” continues Day-Lewis, ”in a facile way, it’s true that my relationship with my father was unresolved when he died. But all relationships with all parents remain unresolved, particularly between father and son. I never had to escape from my father, because when somebody dies they do the job for you, you know? In a certain way. Although in some ways they make it thereafter impossible for you ever to escape.” He looks at his massive boots.